Antonin Scalia: A Night at the Opera, a Day on an Airplane

Justice Scalia appeared this month on “Mad About Music,” a Sunday night feature on WQXR, New York City’s classical music station. He and host Gilbert Kaplan talked about the roots of Scalia’s love of music and his opera favorites (among them Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo and Cecilia Bartoli).

The program was delightful, and comments from listeners on the “Mad About Music” web-site were interesting in their own way. Many people enjoyed the conversation, but a few chastised the station for giving Scalia a forum. Someone named Evan wrote: “I just turned off WQXR and not sure I want to listen again in the near future. How could WQXR present a platform to such a vile man?”

Catching up on the show reminded me of many Scalia classical-music moments, including:
1994 – when he first appeared as an “extra” at the Washington National Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Joined on stage by fellow opera lover Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia wore eighteenth-century costume — knee breeches, stockings and white powdered wig.
2008 – when at a Federalist Society conference, he was asked for his favorite opera and couldn’t stop at one. He began with Stauss’s comic Der Rosenkavalier, then Pucci’s tragic Madama Butterfly, then Verdi’s popular La Traviata. He then added, to the amusement of his conservative audience, “I like country music, too.”
2009 – when Scalia and Ginsburg again took bit parts in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and an actress (not Ginsburg!) plunked down on Scalia’s lap. The moment was captured by a photograph that ran in the Washington Post. Scalia explained to Kaplan, “At one point a perky little participant in the opera — crazy opera that the nobleman has produced — comes and sits upon my lap. … I didn’t consider it my, you know, most notable theatrical performance. It didn’t take much talent. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Scalia had told me about the early voice training of his father (a tenor) and appreciation for lyrics. He had told me of his own early piano-playing (Flight of the Bumble Bee was a favorite) and how he grew to enjoy singing chorale music. Host Kaplan drew out much more about his classical tastes and at one point asked whether “someone who is sensitive to classical music and opera might make … a better justice? Scalia answered no. When Kaplan asked about the newer justices’ music interests, Scalia said he wasn’t sure but then answered, “(Samuel) Alito is Italian; he must love music. How could he not?”

And one question gave way to a vivid image: 

“Are you an iPod type?”
Scalia said he, in fact, has an iPod: “When I go on airplanes and, you know, I have a chatty pair of adolescents behind me driving me nuts, I just put on my earphones and turn on some Baroque music that enables me to survive.”