February 05, 2020 Feature

Composing the Law: An Interview with Derrick Wang, Creator of the Scalia/Ginsburg Opera

©2020. Published in Landslide, Vol. 12, No. 3, January/February 2020, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

There are musicians, and there are lawyers. And then there’s Derrick Wang, the polymathic composer, dramatist, and lawyer who created the opera Scalia/Ginsburg—and ushered in our current era of U.S. Supreme Court pop culture.

Hailed as a “fiercely entertaining crash course on the U.S. Constitution and the people who uphold it,”1 Scalia/Ginsburg is the American opera about the unlikely friendship of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. First heard in 2013 at the Supreme Court of the United States, this “perfect . . . jewel”2 was premiered at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival (2015) to international media coverage, was presented in a revised version at the Glimmerglass Festival (2017), and continues to be produced nationwide. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “Could we please make it a constitutional requirement that no one can be sworn into office in the White House or Congress without first having seen Scalia/Ginsburg?”3

An early version of the libretto (script) was published in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, with prefaces by Justices Ginsburg and Scalia themselves.4 The opera is also featured in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s book My Own Words as its own chapter, the audiobook version of which is narrated by the composer-librettist from New York’s Steinway Hall.5 In 2020, the revised libretto to Scalia/Ginsburg, annotated with over 200 footnotes, will be published in celebration of the opera’s five-year anniversary.

In this interview, Derrick Wang tells us how it feels to be quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, why he revised his opera after the passing of Justice Scalia, and what makes Scalia/Ginsburg a supremely operatic experience.

You’re a composer and dramatist with degrees in music from Harvard and Yale. You’re also a lawyer who has been honored for your work in IP law. How do these two things go together?

For me, music and law have always influenced each other—probably because, as a child, I was constantly sketching out ideas for musicals and operas based on books I happened to be reading. When I discovered that not all of these source materials were automatically available to be adapted, I started learning about copyright law and the framework in which creators are compensated for their art. By the time I was in graduate school for music composition, my curiosity about these legal topics had only increased—and so, while continuing to compose, I also enrolled in my hometown law school. Flash forward to today, and I have the privilege of teaching law to conservatory-trained music students, giving lecture-recitals before judges and politicians about the unifying power of the arts, and watching talented musicians perform an opera I wrote about constitutional law. All in all, I’m a very lucky fellow.

There seem to be some famous composers who studied law, but they didn’t combine those two fields to quite the same extent. For you, what do music and law have in common?

It’s an obscure club, this composers-in-law-school alumni association, but with members as impressive as Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), who can complain? Of course, examining the historical record, I’m not so sure that all of them found a legal education particularly compatible with their creative leanings. In fact, as a student, Schumann famously wrote, “My whole life has been a . . . war between Poetry and Prose, or, let us say, Music and Law.”6 Luckily, in my case, the two sides struck a truce!

For me, what music and law have in common is their appreciation of rhetoric—communicating clearly and persuasively using a seemingly abstract language. And, because I happen to write lyrics and librettos [scripts for musicals or operas] in addition to melodies and memos, I find that these different languages of music and law can be happily united through the immediacy of the theater.

Which is precisely what happened in Scalia/Ginsburg. But what inspired you to write specifically about U.S. Supreme Court justices? After all, back when you started composing this work, we didn’t have the Supreme Court pop culture that we have today.

Things have changed quite a bit in the past decade, haven’t they? (I can now say things like, “Back in my day, we didn’t have SCOTUS memes.”)

The idea for Scalia/Ginsburg came (naturally enough) when, as a law student, I was inspired by the dueling opinions of Justices Ginsburg and Scalia. When studying constitutional law, I was reading case after case after Supreme Court case—when I came upon three magic words: “Scalia, J., dissenting.” Every time I read a Scalia dissent, I would hear music in my head: a rage aria about the Constitution. Then, when I read the contrasting counterpoint from his colleague and fellow opera aficionado Justice Ginsburg, I realized: the unlikely friendship between these two justices could itself be the basis for an opera.

But Scalia/Ginsburg does more than merely depict these justices onstage. According to the legal world, you’ve created a “funny, exceedingly clever” theatrical narrative that “successfully integrates huge amounts of constitutional theory (originalism versus living constitutionalism), legal scholarship, and landmark SCOTUS opinions.”7 How are music and law intertwined in Scalia/Ginsburg?

It was important to me that Scalia/Ginsburg be more than just a topical piece—and so I asked myself: How can I communicate, through music, the deep experience of engaging with the law? Eventually, I came up with an answer—an organizing principle I call “operatic precedent.” Just as legal scholarship is based on preexisting sources, the words of Scalia/Ginsburg are all based on things the justices actually wrote or said. And, just as a court opinion has to refer to previous cases to develop a new decision, the music of Scalia/Ginsburg refers to previous operas to develop its new material.

