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The curtain rose on Act 2 of "The Daughter of the Regiment." The figure of a tiny woman barely visible in a large dome chair with her back to the audience was revealed. Suddenly, she swiveled around. And there was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Cheers and lengthy applause rang out from the crowd. This was at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The cheers came even before Ginsburg, a lifelong opera lover who was making her official operatic debut, opened her mouth to speak. She was playing the part of the imperious Duchess of Krakenthorp.
Her character, a non-singing role in Donizetti's frothy 1840 comedy, had come to find out whether the title character, Marie, was worthy of marrying her nephew.
Looking frail but determined and wearing an elegant acid green silk dress, the 83-year-old justice used a crib sheet. She read off a series of qualifications that sounded very much like requirements for high political or judicial office. Her deadpan delivery was boosted by a microphone. Laughter from the audience occasionally drowned her out.
"The best of the house of Krakenthorp have open but not empty minds. The best are willing to listen and learn. No surprise, then, that the most valorous Krakenthorpians have been women."
"Applicants seeking a station so exalted must have the fortitude to undergo strict scrutiny. Their character must be beyond reproach."
Her biggest laugh came when - in apparent reference to the bogus "birther" campaign against President Obama - she asked whether Marie could produce a birth certificate and added: "We must take precautions against fraudulent pretenders."
Ginsburg herself wrote her dialogue, in collaboration with Kelley Rourke of the Washington National Opera. It is that organization that is presenting a new production of the opera. In the original version of "La Fille du Regiment," as it is known in French, the duchess has little dialogue. But the role is often taken by comedians or aging singers. They sometimes improvise their own lines.
Francesca Zambello is the WNO's artistic director. She had asked Ginsburg to appear in all eight performances. But the justice declined to do more than opening night. Ginsburg cited her "day job." Actress Cindy Gold takes over for the remainder of the run.
It wasn't Ginsburg's first time on an opera stage. She had appeared three other times dating back to 1994. She never had spoken in a part.
This time, her presence added a unique luster to the performance. It would have been memorable even without her. That was thanks to world-class singing by the cast. It was led by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Marie. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee played her sweetheart, Tonio.
After Ginsburg's first scene, she was escorted off stage. Many in the house gave her a standing ovation. But she was back again near the end. This time, she was brought in by a servant in a white powdered wig. It was of the type worn by British judges. Hearing that Marie has decided to marry Tonio instead of the duke, she exclaimed, "Quel scandale!." Then the justice retreated to a chair. She fanned herself heartily until the curtain fell.
And she would appear one final time.
Justice Ginsburg was led on during the curtain calls. Then, leaning on Brownlee for a bit of support, one of the most influential women in American life smiled and curtsied three times to the audience.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why would an opera company allow an amateur to perform with them?
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