The Rapidian

Art in the Time of COVID-19: Scalia/Ginsburg at Opera Grand Rapids

For Opera Grand Rapids, the show must go on. Online! What was it like to watch this on my computer, as my dog lay curled up against my feet?

/David Parkins / Opera Grand Rapids

Late last week, the dominoes began to fall. To help prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus - or at least to slow its spread - local organizations began canceling events, the symphony and ballet among them. In an act of inspiration that must have required a lot of last-minute work, Opera Grand Rapids decided that the show must go on; or, as they put it, the show must go online. It was announced that Scalia/Ginsburg would not be open to the public and would instead be streamed.


At 7:30 PM Saturday, March 14th, the video went live. Emilee Syrewicze, the company's Executive Director, gave a brief introduction, after which composer/librettist Derrick Wang spoke. He set the stage for the show, explaining that it was a tribute to the strong friendship of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which survived their sharp ideological differences and thrived on, among other things, a shared love of opera. 

Memories of badly-recorded high school productions gnawed at me, but the first shot was promising. It featured a nicely-lit stage flanked on either end by portraits of the justices themselves. Peter Scott Drackley, as Scalia, steps onto the stage. Drackley's physically right for the part: dark-haired, large, with an imposing charisma. In rich, resonant tones, he bemoans decisions rooted in extraconstitutional arguments and praises the founders. Sometimes this is to very familiar melodies; I wasn't expecting strains of "The First Noel," but I grinned widely hearing them.

Jennifer Zetlan is similarly right for the part of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With dark glasses and pulled-back hair, and a certain elfin energy, she could easily be RBG in her younger years. It's a great jolt to hear her clear, lovely singing lavished on lines like, "I was adding some squats to my workout regime."

The conceit of the show is that Scalia is himself being judged, judged by a commentator. The commentator has sealed the entrances and exits to prevent disruption by any man; but Ginsburg is not any man, and besides, she's smashed through ceilings before. Each Justice is allowed time to air their views, which I expected. I hadn't expected them to dance together.

Throughout, Wang's lyrics are clever, elegant, and effective. His tongue is sometimes in his cheek, but not always. The real Antonin Scalia has died since the opera was first written; the new ending has actual pathos. "We live and serve and then we're gone," Scalia sings, leaving his friend to the work that remains.

What was it like to watch this on my computer, as my dog lay curled up against my feet? It wasn't the same as being there. But the recording was professional; the camera was neither static nor aggressively in motion, and it allowed for an experience that otherwise would not have occurred, at least not without risks to life and limb. I'll see you in person in May, God willing, for Turandot

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