In this issue: We remember US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by taking a look at Operas featuring female characters who refuse to become victims and take charge of their own destinies.

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 39

As the New York Times reported, when US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last Friday, “tributes quickly began flowing from an unlikely source: opera singers, who posted backstage portraits taken alongside Justice Ginsburg and testimonials to her intense love of their art form.” Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera, commented, “She was our greatest advocate and our greatest spokesperson. She carried this art form.”

(The justice made a well-received appearance in the company’s 2016 production of Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, in the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Her dialogue alone was worth the price of admission!)

Referring to her own 2003 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio (scheduled for revival this fall but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic), Zambello says: “RBG wrote me a letter that it was the best Fidelio she’d ever seen. She said I got close to what Beethoven wanted in this story of Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband from prison. She related to it as a woman and a feminist. ‘You told the story of what women do,’ she said.”

Zambello continued, noting that Ginsburg “loved Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and its finale, the Immolation Scene. We had a lot of conversations about Brünnhilde, and why it took a woman to save the world. That’s what she said: Only a woman could do it; only a woman could change the course of history. She did always love pieces where the woman was the protagonist.”

In a November 2019 onstage conversation with soprano Joyce DiDonato at the Kennedy Center, Ginsburg observed: “Music is the one time when my head isn’t filled with briefs and opinions… all that is put on a shelf, and I just enjoy, or am thinking about the performance.” Such devotion, reportedly, formed the foundation of her deep friendship with fellow jurist—and polar opposite on the court—Antonin Scalia.

For today’s Now, More than Ever, I thought it would be fitting to remember Justice Ginsburg—this self-professed and very public opera fan—by looking at the kinds of operas and roles that appealed to her, especially works featuring female characters who refuse to become victims. Instead, these indomitable heroines actively take charge of their own destinies, often solely and intentionally for the benefit of others. 

Beethoven: “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” from Fidelio

Karita Mattila, soprano
Metropolitan Opera
James Levine, conductor

It’s easy to see what would draw Justice Ginsburg to the role of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio—especially in Jürgen Flimm’s brilliant 2000 staging, starring an incandescent Karita Mattila. I was lucky enough to have been in the house for the premiere of this staging as well as its revival, also with Mattila, and as commanding as her performance is on video, it was even more gripping in the hall. To this day, it remains one of the musical highlights of my life. 

Once Leonore’s husband, Florestan, is freed along with all the other prisoners, “Everyone sings a rousing chorus, celebrating freedom and hailing the heroism of Leonore…. Beethoven’s ode to joy in this choral scene is just as thrilling as his setting of Schiller’s actual ‘Ode to Joy’ in the finale of his Ninth Symphony” (New York Times).

You despicable thing! Where are you rushing?
What are you planning, in your fury?
A cry for sympathy, humanity’s voice—doesn’t anything move your tiger-heart?
Yet even if waves
Of anger and rage
Stir in your soul,
I see a bright rainbow
Rest shining on dark clouds:
It looks down so silently and peacefully,
It mirrors days gone by,
And my blood is soothed and stirred again.

Come, hope, don’t let the last star
Of the weary fade!
Oh come, light me to my goal, distant though it is,
Love will get me there.
I follow my inner voice,
I will not waver,
I am strengthened
By true love’s demands.
Oh you, for whom I bore everything,
If only I could get to you
There, where viciousness cast you in chains,
And bring you sweet comfort!
I follow my inner voice,
I will not waver,
I am strengthened
By true love’s demands.
translation by Larry Rothe

Wagner: “Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort” (Immolation) from Götterdämmerung

Dame Gwyneth Jones, soprano
Bayreuth Festival
Pierre Boulez, conductor

Justice Ginsburg was fascinated by Wagner’s Brünnhilde, described by Zambello as “a woman who takes her own tragedy and sees what is necessary for the transformation of her world, and through her actions brings an end to the age of gods and begins the age of men.”

This video clip ends with Brünnhilde’s final sung notes in Götterdämmerung, but this isn’t the end of the opera. (She hasn’t yet ridden her horse into the flames, resulting in the end of the old world and the birth of the new.) Still, it’s wonderful—and something of a revelation—to watch a towering artist like Gwyneth Jones command the stage in Patrice Chéreau’s justifiably revered production, which stripped away the more opulent traditions of Ring staging and revealed the work’s most humane core.

Kaija Saariaho: Clémence’s Prayer from L’amour de loin

Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

(If this video does not begin at 1:56:44, please reset it.)

The extraordinary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is no stranger to UC Berkeley, having served in the music department as the 2015 Bloch Professor in Music; her compositions have also been featured in numerous programs presented by Cal Performances, including at the 2016 Ojai at Berkeley festival. Saariaho’s 2000 L’amour de loin (Love from Afar), a joint commission by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Salzburg Festival, and Santa Fe Opera (where I first saw it), is one the most highly praised operas of the 21st century. This excerpt from the Peter Sellars’ production, which made the rounds of all of these venues, comes from the Finnish National Opera—with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the podium—and features an absolutely riveting Dawn Upshaw, for whom the role was written.

