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Justice at the Opera: The Notorious R.B.G.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg to talk about crime, justice and human rights in opera at Kennedy Center

Two contemporary operas at the Kennedy Center this month deal with current issues, so it’s an appropriate time for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an opera enthusiast, to address an audience there.

“Dead Man Walking” addresses the death penalty while “Champion” deals with homophobia. Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Ginsburg will be on stage rather than in the crowd at the Kennedy Center for “Justice at the Opera,” a discussion of how crime, justice and human rights have been addressed in operas, like in the classic “Carmen,” an iconic role for Ginsburg’s friend, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who also stars in “Champion.”

“I describe that as the ultimate plea bargain, because here's Carmen and she is being carted off to jail and she negotiates a deal with Don José,” Ginsburg said.

“I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but that’s exactly what happens,” Graves said.

Ginsburg herself will be the subject of a one-hour opera being produced in the summer at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. Composer and lawyer Derek Wang was in law school when he came up with the idea for “Scalia/Ginsburg,” Ginsburg said.

“He's reading cases in constitutional law with Ginsburg on one side and (Antonin) Scalia on the other,” she said. “He decides this could make a very funny opera. … In the libretto, there are words that are straight out of our opinions or speeches, and the composer's the librettist has tried to portray two people who have some very different views on some very important things and yet they genuinely like each other.”

Justice Scalia, who died suddenly last year, was a friend with whom she shared her love of opera.

Ginsburg is no stranger to the limelight, and while diva is what she dreamed of being as a teenager, there's another nickname her young fans have given her.

“The Notorious R.B.G.,” she said. “When that started a few years ago and people said, 'What do you think about it?' and I said, 'Well, the Notorious B.I.G. the rapper and I have something in common."

Both were born and bred in Brooklyn.

The nickname was started in 2013 by New York University law school student Shana Knizhnik, who was angry over what she saw as the Supreme Court's weakening of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Ginsburg said.

“I had written a strong dissent,” Ginsburg said. “She took my bench announcement of my dissent and put it up, and that’s how it started.”

Knizhnik put it up on her Tumblr blog and has kept it alive with thousands of fans following it.

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