Notorious RBG in Song

Soprano/composer Patrice Michaels with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Glimmerglass in 2016

First there was the epithet, "Notorious RBG," which NYC law student Shana Knizhnik coined in 2013 (in a sly riff on the name of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's fellow Brooklynite and rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.) as the name of her Tumblr site. Then came Derrick Wang's, Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera based on the odd-bedfellows friendship of two SCOTUS justices and opera lovers from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. During the same time period that the opera received performances at the Supreme Court, Castleton Festival, and, in 2016, the Glimmerglass Festival, came Irin Carmon and Knizhnik's book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This year has already brought the next two artistic steps in the process of honoring the 85-year old Supreme Court justice: the documentary RBG and, from Cedille Records, Notorious RBG in Song. The recording, which is currently on sale at and available in 24/96 from HDTracks, has as its centerpiece The Long View, a song cycle by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's daughter-in-law, soprano Patrice Michaels.

Michaels, who joins pianist Kuang-Hao Huang for this world-premiere recording, fills out the cycle with performances of RBG-dedicated songs by Lori Laitman, Vivian Fung, and Stacy Garrop. The recording closes with a >5-minute excerpt from Wang's opera. James Ginsburg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's son, produced the recording, which was recorded by Bill Maylone in the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

Without question, those who have seen RBG or admire Ginsburg's fervent dedication to racial, social, and sexual equality will want this recording. To them, the fact that Michaels' moderately attractive voice, at least at this stage of her career, grows somewhat thin and wobbly higher in her range will matter little. Nor will they spend much time dwelling on the facts that many of Michaels' settings add little to the power, poignancy, and humor of her texts, and that the engineering grants more resonance to the piano than to Michaels' voice. Instead, they will savor the soprano's marvelous diction, which remains clear high into the range; her perfect trill and high coloratura in the excerpt from Wong's parody aria; and her total dedication, respect and love for her husband's mother.

The texts themselves, some of which are by Michaels, are superb. We begin with an excerpt from a 1943 letter by Justice William O. Douglas that extends the search for his ideal law clerk to women, and end with text by Ginsburg herself. Along the way are eloquent excerpts from five of Ginsburg's dissenting opinions, and other texts by her mother, father and lawyer husband. Musical highlights include the fabulous 6th song, with its extended piano postlude, and the hilarious 7th song about RBG's prankster brother's escapades in third grade. As she honors the arc of her mother-in-law's life, Michaels excels in the humorous songs.

The other musical contributions to Notorious RBG in Song are unqualified successes. Laitman's lovely "Wider than the Sky," which was performed at RBG's 80th birthday celebration, sets a marvelous poem by Emily Dickinson. Both song and poem are gifts to savor for the long haul. Fung's "Pot Roast a la RBG" is simply fabulous, and also sets Michaels cooking higher into her range.

Garrop's setting of the letter that Martin (Marty) Ginsburg wrote to his wife, Ruth, as he was approaching death is deeply moving, and brought tears to my ears. The antidote arrives with Wang's operatic parody, whose opening borrow the melody from the seductive "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen. Michaels launches into it with relish, and leaves us longing for more.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Notorious" ......... by Duran Duran :-) .................

ken mac's picture

For your typically excellent reporting, Jason! Herb and I were singing your praises over Chinese pastries in the bunker just yesterday. Salute!