Acclaimed composer-soprano Patrice Michaels will perform songs from her album Notorious RBG in Song, inspired by her mother-in-law, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a dramatic concert May 19 at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
Michaels will bring to stage music and stories exploring the life and work of her mother-in-law, who has become a pop-culture icon known as Notorious RBG, a wry nod to fellow Brooklynite, rapper Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G.
Michaels, who also is Director of Vocal Studies in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago, will be joined by her collaborative pianist Kuang-Hao Huang and their guests, soprano Michelle Areyzaga, tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Evan Bravos. The 14-song CD, which was released last year, was produced by Michaels’ husband and Ginsburg’s son James Ginsburg, who also is the founder of Cedille Records. Performance of the songs will be accompanied by video projections and narration to tell the story of Ginsburg and her impact on the legal system. The songs are based off written tributes from her former clerks, a fictional letter from her mother, and famous poems and letters describing Ginsburg.
Recently, The Chicago Ambassador’s M. Campbell interviewed Patrice Michaels to understand the development of the 14 song project and the dramatic concert dedicated to Justice Ginsburg…
CA) How long have you performed in jazz and classical concerts? What is your musical background?
MICHAELS) I have been an active musician for 45 years. I got my start in Southern California where jazz was my first love. Once I found that I had particular abilities as a classical singer and as a composer, I decided on singing. Recently I’ve been able to add composing back in, which has been so satisfying to be able to do both at the same time for this production.
CA) Where did you graduate from?
MICHAELS) Pomona College in Claremont, California. Then the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I also completed a non-degree-granting certificate program at the Banff Centre, sponsored by the provincial government of Alberta. This allowed me to study, perform, and create music with people from all over the world. When it was time to come back to the States, I said I would come back to the city that offered me a job first. The Lyric Opera of Chicago offered me an understudy role in a Richard Strauss opera Arabella. Then I was fortunate to be invited to sing with the Music of The Baroque, where I sang both as a chorister and as soloist. My regional and national career developed from there.
CA) Have you ever produced a show so personal?
MICHAELS) Well no, I didn’t intend on creating a live show when I first started this little journey. It began simply when I was invited by my sister-in-law and husband to write one song in honor of my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. Two other female composers were invited to do the same, and we were each handed a text from some part of her life. The text I received was a written tribute by one of the women who typed a lot of RBG’s legal briefs early in her career as a litigator. Anita was a Spanish immigrant who was working in the typing pool at a New York Law firm that employed RBG’s husband, Marty. At the time, RBG was working at an institution that offered her no secretarial help, so her husband cleverly supported her by bringing the briefs to Anita. As Anita is typing material on “sex-based discrimination,” she imagined the woman who had written this material to be a loud, aggressive, masculine-appearing woman. She got quite a surprise when she finally met the little woman with a soft-spoken voice, wearing a green dashiki. Anita went home to Spain on holiday with her husband shortly thereafter, and found herself inadvertently expressing a new feminist outlook when she was introduced to the assembled guests by her husband as “mi mujer.” She exclaimed, “I’m not your woman, I’m called Anita L’Oise Ramos de Escudero.” The 80-year-old grandmother responded with a hearty “Viva America!” It’s a charming story that is both beautiful and descriptive of RBG, and of the effect that she has on others. Songs by Vivian Fung and Stacy Garrop were also presented to RBG for her 80th birthday and of course, I sang them. Through several months of preparation, I began to think that there must be a way to pull together more texts to do a full character study of her and her effect on people. RBG gave me permission to go through her documents at the Library of Congress and offered the help of her official biographers, who have been wonderful resources and inspiring women themselves. From there, I was writing a new song cycle about RBG.
CA) What were the challenges of writing this piece?
MICHAELS) The biggest challenge for me was making sure that getting so personal about her life would both bring joy to Justice Ginsburg and be true to her story. If you look at images of RBG in public, when she’s not wearing her robe, she’s often wearing a circular pin on her lapel that belonged to her mother, Celia. RBG is literally always carrying the memory of her mother, and is reminded of the primary intellect and values that have made RBG who she is today. Celia passed away a day before RBG graduated high school and the family was unable to retain any of her documents or letters. I had to include a work that focused on Celia, so I conceived the idea of Celia writing a letter addressed to her daughter the summer before she died. This structure allowed me to express the kinds of things a mother would say to her daughter in a letter at that juncture in their lives. It also allowed me to share with the listeners some of the pain Celia was experiencing from cancer and some of the concerns she had for her one surviving daughter. There’s a lot of family drama expressed in Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949. This is the second piece in the 9-song cycle and it helps provide a very clear foundation for what we learn about RBG later in life.
CA) What does the structure of the performance look like?
MICHAELS) Notorious RBG in Song is a 75-minute, no-intermission performance including spoken narration, songs (for our May performance at Spertus Institute, soprano Michelle Areyzaga, tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Evan Bravos will join me), live video projections created by Los Angeles designer Yee Eun Nam, accompanied at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang. The dissenting opinions will be sung in four-part harmony, reminiscent of a Greek chorus. There are jazz-inflected pieces, music-theater-influenced pieces, and straight-up contemporary classical art song.