In this scene, Clémence, the Countess of Tripoli, who has fallen in love from afar with Jaufré Rudel (baritone Gerald Finley), prince of Blaye, finally meets Rudel in Lebanon. He has survived an epic journey only to arrive just in time to die in her arms. At the end of the opera, Clémence turns from Rudel’s dead body and begins to pray. But is it a prayer to God? Or to Rudel himself? 

Ultimately, Clémence resigns herself to her fate and to an understanding that this love—though never consummated—was strong enough to allow her to endure the rest of her life in a convent. There’s enormous anger, even rage, in what Clémence sings here—enriched by Saariaho through references to medieval plainchant and spectral songs that seem to emanate from some otherworldly landscape. At the conclusion of what is surely one of Sellars’ most beautiful productions—and a triumph for Upshaw—we are left with Clémence on her back in an inch of water, seemingly floating alone in the darkness, into eternity.

(An English translation of these lyrics will be found at the end of this blog post.)

Handel: “Ah! mio cor!” from Alcina

Renée Fleming, soprano
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, conductor

Alcina, a sorceress and an incredibly powerful woman—almost an immortal—falls in love with the heroic knight Ruggiero. (The story is taken from Orlando Furioso, an epic 16th-century poem by the Italian Ludovico Ariosto.) In this aria, certainly among Handel’s supreme achievements and one of those famous instances in opera when time truly seems to stand still, Alcina realizes she has been betrayed and considers her fate. 

This recording with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants was a triumph for all concerned, especially Fleming, in her first staged Handel opera role. Her Alcina is the furthest thing from a tragic heroine… rather, she’s a mighty ruler who ends up sacrificing her powers for love.

Oh! My heart! How scorned you are!
Stars, oh gods! You spirit of love!
Traitor you are! Yet you I love!
Alone you leave me with all my tears?
Oh my god! Oh why?

But, what makes Alcina weep and sob?
Queen I am! And time is there for us:
Stay or perish, pain on end,
Or again love me!

Jake Heggie: “God’s love and forgiveness” from Dead Man Walking

Catherine Martin, mezzo-soprano
Karen Slack, soprano
Minnesota Opera
Michael Christie, conductor

Justice Ginsburg knew Sister Helen Prejean, the real life death penalty opponent on whom composer Jake Heggie based his profoundly moving Dead Man Walking, and I know Ginsburg was familiar with this opera and compelled by its story. In this scene, Sister Helen awakens from a nightmare about Joe (the convicted killer on Death Row) and the murdered teenagers. Sister Rose comforts her and helps her admit that she still needs to find the strength to forgive Joe herself, just as mothers forgive their children’s failings.

Heggie wrote to me earlier this week, sharing his memories of Justice Ginsburg and her reaction to this opera:

As for RBG, she was a special, generous friend and champion who showed up at many of my performances. Shortly [afterwards], she would send a beautiful letter—a book, a remembrance of some kind. Precious treasures. She absolutely loved opera and had great enthusiasm for contemporary works, especially those that deal with issues of social justice. So, she was a big champion of Dead Man Walking and referred to it often in her talks about opera.

A quick note: the exquisite libretto for Dead Man Walking was written by playwright Terrence McNally, “the Bard of American Theater” (The New York Times), who died of complications from COVID-19 on March 24, 2020.

(English lyrics for this excerpt will be found at the end of this blog post.)

Puccini: “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca

Maria Callas, soprano
The Royal Opera

Surveying the world of 19th-century Italian opera, it can be something of a challenge coming up with strong heroines firmly in control of their own destinies. (As considered today, the roles—even the most famous ones—frequently seem uncomfortably misogynistic.) But surely Floria Tosca qualifies, especially when incarnated by a volcanic talent like Maria Callas. In this scene, Tosca has been given the horrible ultimatum by Scarpia, the chief of police; give yourself to me or see the man you love die before your eyes. She reflects on her life as a famous singer, having lived for art and love, and makes her final horrible decision. And by taking her own life as the opera ends, Tosca dies on her own terms.

Callas is brilliant here, in one of her most iconic moments from the legendary 1964 Covent Garden production. If this doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what will.

I’ll conclude by observing that this selection and today’s first video clip from Fidelio both address the concept of justice—something that not every opera is concerned with. But important points are being made here about what is—and isn’t—fair. And what else, after all, defined the life work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?


Kaija Saariaho: Excerpt from L’amour de loin

In this instant, I have all I wish.
Why ask life for more?

(His body goes limp, and he sinks down, motionless. Clémence holds him to her for a moment, her head resting on his shoulder. Then she rises to pray.)

CLÉMENCE (occasionally accompanied by the assembled chorus)
Still I hope, my God, still I hope.
The old gods could be cruel, but not thou, not thou, my God,
Thou art goodness and compassion, thou art pity.
Still I hope, my God, still I hope. (chorus)
This mortal being had nothing in his heart but the most pure love.
He made an offering of his life to a distant, unknown woman, and was content to receive in return a smile.
He thanked heaven for the little that was accorded him, and asked for nothing.
If with such a being as he thou art not generous, Lord, with whom shalt thou be?

