Art Works Blog

When Opera Goes to Court

The 2010 Supreme Court luncheon. Bottom row (l-r): Eve Queler, David DiChiera, Martina Arroyo, Philip Glass. Top row (l-r): Justice Kagan, Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kennedy, NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shikegawa. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

After months of preparation, the 2011 NEA Opera Honors are finally here. This afternoon, this year's four honorees---Robert Ward, Speight Jenkins, Risë Stevens, and John Conklin---will be attending a luncheon at the Supreme Court, hosted by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself. A lifelong opera fan, Justice Ginsburg has hosted the NEA Opera Honors lunch each year, and will be attending tomorrow evening's (free!) celebration at DC's Harman Center for the Arts. Below are Justice Ginsburg's remarks from last year's ceremony, when she describes her love of opera and her relationship with the art form. If you can't make it to tomorrow's ceremony, we'll be offering a live webcast of the event beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Oyez, oyez, oyez, all persons passionate about opera draw near and give your attention, for a grand spectacular is about to begin. I am Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and it is my great pleasure, at Chairman Rocco Landesman’s request, to call into session the 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors. The invitation was one I could hardly refuse, nevermind the parade of cases trooping before the Court. Taking a cue from the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, I just said “Ja Ja.”

My selection for this cameo role may not be immediately obvious, for my grade school teachers, with harsh honesty, ranked me a sparrow, not a robin. And lawyers and judges, as you no doubt know, seldom appear onstage in grand operas. I do qualify, however, in this sense: opera has been my favorite art form since age 11. Among treasured moments in my senior citizen years, Justice Scalia and I, in 1994, debuted as opening night supers in the Washington National Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos. We returned for an encore, last year, in WNO’s new staging of the same opera. In between Ariadnes, I joined Justices Kennedy and Breyer as opening night guests at Prince Orlofsky’s ball in the second act of Die Fledermaus.

My last justification: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which tells of the fate of gods who disobey the law. True, no lawyer or judge appears in the Ring. But the Cycle centers on a breach of contract---Wotan’s repudiation of the agreement he made to compensate the giants for building Valhalla. What better illustration of the well-known legal maxim pacta sunt servanda; in plain English, agreements must be kept.

With that explanation of why I am here, may I convey the thanks of all of us to NEA for honoring four of the grandest contributors to the health and welfare of opera in the U.S.A.: soprano supreme Martina Arroyo; general director David DiChiera; composer Philip Glass; music director Eve Queler.

Opera in the U.S.A., unlike opera abroad, gains little financial aid from government. To thrive, and to attract wider and younger audiences, opera in our land must have the continuing support of long-time fans, people like you and me. NEA reinforces our commitment through this annual accolade from the government agency whose mission it is to foster the appreciation and advancement of the arts.

Please join me in applauding NEA for this initiative, and in a rousing bravissimo for tonight’s honorees.

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