On the heels of the Supreme Court’s controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade catapulting justices to the forefront of public attention, Painted Sky Opera and Oklahoma Contemporary bring Scalia/Ginsburg to the stage for three performances.
The relationship between the titular Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg ( Lauren Cook) and Antonin Scalia (Brian Cheney), forms the focal point of the opera — an apt choice of medium by its librettist and composer, Derrick Wang, as both justices deeply loved the art form.
“They had season tickets to the opera together,” Rob Glaubitz, Oklahoma City-based Painted Sky Opera’s artistic director and director of Scalia/Ginsburg, said. “They went, they had completely opposite viewpoints on the law and yet still managed to be really wonderful, not just colleagues, but actual friends.”
Delayed from January 2021 due to COVID-19, the performance celebrates the ability of the two justices to connect despite their numerous differences, culminating with the characters singing the duet “We are different. We are one” near the end of the show.
Working on the performance led Glaubitz to admire the relationship between Scalia and Ginsberg.
“Appreciating the kind of friendship that they had, where they could completely disagree with each other, and tell the other person they were completely wrong, and yet still be friendly and call each other nicknames and have this great relationship, [it] reaffirms that this is possible in our society today, which I think is one of the most important messages of the opera,” Glaubitz said.
Created by Wang during his time studying law at Harvard University and originally premiering in 2015, the opera was revised after Scalia’s passing in 2016.
“Scalia is such a specific type of person, and we were lucky enough to get Brian Cheney who did the role with Opera Delaware in 2019,” Glaubitz said.
Returning to the role after several years, the context changed for Cheney.
- Justin Heyes
- Brian Cheney plays Justice Antonin Scalia in Opera Delaware’s 2019 production of Scalia/Ginsburg.
“I think there are some things that are a little more challenging to wrap our heads around,” Cheney said. “One is Roe versus Wade, that’s referenced in the show, but of course, referenced in a different way than I think we would consider it now. … I think we need it more than ever, this message of, ‘Hey, it’s okay to have opposing ideas, politically. We can still get along, we can still love each other.’”
Like Cheney, mezzo-soprano Lauren Cook is returning to a role in Scalia/Ginsburg, having previously played Ginsburg in a version produced by Opera Naples.
“It’s especially poignant with her so-recent passing to be able to—because I did the role in 2020 when she was still alive—actually, the last role I did before the pandemic,” Cook said. “She’s such an icon and such a wonderful person. It’s nice to be able to really spend the time honoring her again.”
The restrictions that COVID-related closures placed on the opera world during the time since her last Scalia/Ginsburg performance gave her a new perspective.
“It does give me a new kind of appreciation for not only her love of opera but my rekindled passion for it as well, having not been able to do it for a while there,” Cook said. “So I think it’s kind of that moment of, ‘There’s so much joy to be found in this.’”
Even though the subjects are serious, the opera is uplifting and inspiring, Glaubitz said.
“This is a fun show. This shows both characters at their most entertaining, and I think that’s what I would stress … We were lucky. Lucky enough to get the two people who have actually done the roles in other productions before,” Glaubitz said.
As prior performers of this work, Cook and Cheney have a hand up in tackling the wide range of styles and genres that the contemporary piece incorporates.
“This opera is like a pastiche, it’s like a cut-and-paste show with different musical motifs,” Cheney said. “For example, in the first part of the show, I sing what would be thought of as like a Handel rage aria, which has a lot of moving notes, a lot of coloratura and fast moving passages. And then the next aria that I sing is based on Puccini, which is very full lyric dramatic-type singing and requires different types of understanding of style to really make it make sense to the listener.”
This means mastering not just one style but several and interlacing them together.
“The music is challenging because it’s so different. When you’re singing an opera, you’re just singing one composer. And so you work on the style of, let’s say, Mozart. Mozart is a very different style of singing, and interpretation musically, then, like Verdi or Puccini, or Bizet or Handel, even. So in this case, you’ve got all of it. So it’s like everything in the kitchen sink,” he said.
Glaubitz pointed to one of Ginsburg’s arias as an example of how all these difficult historical references add dimension to the opera’s characterization of Ginsburg and Scalia. The aria incorporates melodies originally sung by two classic opera characters, Carmen and Violetta, each of whom are defined by their independent nature.
“Both of them, their main thing is, ‘I am free, I am strong, I will do what I want, nobody’s going to tell me what to do, because I am a free person,’” Glaubitz said. “And that kind of embodies what Ginsburg was. She wasn’t going to let anybody keep her down, put chains on her, she was going to be free.”
Show times are 7:30 p.m. Sept 9-10 and 2 p.m. Sept 11 in Oklahoma Contemporary’s Te Ata Theater, 11 NW 11th Street.
The Sept. 9 performance includes a talk-back and the Sept. 10 performance will have a guest speaker. Tickets are $36.56 each.