Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was such a devoted fan of the Washington National Opera that before Covid-19 hit, the company had planned its season opener at the Kennedy Center as a gift to her. The opera they would’ve performed, beginning in October, was Fidelio—the story of an activist political prisoner whose wife disguises herself as a man to save him.
“I think it was her favorite opera,” says Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the WNO, and a personal friend of Ginsburg. “She loved these pieces where heroines did amazing things.”
Ginsburg was a fixture at the Kennedy Center opera house for every dress rehearsal, every opening night, and many closing nights. The justice would always make time to talk with the performers backstage about their roles, and the art form. “It’s not just that she loved it. She was really an aficionado,” says Zambello. “Many of the people she’d be talking to are superstars, and they would always just be almost speechless in front of her, because they revered her so much.”
Other audience members were awestruck, too. Particularly in recent years, as Justice Ginsburg transformed into a pop-culture icon, she was often greeted with a standing ovation as she made her way to her seat. She also appeared on the WNO stage, playing the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in The Daughter of the Regiment in 2016.
As a new generation came to view her as the Notorious RBG, Zambello says Ginsburg helped cultivate legions of young opera fans. For the past nine years, Ginsburg had appeared as a special guest at an opera festival that Zambello leads in Cooperstown, New York. “We would have so many kids show up dressed as her,” she says. “She was truly one of our best spokespeople.”
Ginsburg’s son, a classical music producer, called Zambello on Friday to inform her of his mother’s passing. “I didn’t know it was this imminent,” says Zambello. “She just sent me a birthday card a week ago.” She says the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera are planning a “large-scale celebration concert” to honor Ginsburg at some point in the future. They’re also looking into more immediate ways to celebrate her life.
“So many musicians and singers want to do something,” says Zambello. “I cannot tell you the amount of email I have received from people who are begging, ‘What can we do?’ ”