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Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a Patron of the Arts

Justice Ginsburg loved opera — so much so that she even performed in them.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on stage at 59E59 after a performance of The Originalist.
(© Tricia Baron)

There's a facet of the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that not many people know about. Justice Ginsburg, who died Friday at the age of 87, was a consummate lover of the performing arts, particularly opera.

Justice Ginsburg saw her first opera at the age of 11 in 1944, she told the AARP magazine in 2015. "My aunt took me to a high school in Brooklyn for a condensed version of La Gioconda," she said. "I loved it. In high school I started attending the New York City Opera. To save money, I'd go to dress rehearsals. Or I'd buy tickets for seats in the last row of the top balcony."

On more than one occasion, Justice Ginsburg made special appearances in various opera performances. She served as a supernumerary in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in 1994, alongside her friend and colleague, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. "I was a super once," she told AARP, "in Die Fledermaus, and was seated within three feet of Plácido Domingo. I had never heard a voice of that beauty so close up. It felt as if an electric shock were running through me." The friendship of Justices Ginsburg and Scalia was the subject of its own opera, Derrick Wang's Scalia/Ginsburg.

In 2016, Justice Ginsburg made her official acting debut in an opera, playing the role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment at the Washington National Opera for one night. She wrote her own lines, throwing in references to her previous opinions and decisions.

Justice Ginsburg also acted in Arena Stage's 2014 production Our War, performing the David Lindsay-Abaire monologue "That Boy." "Justice Ginsburg's moving reading captured beautifully the grief so many parents of the Civil War era must have felt when their children didn't return from battle," our critic said of her performance. In 2016, she played a judge presiding over Antonio's trial in a production of The Merchant of Venice in that titular city, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Jewish ghetto there. Two decades earlier, she uttered the immortal line "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," in Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Henry IV, Part 2.

A frequent theatergoer, Justice Ginsburg was often seen at the theater in New York and Washington, DC. She proudly took in Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me and requested a copy of the script thereafter. She so enjoyed John Strand's The Originalist, about Justice Scalia, that she saw it multiple times and took part in an onstage conversation following the off-Broadway run at 59E59.

That production was directed by Arena Stage artistic leader Molly Smith, whose wedding to Suzanne Blue Star Boy Justice Ginsburg officiated. She also officiated the wedding of Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn to Charles Mitchem.

But it was opera that Justice Ginsburg truly loved. "Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I'm thinking about legal problems," she told AARP. "But when I go to the opera, I'm just lost in it. Loving it. And I don't think about any legal brief."