ZAMBELLO: On Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Opera

RUTH BADER GINSBURG AT GLIMMERGLASS

‘These Dark Archangels,

Will They Be Conquered?’

As the Glimmerglass Festival’s general & music director, Francesca Zambello hosted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in an “Opera and Law” program nine summers in a row in Cooperstown.

As many people may know, the Young Artist Program at the Glimmerglass Festival is an integral part of our work. One of our recent alumni, Alexandria Shiner (last seen as Bertha in the Barber of Seville 2018), went on to become part of the Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera and to win the first prize of the Met auditions.

A few weeks before COVID closed everything, Ali took the lead role in a version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul” in the Supreme Court’s private chambers. The opportunity came about because Justice Ginsburg held occasional musicales at the Court, carrying on a tradition started by Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rob Ainsley, the director of the Cafritz Young Artist Program, and I wanted to do something different than just a concert. We asked Justice Ginsburg if we could present a one-hour version of “The Consul,” an opera that deals with immigration issues not unlike those currently being hotly debated.

We had already presented the opera in various locations as a kind of outreach work, but all these were previews leading up to what we felt would be our most important showing of the piece.

We arrived in the morning to rehearse in the chambers like a funny band of traveling players carrying our costumes and props into the Supreme Court.

How strange – and how moving – to be telling this story of political dissidents, government overstep and visa frustrations before an audience of men and women who had sworn to uphold our country’s ideals.

RBG always loved meeting the new young artists and this was a special year. I still remember Ali, as Magda, staring into the eyes of one justice after another as she sang these words:

To this we’ve come:
that men withhold the world from men.
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.

To this we’ve come:
that man be born a stranger upon God’s earth,
that he be chosen without a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.

To this we’ve come.
(To the Secretary)
And you, you too shall weep!
If to men, not to God, we now must pray,
tell me, Secretary, tell me,
who are these men?
If to them, not to God, we now must pray…

Who are these dark archangels?
Will they be conquered? Will they be doomed?
Is there one, anyone behind those doors
to whom the heart can still be explained?
Is there one, anyone, who still may care?
Tell me, Secretary, tell me!

As she threw the papers in the air screaming “Papers, Papers,” the room felt electric. I shall never forget this, nor will anyone there.

RBG, with a wink, told me how she loved the simple and direct performance of “The Consul” so close to the halls of justice. I am grateful for all she gave to our Festival over the past decade.


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