I owe my introduction to opera to a man ahead of the times, a conductor named Dean Dixon. A child prodigy, he read notes at age three, well before he could read words. At age nine, he made his radio debut as a violinist. Dixon graduated from Juilliard in 1936. There, he studied violin and took up conducting. Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in music education from Columbia University. Among Dixon’s endeavors, he sought to enrich children’s lives, as his had been enriched, by early exposure to beautiful music and to opera. He organized, rehearsed and conducted youth orchestra performances. On Saturday afternoons, he toured New York City high schools presenting operas designed for children’s appreciation. The settings were bare, but singers were costumed and principal vocal parts were performed. Dixon conducted and narrated the omitted portions so that operas could be contained within an hour’s span.
In 1944, at age 11, I had the great good fortune to attend one of Dean Dixon’s productions in the company of an aunt who taught English at a Brooklyn junior high school. The opera was La Gioconda, not the most likely choice for a first opera, but for me, it was an overwhelming experience. High drama conveyed through glorious music — I was spellbound.
Dean Dixon left the United States for Europe five years after that enchanting afternoon. An African-American, he was no more welcome in his native land as a conductor of major orchestras than African-Americans were accepted as players in Major League Baseball or on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera. His career flourished abroad, where, for the first time, he was called “Maestro.” Dixon returned to the United States 21 years later to a changed climate. He was engaged as guest conductor with leading orchestras across the country, from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony.
When my daughter, Jane, was born, opera LPs were often played in our home. It was time for her first opera, I thought, when she was four. I took her to an Amato Opera condensed presentation of Il trovatore. Midway through Leonora’s first aria, Jane rose to her full height and screamed at the top of her lungs. I ushered her out swiftly, understanding that I had rushed things a bit. I waited four more years.
When Jane was eight, my husband and I carefully selected as her next exposure Così fan tutte at the old Met, sung in Ruth and Thomas Martin’s English translation. In preparation, we played the recording again and again, and read the libretto together at least three times. Jane loved Despina and memorized her words. Our seats were in the first row of the Family Circle so that no heads would obstruct Jane’s view. She wore proper opera attire: a black velvet jumper made for the occasion and patent leather Mary Janes. This time, I got it right!
No need for special planning when son James arrived. He was born with a passion for music. A lively child, he found it hard to sit still in school. But at The Little Orchestra Society concerts at Hunter College, and later, at the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts, his attention never wandered. In his high school years, he was a super at Washington National Opera, and he is today married to a captivating soprano, Patrice Michaels. His enterprise is Cedille Records, producer of exquisite CDs, among them Menotti’s The Medium and Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, both performed by Chicago Opera Theater.
When the Court breaks for the summer, we enjoy opera en famille at our regular July and August venues — The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, and the spectacularly situated Santa Fe Opera.
In our capital city, I attend every production of Washington National Opera and, when I have done my homework ahead of time, WNO’s dress rehearsals. I also attend the two productions Washington Concert Opera mounts each season. In the vicinity, I enjoy Wolf Trap Opera and the Castleton Festival.
Twice each term, the Court holds musicales, which I arrange with the aid of Washington Performing Arts Executive Director Emeritus Douglas H. Wheeler. Thanks to talent scout nonpareil Barry Tucker, who heads the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, the Court’s fall musicales present the world’s best voices. And I look forward to the staging, this summer, of Derrick Wang’s marvelously amusing comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.