Last week, a small woman of modest demeanor and appearance walked quietly on stage at the Glimmerglass Festival Theatre and seemed pleased but genuinely surprised when the standing-room-only audience rose spontaneously to its feet, expressing respect with thunderous applause.
The woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, smiled and politely waited for people to be seated. She was appearing on stage not as a judge but as a commentator on the ways some operas portray the law.
She spoke of opera plots in which some people condemned others to death, and the manner in which justice may or may not have been served. Her comments were illustrated by deeply moving performances of the Glimmerglass Young Artists, including a song in which a mother begs for her condemned son’s life and another in which a ship’s captain says he will agree with the death sentence imposed on a young, naive member of his crew who has been tricked into committing a crime.
Ginsburg described the personal importance of her first experience listening to opera as a public school student on a tour of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. When Glimmerglass Festival Director Francesca Zambello invited audience members to pose questions to Ginsburg, Oneonta High School Choral Director Megan Dyer asked the Supreme Court judge what she would say to people who are wondering whether to save tax dollars by taking music out of our schools.
Ginsburg’s face showed a deeply concerned expression as she said, “Depriving students of the opportunity to know and study the arts would be a terrible disservice to our nation’s children and for our country’s future.” Ginsburg, often regarded as a liberal member of the Supreme Court, said she was joined by her very conservative judicial colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, in her love of the arts. Differences of opinion about the law do not inhibit shared enthusiasm among the justices for the arts.