Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg traded in her robes for an acid green silk dress Saturday, taking the stage as the imperious Duchess of Krakenthorp at the Washington National Opera.
Applause rang out from the crowd as the curtain rose on Act 2 of “The Daughter of the Regiment,” revealing the justice in a large dome chair center-stage. A long-time opera lover, Ginsburg played the role of an austere woman who was trying to find out whether Marie – the title character — was a suitable match for her nephew.
She played a non-singing role and performed with deadpan delivery. “Applicants seeking a station so exalted must have the fortitude to undergo strict scrutiny. Their character must be beyond reproach,” she said solemnly to a crowd of thousands.
Her lines were nearly drowned out with laughter, especially when she asked whether Marie could produce a birth certificate — an apparent reference to the “birther” campaign previously launched against President Barack Obama. “We must take precautions against fraudulent pretenders,” Ginsburg warned.
Ginsburg wrote her own dialogue in collaboration with Kelley Rourke, dramaturg for the Washington National Opera. In the original version, the Duchess actually has little dialogue, although the part is usually played by comedians or aging singers who improvise their lines on the spot.
This is the first time Ginsburg has played a speaking role on an opera stage. She has appeared three other times in various operas since 1994, but always as a non-speaking supernumerary.
Although Ginsburg was asked to appear in all eight of the performances for “The Daughter of the Regiment” throughout its run time, she declined to do more than opening night due to her “day job.”
Still, Ginsburg kicked off the performance with her witty lines and spot-on delivery. Towards the end of the show, the justice made her way back on stage in a white powdered wig. Upon learning that Marie had decided to marry Tonio instead of the duke, she cried “Quel scandale!” and fell back into a chair, rigorously fanning herself until the curtain fell.
During the curtain calls, she curtsied daintily to roaring applause.
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