Sounds like a supremely operatic experience. Care to share an example of “operatic precedent”?

Certainly. Let’s start with Justice Scalia’s first song—his “rage aria” of dissent, if you will. Now, Justice Scalia was known to be an originalist; he believed that the U.S. Constitution had a fixed meaning that was set by the framers in the 18th century. A rage aria is a type of song, made famous in Italian operas of the 1700s, in which a character sings virtuosically about what is making them angry. In other words: like a Scalia dissent, a rage aria is passionate, brilliant, and grounded in an 18th-century tradition. What better musical style, then, to express his disagreement with the majority of the Supreme Court?

SCALIA:

The Justices are blind!

How can they possibly spout this—?

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!

While the music revels in references to iconic rage arias of yesteryear, the libretto transforms Justice Scalia’s prose into verse. For example, “blind,” a word traditionally applied to a justice of a different sort, happily rhymes later with “enshrined,” a verb Justice Scalia used multiple times in many landmark cases.8 And the phrase “the Constitution says absolutely nothing about” comes from one of his more contentious dissents.9

And Justice Ginsburg’s character sings in a different style, correct?10

Correct—the style is different because her judicial philosophy is different:

GINSBURG:

You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution

To a problem that isn’t so easy to solve—

But the beautiful thing about our Constitution

Is that, like our society, it can evolve.

Therefore, because Justice Ginsburg believes in an evolving Constitution,11 the musical style in this song (her first big solo number) also “evolves”—from coloratura opera to jazz to gospel (cue the organ!).

You clearly have an interdisciplinary understanding of constitutional law—in addition to copyright law, which you teach at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. Were there any aspects of IP law in particular that informed the creation of Scalia/Ginsburg?

It’s perhaps not the most commonly cited statute, but 17 U.S.C. § 105 comes to mind. This section of the Copyright Act of 1976 (as amended) states that “[c]opyright protection . . . is not available for any work of the United States Government.”12 A “work of the United States Government,” in turn, is defined as a “work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”13 Therefore, because U.S. Supreme Court opinions fit this definition, they are in the public domain, which makes them more convenient to use than if they were protected by copyright law.

That said, I was very fortunate that Justices Ginsburg and Scalia graciously gave their blessing to the project and even wrote forewords to the libretto. (On a constitutional law note, Justice Scalia joked that even if he wanted to stop me, he couldn’t—because of the First Amendment.)

Speaking of evolving documents, you updated your libretto to Scalia/Ginsburg after the passing of Justice Scalia, and this revised annotated version will be published in 2020 to mark the five-year anniversary of the opera. Why did you revise the script, and what’s different in this new version?

After the passing of Justice Scalia in 2016, it seemed appropriate to revisit the opera and take more of his life into account, especially through the lens of his strong bond with Justice Ginsburg. In this revised version (performed since 2017), there are three new musical numbers: “Dissent!” (a song about Justice Scalia’s vivid writing style), “Oh, Nino” (in which Justice Ginsburg shares life lessons), and a new finale (the ending of which I won’t spoil here, as it is probably best experienced in live performance). Throughout it all, I aimed to remain true to the theme of Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia’s friendship: “We are different, we are one.”

Justice Ginsburg has mentioned that phrase of yours, and the other lyrics above, in various interviews. There’s even a video of her reciting these lyrics from memory in front of an arena audience of about 15,000!14 How does it feel to be quoted by a Supreme Court justice?

It’s a great honor. I feel fortunate that such a thing should happen; grateful because I would not have written these words without the inspiration of the justices’ own work; and moved that my interpretation of their jurisprudence and friendship is deemed worthy of sharing with the wider world.

And others are sharing it as well: Scalia/Ginsburg has already played to sold-out houses and will receive no fewer than six productions across the country in 2020—an unusually high number for a contemporary opera. What do you think has made Scalia/Ginsburg such a success?

You’re very kind to describe it that way. Although I wouldn’t presume to know the exact reasons that Scalia/Ginsburg has been received as well as it has, I can tell you why I feel as fortunate as I do: When I started writing Scalia/Ginsburg, one of my goals was to create a musical and theatrical experience that, true to its title characters, could bring together people of different backgrounds and viewpoints through opera. Fittingly enough, as I wrote, I found myself expanding my own horizons—composing in a wide variety of operatic styles, empathizing with all the characters regardless of their particular views, and discovering new and fascinating relationships between music and law.

