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RBG virtual tribute concert a Chicago family, friends affair

Celebrated soprano Reneé Fleming, special projects adviser to Lyric Opera of Chicago, and soprano Patrice Michaels, Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law who teaches voice at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, will be among the four principal artists.

Patrice Michaels performs “Notorious RBG in Song.”
Patrice Michaels performs “Notorious RBG in Song.”
Larry Sandez

When Carnegie Hall pays tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a star-studded online concert Thursday evening, Chicago connections will be abundant.

Celebrated soprano Reneé Fleming, special projects adviser to Lyric Opera of Chicago, and soprano Patrice Michaels, Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law who teaches voice at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, will be among the four principal artists. The latter will perform “My Dearest Ruth,” an art song Chicago composer Stacy Garrop wrote for Ginsburg’s 80th birthday.

Thursday’s commemoration, titled “Live with Carnegie Hall: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” will take place about two months after the death of the popular justice, who joined the Supreme Court in 1993.

Heeding coronavirus restrictions, the four singers and seven family members and friends will appear from different parts of the United States. Michaels and her pianist Kuang-Hao Huang recently taped their contribution to the festivities in Northwestern’s Galvin Recital Hall.

“It’s a really nice gesture,” Garrop said of the Carnegie concert, “that the organization realizes the importance of RBG and what she brought to the country. And to take the music that’s been important to the Ginsburg family and make sure this music is getting highlighted is really wonderful.”

Ginsburg’s two children, Jane and James, founder of the Chicago-based classical recording label Cedille Records, decided to commission three women composers to write works for the justice’s 80th birthday party at the Supreme Court in 2013.

Chicago composer Stacy Garrop’s “My Dearest Ruth” will be performed Thursday night in an online concert tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Chicago composer Stacy Garrop’s “My Dearest Ruth” will be performed Thursday night in an online concert tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Darrell Hoemann Photography

In the summer of 2012, James Ginsburg approached Garrop about setting to music a letter that Justice Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, wrote to her at the end of his life. “I love being able to take the human voice and have that tell the story,” Garrop said.

The resulting piece, “My Dearest Ruth,” gained visibility when Michaels included it as part of her 75-minute show “Notorious RBG in Song,” which the soprano has performed solo and with other singers all over the United States and recorded on the Cedille label.

Then, in 2018, National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg did a feature on that compact disc and included a recording of Ginsburg reading sections of her husband’s letter alongside Garrop’s music. When the justice died, many people linked to that segment on social media and the views of the composer’s website exploded.

“Of all the things that a composing career can do, you have no idea where your music is going to end up and how people might see a use for it,” Garrop said. “And to hear her speaking the text with my music under it was probably the highlight of my whole career right there.”

Garrop met Ginsburg several times, and the composer always found such encounters intimidating. “I never knew quite what to say,” Garrop said. “You thank her, but everybody thanks her for what she has done for this country.”

Soprano Patrice Michaels will be among the star-studded lineup Thursday night for an online concert tribute to her mother-in-law, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Chicago soprano Patrice Michaels will be among the star-studded lineup Thursday night for an online concert tribute to her mother-in-law, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Havenly Ltd

Their first meeting came at a Cedille Records function a year or so after “In Eleanor’s Words,” a 2011 release of a recording of three Garrop works, and the justice asked some insightful questions about the music’s conception. “So, I was really impressed by that,” the composer said.

After an earlier encounter, Michaels got to know Ginsburg in 2002, when the justice asked her to participate in a musicale with pianist John Browning (his final performance) that she organized at the Supreme Court, a continuation of a tradition started by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The singer married Ginsburg’s son eight years later.

Michaels is also a composer, and her show, “Notorious RBG in Song,” includes “THE LONG VIEW: A Portrait of RBG in Nine Songs,” a cycle she wrote that is increasingly being performed by other singers as well. “All the time we spent together with me learning about her and her family in order for me to be able to compose a song cycle about her was perhaps the most privileged experience that I would never have expected when I first got together with my husband,” Michaels said.

Ginsburg was so open to the project that she suggested Michaels do research for it at the Library of Congress. “I’ll give you access to my papers, and we’ll see what you find,” the soprano recalls Ginsburg saying. “So, 64 boxes later, I had quite a lot of material.”

An enthusiastic and knowledgeable opera fan, the justice attended productions as often as she could at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Indeed, its proximity was one of the key reasons she and her husband chose to live at the Watergate, a complex just steps away.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago in 2019 for a conversation event with Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ginsburg was friends with Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director, and she toured the Lyric Opera House with him during one of her visits to Chicago. But she was never able to attend a performance, because its season conflicted with her work schedule at the Supreme Court.

The justice and her husband did make a point of attending summer opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Cooperstown, New York, an annual tradition she continued after her husband’s death, inviting her children to join her. “It was wonderful,” Michaels said, “to be able to accompany her to both of those festivals.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.