Contracts, like agreements, are often broken in opera as well as life, giving grist for good plotlines. And Grand Operas, like our constitution, are rightly to be re-interpreted with an elastic, contemporary understanding. “Don’t you agree?” So says Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with a twinkle in her eye. The Justice was at Glimmerglass Festival July 19th to share her passion for opera and her insights into operatic and legal parsing.
Many of us would not wish the Justice to quit her day job, but she would make an outstanding reviewer for opera! Her passion for the art form is only matched by her command of opera plots and its magnificent characters. She stood on the Glimmerglass Festival stage Saturday afternoon in a special program, introducing and commenting on scenes from operas that deal with contractual law.
The house was packed, and enthusiasm ran high for those gathered to be in the presence of such a giant “little Justice.” The stage, with its enormous red side representing an Otsego County barn, previewed the set for Ariadne of Naxos to be performed that evening. Seven scenes were performed in front of this façade by members of the Young Artists Program, and Kevin Moody and David Miller accompanied the singers at these proceedings.
On Madame Butterfly, lifted from the bold and moving full production I had seen two nights before at Glimmerglass, the Justice electrified the entire audience with her introduction by saying, “Pinkerton, a rocker if there ever was one…” signs a 999-year contract for the lease of a house with a marriage to a child-bride thrown in, when he learns he can get out of it (and his marriage) on a month-to-month basis. Marco Cammarota and Hunter Enoch portrayed the two Americans colleagues with Ian McEuen, who reprises his mainstage role as the Japanese marriage broker Goro, gave us the opera’s opening contract scene. I cringed, feeling the sharp irony, particularly when the Americans sang the musical snippet “America Forever,” and thought how prescient Puccini was, commenting on USA’s policies regarding our responsibilities in international contracts.
Mozart, in The Marriage of Figaro, treats the subject of marriage contracts with a much lighter touch. The climactic musical sextet in which Figaro gets out of his marriage to the woman who turns out to be his mother (oh boy, do the legal shenanigans turn on a dime) was delightfully performed with much confidence in the comic business by Jasmine Habersham, Claudia Chapa, John Kapusta, Chris Carr, Mathew Scollin, and Thomas Richards. At its conclusion, Justice Ginsburg waved what amounted to a magical wand to bring these young performers back on stage for a well-deserved second bow.
Gounod’s Faust presents the quintessential contract with the devil for a man’s soul. In a typically French “twist,” Faust wants neither glory nor power but “Je veux la jeunesse… À moi les plaisirs...,” — specifically amorous liaisons with young women. Thomas Richards returned on stage to perform as a bureaucrat from la bas while the young David T. Curran presents us with a gasping, octogenarian Faust, who transforms into a beautiful and subtle-voiced man. “Exuberantly done,” weighed in the Justice. This “judge” consents.
Trials and inquests abound in operas. I was reminded by Justice Ginsburg of the memorable trial of Absalom in Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weil’s opera based on Alan Paton’s penetrating exposure of South Africa’s apartheid legal system, presented two seasons ago at Glimmerglass Festival.
This afternoon, Ben Edquist and Courtney Miller brought to the stage a harrowing scene from Jake Heggie’s new opera, Dead Man Walking. Miller’s performance as the nun who fights to win the condemned man’s soul for God had much dramatic presence, and her diction, not often so accomplished in young singers, made the language ring clear. Edquist committed himself fully to his tormented soul’s edgy ferocity, and his final scream broke all operatic rules (thankfully) of hanging on to beautiful sound. Following the performance, the Justice made us reflect on the moral as well as legal issue of the death penalty at the heart of this moving story by asking the audience, “What does killing him accomplish?”
Dungeon scenes are some of operas’ favorite settings. Beethoven’s Fidelio features a dramatic dungeon scene in which a good wife courageously comes to the rescue of her husband and political prisoner, Florisham. Justice Ginsburg reminded us that while many female characters in operas typify the plaintive victims of stock melodramas, there are some, like Leonora in Fidelio, who more aptly resemble what real women are like. (Your life, your Honor, is a case in point.) The demands of this German opera truly tested the abilities of Jennifer Root, Cooper Nolan, Adam Cioffari, and Gerard Michael D’Emilio. Nonetheless, it proved a wonderful opportunity to present the work and these singing talents in front of an audience. “These young artists are truly wonderful,” champions the Justice. (As is this heart of Glimmerglass programming – its commitment to developing young performers and an audience which will support them.)
Another contract is involved when Jeni Houser and Joe Shadday bring all the silliness of the much-loved Gilbert & Sullivan to the stage in a scene from Pirates of Penzance. The Justice points out that the creators of this operetta were masters of exposing the extreme folly when law is interpreted strictly (vs. when elasticity should be applied based on common sense.) The plot involves a young man who has been apprenticed mistakenly to a pirate (instead of a pilot) and the terms stipulate that he is “obliged” until he is twenty-one. It is revealed that the said apprentice-and-tenor-role was born on a leap year, so, according to law, he will not be able to break free from piracy (nor marry) until his mid-sixties. Performers Houser and Shadday draw on the full melodramatic gestural palette to make this an afternoon favorite, and Houser in particular communicates delicious expression in the merest tilt of her torso and the flickering of her fingertips.
The knockout performance of the afternoon was unmistakably Jacqueline Echols, in the opera-still-in-development, Scalia/Ginsburg. Echols performed Justice Ginsburg herself in her response to Scalia on the issue of legal constructionism. Echols is both beautiful and a vocally expressive singer-actress. She exudes a mature singer’s confidence and radiant courage that deftly portrayed the forward-thinking Justice. She moves effortlessly through a “Ginsburg aria” that consists of a pastiche of Carmen’s “Habanera” a soulful jazzy melody, and the dazzling pyrotechnics of a gospel diva.
At the scene’s end, Justice Ginsburg remarked, “That is just exactly the way I am and sound — in the shower.” (Oh, Washington community, let’s champion our own and bring this opera by Derrick Wang and the lovely Echols to full fruition in the Washington area.)
At the end of the program, Justice Ginsburg proclaimed, “It was all beautifully performed, don’t you agree?” The court of justice would surely assent.