On June 27, 2013, composer (and former student of constitutional law) Derrick Wang, accompanied by a small group of musicians and singers, came before the justices of the United States Supreme Court. The subject of the “case” was not a towering issue of social injustice but a brief sampling of an opera by Wang based on the polarizing decisions and unlikely friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.
Described by its composer as “an opera of precedent,” Scalia/Ginsburg received its premiere in 2015 at the Castleton Festival in Virginia, followed by a revised production at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2017. Since then, the one-act work has been staged many times but never in Los Angeles. That changed Nov. 17–26, when Pacific Opera Project paired Wang’s opera with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.
The performances took place at the century-old Highland Park Ebell Club, which is less a theater than a multipurpose room with a stage at one end. The POP “orchestra” (string quartet, bass, and percussion) was bunched in a corner and conducted by Caleb Yanez Glickman.
It was Wang’s research into constitutional law that led him to the series of judicial opinions labeled “Scalia, J., Dissenting.” As the composer describes it, every time he read one of Scalia’s fiery dissenting opinions, it reminded him of a Baroque “rage aria” about the Constitution.
From that starting point, Wang stitched together an operatic smorgasbord of “precedents” that skillfully combines a dictionary worth of familiar quotations.
For his setting, Wang chose the trials chamber from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, where Scalia (like Tamino) is made to face the music for his deeds. His inquisitor is the Commendatore (from Don Giovanni), with Ginsberg for the defense.
The result is a wonderous little gem of an opera that incorporates satire worthy of Monty Python while at the same time making a supreme case for judicial flexibility of mind and the necessity of mutual understanding.
As the opera opens, Scalia (tenor William Grundler) is raging in a paroxysm of Baroque ornamentation. His much-repeated refrain is that the Constitution must be interpreted literally. “There is nothing in the Constitution that specifically says that!” he rants.
His storm subsides with the entrance of the Commentator (bass Paul Chwe MinChul An), in the guise of the statue of the Commendatore. Garbed in a toga, he condemns Scalia for his rigidity and is about to condemn him to everlasting darkness when, with a flurry of coloratura fireworks and in black robe and filigreed collar, Ginsburg (soprano Rachel Policar) enters.
What follows is an immensely clever reflection on social movements and era-defining court decisions like Bush v Gore.
While Grundler blustered convincingly and An manifested a good deal of basso profundity, it was Policar who stole the show on Nov. 25 with her mixture of bravura, charm, and big-hearted humanism.
Would that the musical forces had been better equipped to provide the accompaniment. The strings were not properly tuned, and there were times when their playing was so off key it could have curdled milk. Pitted against that, how Policar managed to remain pitch-perfect was a divine mystery.
As the driving directorial force behind POP, Josh Shaw has consistently proved himself a master of cleverness, to the point that it has become the company’s signature. POP is also the only company in L.A. to champion the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Shaw is also a confident wordsmith, freely substituting his updated lyrics for Gilbert’s.
No surprise, then, that Shaw plays fast and loose with his staging of Trial by Jury. As explained in the program notes, the action is set in 1985 Hollywood, where, “after five very public years of wedded bliss, super celebrities Edwin and Angelina find themselves in divorce court” and a media circus convenes around the trial of the decade.
It’s all madcap antics, harmoniously buoyant and farcically funny, if musically undernourished.
Grundler appeared again, this time as the lecherous old judge, who, in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s first patter songs, describes his approach to jurisprudence as marrying his way to the bench.
The role of the impudent cad husband charged with breech of contract was sung with ample sleaze by tenor Todd Strange, with Policar returning in much more flamboyant couture as his jilted wife, Angelina.
POP has managed to skillfully carve out a niche for itself somewhere between the grand scale of Los Angeles Opera and the adventurous programing of Long Beach Opera. This was a highly entertaining production.