The chandeliers were on the verge of rattling in the Supreme Court's East Conference Room on Thursday as the powerful voices of tenor Lawrence Brownlee and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves rang out during the Court's annual musicale.
The late justice Harry Blackmun started the tradition of a springtime musical interlude at the Court in 1988 -- it was every other year the first few times -- and then Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and now Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have become the impresaria for the unique event. Musical stars including Bobby Short, Michael Feinstein, Marian McPartland, and Leonard Slatkin, as well as some of the best operatic names, have played the coveted gig. Thursday marked Graves' second appearance at the Court, and Brownlee's debut. Betty Bullock was at the piano.
Ginsburg, a longtime opera buff who, by legend, sometimes reads briefs by flashlight while at the theater, was in her glory emceeing the event. She introduced Graves as "my cherished friend," and praised Brownlee's performances. Four other current justices, by our count, joined Ginsburg in attending: Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito Jr. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was also on hand. Dozens of other guests of the Court filled the wood-paneled conference room.
Roberts closed out the event by thanking Ginsburg and praising the singers for holding the attention even of the "non-cognoscenti" in the room. Roberts then noted the imminent anniversary -- it's today, actually -- of the Court's first decision relating to opera: Benson v. McMahon, decided May 14, 1888. It involved a fraud committed against Adelina Patti, labeled in the opinion as "the wonderful songstress," and described elsewhere as the preeminent opera diva of her time.
A con man had printed up fake tickets to a forthcoming Patti concert in Mexico City, defrauding customers out of $30,000. The issue was whether the common law definition of forgery included printed fakery, or was limited to handwritten items. The Court ruled in favor of the broader definition.
Thursday's event was sponsored by a group called Friends of Music at the Supreme Court, chaired by Douglas Wheeler, with assistance from the Supreme Court Historical Society and the Washington Performing Arts Society.