A celebrated singer from D.C. and a “notorious” Supreme Court justice from Brooklyn grew up a generation apart but became great friends thanks to opera.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discovered opera at age 11, when she met a young, black aspiring orchestra conductor named Dean Dixon, who visited her school.
“He had an orchestra with young people from all over the city and he would condense operas into one hour,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by the drama, the gorgeous music.”
But in 1944, Dixon decided to leave the county because he could never get a shot at conducting a major orchestra.
“Because he was African-American,” Ginsburg said.
He became a star in Europe, and upon his return in the U.S. in the late 1960s, every single major orchestra in the country invited him to be a guest conductor.
In the 1970s, Denyce Graves only knew gospel music when she heard opera should be her career choice.
“I remember that I had a teacher when I was a student at Duke Ellington High School who assigned an aria to me,” she said.
She didn't know any arias. Composers Puccini, Bizet and Verdi were not on her playlist yet, but her teachers at Ellington knew her voice was perfect for opera.
It was a different story for young Ruth.
“By the time I was a high school senior, if you asked me what I would want to be if I had any talent God could give me, and the answer would be: I'd be a great diva,” she said. “I might be (opera singers) Beverly Sills or Renata Tebaldi, but as I'm monotone, there are only two places I sing, and that's the shower and in my dreams.”
Graves finished college at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and went on to become a highly sought mezzo-soprano.
Ginsburg went to Cornell University.
“It was the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, who saw a communist in every corner,” she said.
A government professor told her lawyers were need to protect America's values.
“So I thought that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing,” she said. “I didn't think about how unreceptive the times were to lady lawyers. My family had grave misgivings about what I was doing, but then I got married, and then their attitude was, ‘Fine, if Ruth wants to go to law school, she can go, because if she can't earn a living, she'll have a man to support her.”
She and her husband, Martin Ginsburg, both finished law school and added to their family along the way.
Ginsburg found her voice in the courtroom and has since been nicknamed on social media “Notorious R.B.G.,” a pun on the name of deceased rapper Notorious B.IG. But her love of opera never ended. She's a mainstay at the Kennedy Center, where she recently watched Graves star in a new American opera, “Champion.”
“The first time I saw an opera starring the great Denyce Graves, she was Carmen, and then she was the ultimate Delilah in ‘Sampson and Delilah,’ but then I saw you as Baba the Turk in the bearded lady and I knew she wasn't going to be typecast,” Ginsburg said, laughing about the character from Igor Stravinsky’s opera “The Rake’s Progress.”
The Supreme Court justice won’t be typecast either.
“She's quite deceiving,” Graves said. “She comes in a teeny, tiny package, but she's quite formidable. A real powerhouse and a mighty force to be reckoned with.”
One found her voice as an international opera star, and the other found hers on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Sometimes I have a frightening dream,” Ginsburg said. “I am onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. I have a gorgeous costume and I'm about to open my mouth when I remember what my grade school teachers told me. ‘You are not a robin, you are a sparrow, so when we sing, you just mouth the words.’”