Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has often said, in interviews, that she would have loved to have been an opera singer. She has certainly become a fixture at many opera houses around the country: She is often spotted in the audience; she sometimes presides as an emcee in evenings of arias and excerpts titled “Justice at the Opera”; and, occasionally, she’s even taken the stage herself — in a small role in “Daughter of the Regiment” at the Washington National Opera and by proxy as a character in the comic opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” by Derrick Wang, which has her making her final statement in roulades of notes.
Now, she has her own CD. “Notorious RBG in Song” (Cedille), released this month, is an album of songs written for and about Ginsburg. Its centerpiece is a nine-part song cycle called “The Long View,” which amounts to a biography in music, extending from Ginsburg’s childhood and a (fictitious) letter from her mother, Celia — who died just before Ginsburg graduated from high school — through marriage and children, to her reflections (given in a 2013 interview) about what, in the bigger picture, a Supreme Court justice needs to be, including an admission of her own shifting needs. (“I have to leave off every now and then and sleep for hours.”)
It’s a personal album, accompanied by two CD booklets packed with song texts, essays and family photos. But then, the album’s creators have privileged access to their subject. Cedille’s founder, who has run the Chicago-based label for 29 years, is James Ginsburg, the justice’s son. And Patrice Michaels, the soprano soloist on the album who also composed “The Long View,” is her daughter-in-law.
“It was a labor of love,” James Ginsburg says, “in more respects than usual.”
“It feels like this project is as personal as it could possibly get,” Michaels says.
Michaels and Ginsburg were speaking by telephone from Chicago before arriving in Washington this week for an event at the National Museum of Women in the Arts celebrating both Ginsburg’s 85th birthday (it was in March) and the 25th anniversary of her appointment to the Supreme Court (on June 14, 1993). The event, which is not open to the general public, will include a performance of the song cycle by a group of singers including mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and soprano Susanna Phillips.
There’s a certain symmetry to this, because the cycle — indeed, the entire album — had its origins five years ago in another birthday celebration for the justice. For their mother’s 80th birthday, James Ginsburg and his sister, Jane, a professor at Columbia Law School, asked three female composers to each set a text from some point in Ginsburg’s life. Vivian Fung set a tongue-in-cheek recipe for pot roast that reflects some of the Ginsburgs’ family life: “While you wait . . . drink some more black coffee, eat some prunes and rewrite your child’s English essay.” Stacy Garrop set the final letter that Marty Ginsburg, the justice’s beloved husband, wrote to her before his death in 2010. And Michaels set a testimonial that a former co-worker offered at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 50th birthday, about how the justice’s example empowered even the office typist to see herself more independently.
Michaels said that she had always intended to come back to composing but that she had no idea that song would turn into such a big piece. But “as that project came together, and I saw how much material there was about her, it seemed to me that creating a portrait was the right thing to do. I did research at the Library of Congress and talked to her biographers and started to map out what a portrait would look like from my perspective. It came together very organically.”
Using clear musical themes and colors — the justice’s motif is the notes D, G and B — Michaels illuminates what essentially feels like a window into RBG’s past. One song consists of a single line, said at a New York play date: “Be nice to Jane; her mommy works.” Another consists of excerpts from five of Ginsburg’s opinions on signal issues such as equal pay and the Voting Rights Act.
It takes considerable nerve to present a figure as iconic as Ruth Bader Ginsburg with your own musical interpretation of her life. Michaels sent her a preliminary recording last year. “She liked it so much she played it for her clerks,” she said. Ginsburg even incorporated some of the songs into her speaking engagements. “One was premiered,” James Ginsburg says, “at the 2nd Circuit Judicial Conference”; the justice arranged for a piano to be brought out and used the songs to illustrate some of her points.
This recording is a departure for Cedille, which focuses on Chicago rather than Washington. Eighth Blackbird, Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh and the Dover Quartet are all artists the label has long been working with, and, in some cases, helped to build up from the start of their careers.
The RBG album, James Ginsburg says, will probably remain “sui generis.” He adds, “It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, let’s plan an album around my mother.’ ” Michaels, having finished the cycle to her satisfaction, decided to record it for archival purposes; her husband heard the work and suggested that they issue it publicly. Rounding out the album, along with the songs by Garrop and Fung, is a song by Lori Laitman that was also performed at the 80th birthday, called “Wider Than the Sky,” and the final bravura aria from Wang’s “Scalia/Ginsburg” opera.
James Ginsburg hopes, of course, that the album will attract wider interest, and a slightly different audience, than many other Cedille releases. “I don’t flatter myself that’s for any reason other than that RBG is such an amazing personality,” Michaels says. But “it was a lot of joy, and the fact that he wanted to support it is very encouraging.”