Lawyers Enjoy a Morning at the Opera With Justice Ginsburg and Solicitor General Verrilli
In what may have been a first for a continuing legal education session—at the ABA Annual Meeting or anywhere—lawyers were treated to a morning of live operatic performances interspersed with commentary from legal superstars.
Opera? And the law? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who are opera aficionados, made the connection Aug. 3 during “Arias of Law,” sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation. They were joined by Anthony Freud, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who earned a law degree in his native country from the University of London King’s College.
The trio lived up to the task of demonstrating the event’s subtitle: “The Rule of Law at Work in Opera and the Supreme Court.”
Ginsberg, Verrilli and Freud commented on piano-accompanied vocal performances from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and “Così fan tutte,” Britten’s “Billy Budd,” Gounod’s “Faust,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” and Verdi’s “Aida.” The performers were members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s professional artist-development program.
Moderator Craig Martin, a partner in the Chicago office of Jenner & Block, explained that various operatic works convey broad legal issues including the rule of law, the role of lawyers and judges, the art of persuasion, the importance of performance in a lawyer’s work, public perception of the law and gender equity.
Martin said of Ginsburg, “She may know a lot about the law, but she knows even more about opera.” The high court’s second female justice has made appearances with the Washington National Opera with Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.
After hearing the piece from “The Magic Flute,” Freud explained that opera producers and performers must interpret the composers’ works, since an operatic score alone cannot divulge the composer’s intended meaning. That launched a discussion about legal interpretation generally.
“I consider myself certainly an originalist in this sense,” Ginsburg said. “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.”
The next performance was of “I Accept Their Verdict” from “Billy Budd.” The title character, a virtuous British sailor, was falsely accused of mutiny and then struck out and killed his evil accuser. He was court-martialed and sentenced to death, posing the dilemma of whether justice was served and if alternative remedies were available.
“I sympathize with the captain in that doing your duty in order to maintain fidelity to the rule of law is one that can exact a significant personal toll,” Verrilli said. Ginsberg suggested Budd may have had a fairer trial on British soil rather than an on-ship court martial.
Panelists explored the art of persuasion and the power of contracts in the excerpt from “Faust,” in which the title character, a brooding, aging man, sold his soul to Satan, condemning himself to eternal damnation, in exchange for a brief restoration of his youth.
“I suppose you can think of advocacy, and oral advocacy in particular, as ‘Give them what they think they want so they’ll give you what you need,’” Verrilli said. As for whether the bargain was fair, Freud observed that “Faust gets what he wants and deserves what he gets.”
The performance of “When I Went to the Bar,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” led to a discussion of the art of performance by lawyers and public perception of the legal profession. Freud explained that 19th century English audiences would have understood the satire of the self-righteous Lord Chancellor character, who sang:
Ere I go into court I will read my brief through
(Said I to myself—said I).
And I’ll never take work I’m unable to do
(Said I to myself—said I).
My learned profession I’ll never disgrace
By taking a fee with a grin on my face,
When I haven’t been there to attend to the case
(Said I to myself—said I!).
“Iolanthe” also featured a judicial character whose gold-adorned robe was the model for one that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, an opera fan, wore later in his career before his death in 2005. Ginsburg deadpanned that “people were aghast” when they saw Rehnquist in his new robe for the first time.
“Così fan tutte,” a battle of the sexes of sorts, raised questions about gender equity, an area in which Ginsburg has been a legal pioneer.
“I saw my main role as that of an elementary school teacher” in the gender discrimination cases she argued, Ginsburg recalled. “People understood that racial discrimination was odious,” she said, but the male judges she argued before couldn’t grasp that unequal treatment of women, which was often done in the name of protecting women and “putting them on a pedestal,” was in fact harmful to women.
The program concluded with a performance from “Aida,” whose title character, an Ethiopian princess captured and forced to be a slave, sings about freedom.
Program Materials: Arias of Law: The Rule of Law at Work in Opera and the Supreme Court