'Scalia/Ginsburg'

Logan Webber, left, as Justice Scalia, in rehearsal with Suzanne Karpov as Justice Ginsburg and Ethan Greene as the Commentator. (Dylan Singleton / February 12, 2014)

 You've read about their clashing views in all of those 5-4 Supreme Court decisions. Now hear them sing their arguments.

"Scalia/Ginsburg," a comic opera by Baltimore native and recent law school grad Derrick Wang, imagines Justice Antonin Scalia having to get through three ordeals -- shades of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" -- with the help of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the summer of 2013, excerpts from the work-in-progress were performed at the Supreme Court for Scalia and Ginsburg, two longtime friends and opera fans who gave the project a thumbs up.

"It was such a great honor," Wang says. "I had just finished law school and taken the bar, and there I was at the Supreme Court in this beautiful room with red carpets, grand piano, big windows and paintings. The justices were there with their clerks. They probably know more about opera than I do, and they were as nice as could be."

Since that courtly preview, Wang has completed the score, which will receive its first full reading Monday night at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center. It will be performed by members of the Maryland Opera Studio with piano accompaniment (no sets or costumes).

The roughly hour-long "Scalia/Ginsburg" owes a debt to great operas of the past.

"Legal decisions are full of quotations from previous decisions, but they derive something new," says Wang, 29, who got his law degree from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in Baltimore. "The opera is full of quotations and paraphrases of other operas, but ends up being something new. The libretto is very footnoted."

A good deal of Wang's score involves pastiche. One number, for example, combines references to arias by Mozart and Verdi.

"That's called a mash-up now," Wang says. "It used to be called counterpoint. There's also a trio in three different languages with quotations from two different operas."

As for the text, the composer found plenty of material in the tone and content of statement by Scalia and Ginsburg made during oral arguments at the Supreme Court and opinions delivered afterward.

In the opera, Scalia is heard to complain about his colleagues on the bench: "How can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this." To Ginsburg (and to the tune of the national anthem), he sings: "Oh, Ruth, can you read? You're aware of the text, yet so proudly you've failed to derive its true meaning."

Ginsburg makes one of her rebuttals to a melody from Bizet's "Carmen," telling Scalia: "You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution to a problem that isn't so easy to solve. But the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that, like our society, it can evolve."

In addition to the two justices, there is one more character in the opera, called the Commentator. Given that he's a statue-come-to-life, any similarity to the animated statue of the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni" is entirely probable.

"In essence, Justice Ginsburg comes to save Justice Scalia when the stern statue makes him justify his life or be condemned to the maw of hell," says Nick Olcott, interim director of Maryland Opera Studio.   

One way for Scalia to save himself is to agree with Ginsburg on a question of constitutional law.

"There's a hopeful anthem in the opera about how people and continue to argue and fight about the Constitution, but it continues to make us strong and hold us together," Olcott says.  

Olcott approached Wang back in the fall about presenting a reading of the completed opera.

"It got a lot of press after the preview at the Supreme Court," he said. "I was intrigued. The idea of the opera is so clever, and it's a wonderful chance for our students to work with a living composer."

Wang is still working on the final orchestration for the opera. Meanwhile, he has included a solo for horn,  because Scalia used to play that instrument. "And Ginsburg used to play cello, so there's a cello cadenza," the composer says.

Growing up in Baltimore, Wang attended the Gilman School and also studied piano at Peabody Preparatory. He went on to earn a degree in music at Harvard University and a master's in composition at Yale before studying law. 

Wang has not decided yet if his future will be primarily in law or music. "Scalia/Ginsburg" has been "a wonderful way to combine both," he says.

As for a full-fledged, staged premiere of the opera, there are no firm plans yet.

"I'm open to discussions with organizations, legal or musical," he says.

The reading of "Scalia/Ginsburg" will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall at the Clarice Smith Center. Admission is free.