The curtain rose on Act 2 of "The Daughter of the Regiment," revealing the figure of a tiny woman barely visible in a large dome chair with her back to the audience. Suddenly, she swiveled around — and there was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Cheers and prolonged applause rang out from the crowd at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night even before Ginsburg, a life-long opera lover who was making her official operatic debut, opened her mouth to speak as the imperious Duchess of Krakenthorp.
Her character, a non-singing role in Donizetti's frothy 1840 comedy, had come to find out whether the title character, Marie, was worthy of marrying her nephew.
Looking frail but determined and wearing an elegant acid green silk dress, the 83-year-old justice read from a crib sheet a series of qualifications that sounded very much like requirements for high political or judicial office. Her deadpan delivery was boosted by a microphone, though laughter from the audience occasionally drowned her out.
"The best of the house of Krakenthorp have open but not empty minds. The best are willing to listen and learn. No surprise, then, that the most valorous Krakenthorpians have been women."
—"Applicants seeking a station so exalted must have the fortitude to undergo strict scrutiny. Their character must be beyond reproach."
Her biggest laugh came when — in apparent reference to the bogus "birther" campaign against President Obama — she asked whether Marie could produce a birth certificate and added: "We must take precautions against fraudulent pretenders."
Ginsburg herself wrote her dialogue, in collaboration with Kelley Rourke, dramaturg for the Washington National Opera, which is presenting a new production of the opera.
In the original version of "La Fille du Regiment," as it is known in French, the duchess has little dialogue, but the role is often taken by comedians or aging singers who improvise their own lines.
Francesca Zambello, the WNO's artistic director, had asked Ginsburg to appear in all eight performances, but she declined to do more than opening night, citing her "day job. Actress Cindy Gold takes over for the remainder of the run.
It wasn't Ginsburg's first time on an opera stage. She had appeared three other times dating back to 1994 but always as a non-speaking supernumerary.
This time her presence added a unique luster to a performance that would have been memorable even without her, thanks to world-class singing by the cast, led by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Marie and tenor Lawrence Brownlee as her sweetheart, Tonio.
After Ginsburg's first scene she was escorted off stage, while many in the house gave her a standing ovation. But she was back again near the end, this time brought in by a servant in a white powdered wig of the type worn by British judges. Hearing that Marie has decided to marry Tonio instead of the duke, she exclaimed, "Quel scandale!" and retreated to a chair, fanning herself vigorously until the curtain fell.
And she would appear one final time, led on during the curtain calls by Brownlee. Then, leaning on him for a bit of support, one of the most influential and revered women in American life smiled and curtsied three times to the audience.