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A portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in song

Bienen School of Music lecturer and opera singer honors her mother-in-law’s life and legacy

Few justices on the U.S. Supreme Court had a fan base like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite her petite stature, she stood tall as a powerful, strong and resilient woman, especially in the final months and days before her death in September 2020. Ginsburg would have celebrated her 88th birthday on March 15. 

Her historic tenure on the nation’s highest court is well documented. She fought tirelessly for women’s rights and equality. The cases on which she either offered a majority or dissenting opinion will be analyzed and scrutinized for centuries.  

Thanks to the gift of song and music, we also have a glimpse into the personal side of the justice who was known simply as RBG. Bienen School of Music lecturer and soprano-composer Patrice Michaels immortalized and humanized her mother-in-law in the song cycle “The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs.”

The documentary will launch Monday, March 15, at 9 a.m. CDT on the Bienen School’s Davee Media Library website.

“‘The Long View’ was a miraculous, but natural, outgrowth of a wonderful idea that my husband [Jim Ginsburg] and his sister had for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday,” Michaels said. “They wanted to commission three songs by three women composers: Vivian Fung, Stacy Garrop and me.”

RBG gave her blessing and approval of the entire song cycle, which is comprised of actual events and letters and also draws on the imagination of Michaels.

Her story so clearly illustrates what we aspire to as a nation.

Patrice Michaels, Bienen School of Music

“I did have the resources of the Library of Congress. I wasn’t sure how much gold I would find there, but I really did find the arc of her life as a first-generation American with a mother who had come [to America] as a small child, a father who was an immigrant, not high levels of education, but great ambition and great appreciation for the values of this republic,” Michaels said.

Last November, after Ginsburg’s death, Michaels performed “My Dearest Ruth” from the song cycle in an online tribute concert, “Live at Carnegie Hall: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

“The process of singing Marty Ginsburg’s last letter to his wife when he was dying of cancer and reflecting on how proud he was of her was very hard to sing,” Michaels said as she recalled the first few times she performed the song. “I really had to work as a professional to bring the emotion to the audience without bringing it to myself. And I would say it took me at least six months of practice before I could confidently perform that piece without welling up at some point.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michaels had been regularly performing “The Long View.” 

“My hope is that this show will be seen in classrooms all over the country, all over the world, just to give the joy of the experience of his one human who made such a huge difference. Her story so clearly illustrates what we aspire to as a nation.” 

A recording of the nine-song cycle appears on “Notorious RBG in Song,” an album released in 2018 by Cedille, the Chicago-based recording label owned by Michaels’ husband, Jim Ginsburg.

“The Point of a Day in the Life of Notorious RBG”

Patrice Michaels wrote in the album’s liner notes a first-person essay (below), which documents a moment in time when she witnessed the magic and marvel of her famed mother-in-law.

As usual, it’s a day with many stops on her itinerary, but, as always, only one focal point. When I say goodbye to her in the morning, she’s headed to conference with her colleagues on the bench, discussing a dozen or so cases, some deeply consequential; most, less profound. I can guess, based on past observation, that afterward she will have myriad documents to review, many to revise, interruptions to discuss the details of imminent trips hither and yon on which she serves as a representative of the United States judicial system, and heaven knows what else — possibly presiding over a civil marriage ceremony for two of her former clerks or two opera divas.

I arrive at the building by late afternoon and get through security in time to slip into a seat in the East Conference Room, where she is receiving a humanitarian award. Today those who wish to honor her happen to be from an organization that provides support to women and children in the Middle East. It’s sheer delight to feel the electricity in the room; to hear the beautifully crafted explanation of the mission of this organization and its relationship to the work of the honorable Justice; and afterward, to see her milling amongst the dozens of other bubbies — kindred sisters. She seems to float buoyantly in the sea of tiny, elderly, smiling women, just for a little while. Then she’s back to Chambers, answering scheduling questions again, returning a call, looking over another brief brought in by a law clerk who enters silently, smiling shyly, eyes for RBG alone. She checks the point of concern, sends the clerk off with an additional issue to research, makes more corrections, finds the food brought back from the reception uninteresting but a fresh cup of coffee welcome, looks at yet another brief.

Her son (my husband) arrives to join me on the comfortable couch as most of the staff are taking leave for the evening. We three exchange a few moments of light chatter before the gravitational pull of her work resumes. Time passes. “Mother, shall we go?” “Just let me look at this case for next week. It will be a challenge.” Minutes of intense silence ensue, then an eruption of muttering, a flurry of writing, and one more interchange with the last remaining assistant. “Alright, I think we can finish for now.”

But she lingers, tilts her head a bit as she scans her mental list and carefully chooses “just a few more things for tonight” to bring with her. And then her delicate hands return to the desk, where she collects and methodically sharpens a sheaf of No. 2 pencils. She places those rejuvenated pencils deliberately, somehow enthusiastically, on her desk, takes a full breath, stretches her diminutive frame upright, wraps a silk scarf around her head, and collects her bag. Ready. Considerate. Laser-focused on “doing the best I can, every day.” 

There will always be another important case coming up­­­: one that will significantly affect individuals and groups of people. Justice Ginsburg may witness the ramifications of that next case within her lifetime, but perhaps only later will her contribution affect the discourse of a future Court, for a future society. She always keeps her pencils sharp ...

- By Patrice Michaels

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