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Is There A Lawyer In The (Opera) House?

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opera fan.
AFP/Getty Images
Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opera fan.

Opera: the stuff of passion, fury, sorrow and ... disquisitions on jurisprudence?

Maybe, if a panel discussion at the just-finished annual meeting of the American Bar Association is to be believed. Called "Arias of Law: The Rule of Law at Work in Opera and the Supreme Court," the session, which was created and moderated by Craig Martin of Jenner & Block LLP, featured U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Anthony Freud, general director of Chicago's Lyric Opera; and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.

You can read the entire "brief" from this ABA session held in Chicago, which sought to explore "the rule of law from the perspectives of both operatic performance and legal practice." (An observation from this session, made in less high-flown terms: "It has sometimes been said that lawyers are like opera singers because they love the sound of their own voices.")

During the discussion, students from the Lyric's fellowship program sang six illustrative excerpts from the opera and operetta repertoires. Each was meant to outline a particular principle — some more direct than others. "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" from Mozart's Magic Flute was chosen because the aria can "be seen as articulating a notion that lies at the heart of the rule of law: that instead of resorting to personal vendettas or acting on the desire for revenge, judgments should be based on reason and principle."

Also on the docket was "Tutti accusan le donne," from Mozart's battle-of-the-sexes opera Così fan tutte, this one chosen to highlight "gender equality and the rule of law." "Ritorna vincitor!" from Verdi's Aida was chosen to highlight another larger principle: freedom and the rule of law. "Me Voici" from Gounod's Faust was a rhetorically fuzzier pick; it's the aria in which the devil persuades Faust to sell his soul. The panel's reasoning: "What might judges and lawyers learn about the art of persuasion from opera?"

The panel also discussed arias from two stage works with plots that revolve around court cases: "I Accept Their Verdict" from Britten's Billy Budd and "When I Went to the Bar" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury. (Fun fact: The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Willliam H. Rehnquist was such an avid G&S fan that the gold stripes on his robe were reportedly inspired by the Lord Chancellor's costume used in a local theater company's summer production of Iolanthe.)

Come to think of it, there are actually many operas that feature lawyerly activity. The first act of Janacek's Makropulos Case revolves around a contested will, as does the plot of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi; Robert Ward's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Crucible (based on Arthur Miller's play) takes place during the Salem witch trials, while Britten's Peter Grimes revolves around a different kind of witch hunt.

Inspired by this ABA session, we're asking you to approach the bench and tell us: Which other opera characters would have benefited from some legal aid? Let us know in the comments section.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.