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Judicial Differences Take Center Stage In 'Scalia V. Ginsburg'


And now a reminder that anything can inspire an opera, even judicial differences, at least those of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the end of the court's term last month, Scalia was railing from the bench about decisions in which Ginsburg prevailed - notably same-sex marriage and ObamaCare. And Ginsburg objected to decision where he prevailed - lethal injection, environmental regulation. These differences go back decades and will be heard in an opera that debuts tomorrow at the Castleton Festival in Virginia. It's the perfect time, then, to revist the preview of the show that we first heard a couple of years ago from NPR's Nina Totenberg. That's when Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg invited Nina to hear their arguments set to music.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The two love to spar over ideas but are united in their love of opera, which is what brought them together on this day to the east conference room of the Supreme Court. They were hearing a preview of an opera about their supreme disagreements. The composer is Derrick Wang, a talented musician who, while in law school at the University of Maryland, became fascinated by Justice Scalia's dissents.


DERRICK WANG: I realized this is the most dramatic thing I've ever read in law school.


TOTENBERG: That's Wang introducing the opera the justices and their law clerks. The idea for his composition began when he read Scalia's dissents and he heard music.


WANG: A rage aria...


WANG: ...About the Constitution. And then counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg's words appeared to me, a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, this is in Opera.

TOTENBERG: And so an opera was born, entitled "Scalia/Ginsburg." Wang wrote to the justices, asking permission to put the words to music. And, as they later put it...


RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I think Justice Scalia said how could he stop it? We have the First Amendment.


ANTONIN SCALIA: They didn't need our permission to do this.

TOTENBERG: The opera is based on the two justices' well-known personalities - his, bombastic, hers, demure - and their ideological disagreements.


TOTENBERG: As the plot unfolds, the two justices find themselves locked in a room, and the only way to get out is to agree on a constitutional approach. A grumpy Justice Scalia, played by tenor Peter Scott Drackley, fulminates about how his fellow justices are blind. How can they possibly spout these new rights, rights that the framers nowhere enshrined?


PETER SCOTT DRACKLEY: (As Antonin Scalia, singing) The justices are blind. How can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this.

TOTENBERG: When Justice Ginsburg enters, Scalia implores her to a familiar tune, asking why she can't seem to read the Constitution's text and its clear meeting.


DRACKLEY: (As Antonin Scalia, singing) Oh, Ruth, can you read? You are aware of the text, yet so proudly you failed to derive its true meaning.

TOTENBERG: Justice Ginsburg, played by soprano Kimberly Christie, replies with calm reason, asking Scalia to just consider a different idea.


KIMBERLY CHRISTIE: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, singing) How many times must I tell you, dear Mr. Justice Scalia? You'd spare us such pain if you'd just entertain this idea.

TOTENBERG: The idea being that the founders bequeathed to later generations the meaning of certain constitutional rights, allowing them to flourish.


CHRISTIE: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, singing) And grow.

TOTENBERG: In his finale, Scalia replies that the founders gave us a rigid framework to rise.


DRACKLEY: (As Antonin Scalia, singing) We shall rise. Anyway, that's my view, and it happens to be correct.


TOTENBERG: After the performance, the two justices congratulated the composer and performers.

SCALIA: It was wonderful. The music was wonderful. You know, if I had my choice, I'd be a tenor.

TOTENBERG: Scalia calls himself a crypto-tenor - meaning not. As for Ginsburg, she just sighs.

GINSBURG: The truth is, if God could give me any talent in the world, I would be a great diva.

TOTENBERG: Instead, she's the court's diva, playing regularly opposite divo Antonin Scalia. Their run resumes on the first Monday in October when the new term begins. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.