CA) Could you mention one of the coolest, funniest, or most inspirational moments you selected for this cycle?
MICHAELS) Yes, it’s actually all the adjectives you used. My husband James Ginsburg was reputed as being a naughty young boy. He had trouble sitting still and focusing unless there was music. He attended The Dalton School in New York, where inside there was an elevator that was still operated by a person. The only currently functioning elevator I know to resemble this is actually in Chicago’s Fine Arts building, at 410 S. Michigan. Well, one day the elevator was left unattended and one of Jame’s friends dared him to get in the elevator and run it. He only went up one floor when the janitor caught him and brought him to the headmaster of the school, where they called “Mrs. Ginsburg” to come to the school and discipline him. On this particular day, Columbia Professor Ginsburg had been preparing a brief that she was to argue in front of the Supreme Court. She was awake most of the night, and not happy that phone calls always came to her and never to her husband. She replied ‘This child has two parents. Starting now, you will alternate these calls between us equally.’ When her husband sped down to the school he was greeted with the headmaster saying, ‘Mr. Ginsburg, we are so sorry to disrupt your busy schedule, but your son stole the elevator.’ Marty, who had a wicked sense of humor asked, “Well, just how far could he take it?” These two acts defused the power of the headmaster and the phone calls to the Ginsburg parents became much less frequent and equal between them, even though James’ naughtiness did not stop. That was a fun piece to write because of the imagery of the characters, the setting, the punchline, and the whole notion that RBG once against struck another blow for feminism just by being herself.
CA) Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been essential in the history of institutionally change against gender discrimination, and is seen as an inspiration for the feminist social movement. What is the underlying message you’re trying to deliver – particularly for the youth in the audience?
MICHAELS) Well, as it turns out, the nine songs that I wrote plus the five songs that are in the live show provide a broad history of the 20th-century, through the actions and experiences of one woman. The music includes a classic piece by Lee Hoiby writen to part of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. (The poem by Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”) That poem, of course, I’ve known for some time, long before my life with the Ginsburg family. By good coincidence, RBG grew up near Staten Island so I asked her, ‘As a kid were you influenced by the Statue of Liberty being so close to your home?’ She replied, ‘Of course.’ That was all I needed to add this section to the variety of pieces that described someone who grew up in an immigrant family in the early 20th century. There’s another composer named John Musto who wrote a fantastic set of songs on the poems of Langston Hughes called Shadow of the Blues, and there is a poem in his cycle that, to me, is the more modern reflection of the same sentiments that Emma Lazarus was dealing with, but from a very different angle. So I interpolate this piece at the end of the performance, creating an arc both in the ideals of the 20th century and in the reality, which often falls so far short. For a young person to come to the show and not know much about the history of feminism or the history of this particularly important public figure, I think the show serves both purposes in a concrete way that storytelling through music does so beautifully.
CA) How is this music adding to the impact of social movements?
MICHAELS) Well so far, hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t send me an email stating, ‘I’m a masters degree student at X University and I would like to include your songs on my final recital’ or; ‘I’m an undergraduate at such and such University and I would like to include these songs in my exam material’ and that’s just a very unexpected thrill. The idea is that these students are going to use these songs as a part of the building blocks for their own careers, and they consider it to be necessary repertoire in their own artistic lives.
CA) Was Justice Ginsburg involved in the creative process at all? Any idea as to what she thought of this?
MICHAELS) She made some tweaks with language, making sure it sounded right especially with the second piece about Celia. I actually gave her two versions of The Elevator Thief because that story had only been passed on by oral tradition, so we had fun discussing the possibilities there. I chose five of her dissenting opinions to highlight along with a direct quote from an interview. She has often invited me to perform one or more of the songs accompanying her public speaking. What a thrill!
CA) In the conclusion of the show, Justice Ginsburg’s son and Cedille Records founder James Ginsburg will participate in the post-show discussion. What will be discussed?
MICHAELS) We will take questions from the audience, so I can’t wait to hear what they’re curious about. Everything from the music to the Justice herself, I hope!
CA) What are your upcoming projects?
MICHAELS) I’ve just finished a choral piece for the Serenade! Choral Festival which is being conducted by Doreen Rao at the Kennedy Center in July. Serenade! is an international festival happens every summer and Doreen nominated me to compose the final work for this year’s festival. I chose to write on the concept of refuge. I’m now in the research phase of creating an opera about Tokyo Rose. My particular subject is a Japanese American woman from Chicago that got stuck in Tokyo during WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It will be the story about her and the other women that broadcast propaganda in the the Pacific Theatre during WWII.
CA: Is there anyone else you would like to mention to dedicate this article or the pieces from your music to?
MICHAELS) Yes, there is one more person I must mention — composer Lori Laitman. Lori’s piece actually starts the whole show with a beautiful scoring of the Emily Dickinson poem, Wider Than The Sky. It describes RBG precisely. I’m so thrilled that Lori is represented in the show and that I have the privilege of performing her work.