Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s DMMO Connection

“Billy Budd” was one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favorite operas. Photo: Ben Easter.

Writer: Christine Riccelli

We at dsm are mourning the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; like so many people, we admired her for her keen intellect, bold actions, and unwavering devotion to equality and justice. This past weekend, we discovered yet another reason to appreciate her: She not only was an opera buff, but she took a strong interest in our very own Des Moines Metro Opera.

It started back in 2015 when Michael Egel, DMMO’s general and artistic director, heard her speak at an Opera America conference in Washington, D.C. Upon learning one of her favorite operas was “Billy Budd”—which DMMO was planning to present in 2017—”I thought, ‘I’m going to invite her and make a case for why she should come to Des Moines’ ” to see the production, Egel recalls.

So Egel sent her DVDs of past DMMO performances along with a detailed letter about the company, “laying out our credentials and why anyone should take an opera company in Iowa seriously. I didn’t know what to expect.”

He received a response within two weeks. When he saw the return address on the envelope, he says, “I about passed out. It took my breath away.”

While Ginsburg was unable to attend the performance of “Billy Budd,” she kept up a correspondence—sometimes consisting of handwritten notes—with Egel until just a few weeks before her death. “She wanted to receive our programs every year, and she clearly read them, as she would send back thoughtful letters that commented on the [productions] and the singers that she knew,” Egel says.

For instance, commenting on DMMO’s 2019 season, the justice wrote that she “couldn’t imagine anyone better suited to portraying Julia Child than Joyce Castle. And glad to see … Timothy Bruno in the [La] Boheme cast as Colline.”

Ginsburg sent Egel four letters just this summer in response to DMMO’s virtual season. When Egel learned she was trying to retrieve DMMO’s production of “Billy Budd” on YouTube, he sent her the DVD of the performance. On Aug. 27, Ginsburg wrote that she was looking forward to seeing it and expressed her appreciation for DMMO.

Egel doesn’t know if she ever viewed the DVD, but “I choose to imagine that she saw it and that it might’ve given her some respite” in those final weeks, he says.

“I felt like she was a private pen pal in a sense,” he adds, “and that now I’ll have this collection of letters to always treasure.”

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