It’s been a particular joy, then, to hear from audiences who in turn are inspired by this opera to expand their own horizons. Whether they are lawyers who now want to learn more about opera, or operagoers who now want to learn more about the Supreme Court, or (perhaps most importantly) audience members who enjoyed the comedy and recognize that we can transcend our political differences, I’m grateful that we all share an interest in learning from Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia’s exemplary friendship.

Now that Scalia/Ginsburg is out in the world, are you at work on any new creative projects? Perhaps a musical drama about the unlikely topic of IP law?

I am indeed working on something new—no official announcements to make just yet, but suffice it to say that I remain bitten by the interdisciplinary bug, and my particular subject does have a connection to IP law. (And, after constitutional law, no topic is too unlikely!) As a composer, advisor, and teacher, I am thankful to have discovered my mission—to unite diverse groups of people, fields of study, and ways of thinking through words and music—and I can’t wait to find out where it leads next.

“We are different, we are one” indeed. Thank you for taking the time to discuss your work.

The pleasure is mine. See you at the opera!

 

For more information about Scalia/Ginsburg and the five-year anniversary edition of its libretto, visit www.derrickwang.com/scalia-ginsburg.

Endnotes

1. Erin Dohony, In Opera We Trust, Broad Street Rev. (Apr. 30, 2019), https://www.broadstreetreview.com/theatermusic/operadelaware-presents-trial-by-jury-and-scalia-ginsburg (reviewing 2019 OperaDelaware production of Scalia/Ginsburg).

2. James Sohre, Glimmerglass Being Judgmental, Opera Today (Aug. 23, 2017), http://www.operatoday.com/content/2017/08/glimmerglass_be.php (reviewing revised 2017 version of Scalia/Ginsburg).

3. Mark Swed, “Scalia/Ginsburg” Opera Underscores How Opposites Can Be in Harmony, L.A. Times (July 13, 2015), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-scalia-ginsburg-notebook-20150713-column.html.

4. Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions, 38 Colum. J.L. & Arts 239 (2015); see also Ruth Bader Ginsburg & Antonin Scalia, Prefaces to Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions, 38 Colum. J.L. & Arts 237 (2015).

5. The Scalia/Ginsburg Opera, in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Own Words 43–55, 341–50 (Mary Hartnett & Wendy W. Williams eds., 2016); The Scalia/Ginsburg Opera, in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Own Words (Simon & Schuster 2016) (narrated by Linda Lavin).

6. See Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, Life of Robert Schumann 56 (A.L. Alger trans., 1871).

7. David Lat, ATL Opera Review: Scalia/Ginsburg, Above L. (July 16, 2015), https://abovethelaw.com/2015/07/atl-opera-review-scaliaginsburg.

8. See United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 567, 597 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting). Contra District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 584–85, 634–36 (2008); McCreary County v. Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U.S. 844, 896–97 (2005) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

9. See Planned Parenthood of Se. Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 980 (1992) (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

10. See Nicholas M. Gallagher, Opera Dicta, Am. Interest (Aug. 6, 2015), https://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/08/06/opera-dicta (“Most importantly of all, Scalia/Ginsburg works as opera. When Scalia came in, his opening aria was Handel-like, but with passages interspersed of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and Christmas music—which is to say, conservative, ordered, and with a regard for patriotism and traditional religion: the perfect (as well as pleasant and accessible) musical evocation of Justice Scalia. When Ginsburg entered, she opened with a more freely-structured aria, with lots of ascending scales, that [referenced] Ella Fitzgerald and swing music: It was race- and class-conscious, self-consciously feminist, aspirational, and attuned to changing times. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with that characterization of her politics or not—that’s how Ginsburg sees herself, so that’s how the music portrays her. And that’s good opera.”).

11. See Lawyers Enjoy a Morning at the Opera with Justice Ginsburg and Solicitor General Verrilli, ABANow (Aug. 4, 2012), http://perma.cc/L3NW-A5X3 (“The founders of our country were great men with a vision. They were held back from realizing their ideas by the times in which they lived. But I think their notion was that society would evolve and the meaning of some of the grand clauses in the Constitution, like due process of law, would grow with society so that the Constitution would always be attuned with the society that law is meant to serve.”); see also Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 276 (1995) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“I see today’s decision as one that allows our precedent to evolve, still to be informed by and responsive to changing conditions.”).

12. 17 U.S.C. § 105.

13. Id. § 101.

14. Justice Ginsburg on the Opera Scalia/Ginsburg, C-SPAN (Sept. 3, 2019), https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4815053/user-clip-justice-ginsburg-opera-scaliaginsburg.

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Derrick Wang is a composer, writer, and thinker unlocking value in unlikely places. He teaches music and law at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University and is founding advisor at Arsapio LLC, a creative consultancy for polymathic growth.