(The Pilgrim, meanwhile, is bent over Jaufré to see if he is still breathing. To Clémence, who gives him a questioning look, he gestures that all is over. Then she bends over her lover and begins to caress him like a sleeping child. Her sadness slowly turns to anger and outrage. She rises and shakes a vengeful fist at Heaven.)

I believed in thee, I had hope, O God,
That with a being so generous thou wouldst show thyself more generous still.
I believed in thee, I had hope, O God,
That with a being so loving though wouldst show thyself yet more capable of love,
That thou wouldst grant us an instant, just one instant of true happiness,
Without suffering, without illness, without the approach of death.
A brief moment of simple happiness. Was that too much?

Be silent, woman, your passion leads you astray,
Be silent, woman, silence!

What didst thou seek to punish?
That he called me goddess?
That he pretended to be a crusader, as if he was leaving to fight the Infidel, when it was me that he came to find?
Could it be that thou art jealous of the fragile happiness of men?

Be silent, woman, your passion leads you astray,
Be silent, woman, silence!

Would you seek to draw down on our town misfortune and malediction?
Would you that the sea were unleashed, that the waves leapt over the walls to engulf our houses and drown our children?

Would you seek to draw down on us the punishment of God?
That he abandoned us in mid-ocean when the tempest rages?
That he abandoned us in the midst of battle when our enemies hurl themselves against us?

Be silent, woman, your passion leads you astray,
Be silent, woman, silence!

CLÉMENCE (wandering around the stage in her flowing white dress like a seabird tossed by the wind)
Jaufré thought he was coming to me, and he met death.
Could it be that my beauty was death’s lure?
He thought to see in me Light, and I was nothing other than the Guardian of the Shadows!
How should I love again?
How should I uncover my body?
How reveal my breast to the gaze of a lover?

THE PILGRIM (moved by his friend’s fate, but more controlled than Clémence, he too shows his remorse. Rather than a dialogue, these are two parallel monologues, addressed to heaven.)
And I, Lord, why didst thou choose me for this task?
From one shore to the other, from one confidence to another,
I thought I was spinning the white threads of a wedding dress,
I did not know I was spinning the material for a shroud!

(He moves off like a fallen angel, or perhaps stiffens like a pillar of salt.)

I no longer deserve to be loved,
I no longer deserve to be hymned by a poet,
Nor held against a man’s shoulder, nor caressed.
Tomorrow, after the funeral, I shall go into mourning.
I shall wear a thick linen robe and hide myself away
Beneath a convent roof
Whence I shall never more emerge, neither living nor dead.
I am the widow of a man who did not know me,
And no other man shall ever enter my bed.

(As if she were already in the convent, she kneels and begins to pray, at first silently, then in a loud voice, facing the immobile body of her lover, which resembles an altar, so that it is hard to know whether she is praying to him or to the God she has rebelled against, especially as the words she speaks are ambiguous.)

If you are called Love, I adore only you, Lord,
If you are called Goodness, I adore only you,
If you are called Pardon, I adore only you, Lord,
If you are called Passion, I adore only you.
My prayer rises to you who are so far from me now,
To you who are so far.
Forgive me for having doubted your love,
Forgive me for having doubted you!
You who gave your life for me,
Forgive me for having remained so distant.
Now that it is you who are distant,
Are you still there to hear my prayer?
Now that it is you who are distant,
Now you are the distant love,
Lord, Lord, you are love,
You are the distant love…


Libretto © 1999 Amin Maalouf.
Reproduced by permission of Chester Music Ltd.

Translation © Chester Music Ltd.
Reproduced by permission.

Jake Heggie: “God’s love and forgiveness” from Dead Man Walking

Sometimes forgiveness is in the smallest gesture.


The touch of a hand, a look, or a smile.

Just the smallest gesture.

But words aren’t forgiveness. Doing is.

I remember when I was little, no matter how bad I’d been, I always knew my mama loved me and forgave me.

But not by her words.

No, almost never by her words.

It was the way she buttoned my coat, even the top button.

The way she’d brush my hair to make it shine.

The way she held my hand …

…held it tightly all the way to school. And it was all without a word. And all was forgiven. All without a word. All without a sound.

What should I do?

Go to him. Listen to him. Maybe take his hand. It’s no big deal.

How will I know that I’ve forgiven him? Truly forgiven him?

You’ll know. I wouldn’t be surprised if your heart didn’t burst from it. Try to sleep now.

(ROSE embraces HELEN and kisses her on the forehead.)

I don’t think I’ll really sleep ’til this is over. Say a Rosary with me?

Honey, ordinarily I’d love to but do you know what time it is? I’m pullin’ rank here. Lights out!

ROSE turns the lights out and closes the door behind her as she leaves. In the soft glow of a votive light, we see HELEN cross herself and begin to recite.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

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