I entered the party on eagles’ wings. A noted Constitutional originalist had received the ultimate justice that awaits us all. But a disapproving look from my more judicious friend Haley quickly brought me back to earth. After all, who am I to enjoy the demise of another? Or presume to know the man behind the robe?

Nixon at the piano

Nixon at the piano, 1962. (Wikimedia)

I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Justice Antonin Scalia was an opera fan. Nixon loved to play the piano. He even wrote a “piano concerto,” which you can hear him play—a woodpecker’s rendition of a jackdaw tune—on The Tonight Show. And would you expect anything less of the chief executive? Would he drain his ichor with Soft Summer Airs or Night Echoes? And what’s more natural for a judge like Scalia than the crime, comedy, punishment, tragedy, lunacy, slapstick of opera?

I wanted to know which operas Scalia enjoyed:

  • He told Charlie Rose—after some dodging—that his favorite was Der Rosenkavalier.
  • He told the New York Times: “I loved Gianni Schicchi, and I still love it.”
  • At a Federalist Society conference, he named Madama Butterfly and La traviata.
  • In 1994, Scalia appeared as an extra, in period costume, in a production of Ariadne auf Naxos at Washington Opera. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also onstage.)
  • Scalia had a nice tenor, and in his first job at Jones, Day, Cockley & Reavis liked to sing arias and show tunes at parties, although colleagues said he wasn’t much of a piano player.

Everyone is talking about how Scalia’s departure will change the election. But how it will change opera? It already has. I see that Derek Wang has composed a one-act, Scalia/Ginsburg, which premiered at the Castleton Festival last year. I’m generally opposed to current events-operas on principle, but I like this idea. Trapping the Justice in comic amber makes his judicial legacy a little easier for this lazy liberal to recollect.

Is there a parallel between the U. S. Constitution and a musical score? Why would we insist on the faithful interpretation of a score, but want our governing document to reflect current mores? Why do we go to great lengths to reproduce musical instruments that are centuries out-of-date? Are musical values more enduring than social or political values?—a frightening thought! A score is an artifact, not an organism. It encodes textures and sonorities characteristic of certain technologies of a certain time and place. It’s something you master in order to interpret. When I find fingerings in the passage work of Brahms, I am retracing the master’s hands, but finding ways for my fingers to do the same work. How happy I was to hear Senator Amy Klobuchar say on NPR on Wednesday:

“We use the Constitution as our guide, and we use history to interpret it.”

photo of Amy Klobuchar

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) Minnesota

Is that not what we do as musicians: use the score as our guide, informed by performance practice, technology updates, current practice and not least, our unique limitations? Then we do the best we can.

From this exercise, I’ve learned something about separating the man from the job. So I resolve to loosen up and enjoy the party. The next-appointed Justice may pump rap music in camera, nurse an addiction to Candy Crush Saga, even lack an appendix. None of which will impair his or her performance as a Justice—except maybe the Candy Crush part.