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Letters to an Icon: Sharing a Piece of DSM with Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

October 6, 2020

When the first letter arrived in January 2016, I was in disbelief. After all, it was a long shot that she would ever respond to that package I sent her. She must receive thousands of letters each week, I assumed. There was the business of the court, speaking engagements and legions of fans. Invitations from opera companies all over the world probably came every day. Even though I understand how unique Des Moines Metro Opera is, could my words, programs and photographs ever convey that to a Supreme Court Justice? RBG EnvelopeWould it ever actually make its way into her hands? Would she even read it, let alone take time out of a busy schedule to respond to me?

And yet there it was, this envelope in the stack of mail. A small, 4X6 embossed cream-colored envelope that said in fancy black letters “Supreme Court of the United States.” In a panic, I suddenly wondered if I had remembered to pay that parking fine and could that have worked its way up to the Supreme Court? And then I turned it over. On the back, “Chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” I remembered my letter. “Well, probably a form letter that is always sent in response to anyone who sends a letter,” I told myself, preemptively dampening my own expectations. Then I opened it. The letter was the same color as the envelope, also embossed, but folded in half. Stately. It was dated January 20, 2016, about two weeks after mine. Prompt. She actually used my name. Impressive. She looked forward to watching a performance DVD I had sent and used its title. Detailed. And she had actually signed it herself! Yes! My invitation to attend Billy Budd in the summer of 2017 was noted, though not likely due to the Court’s June and July schedule. Darn. Yet something I had sent caught her attention, and the paragraph-long letter she sent clearly opened a door. I was thrilled and wrote a second letter back to her immediately.

A Historic Correspondence

That was the first of 10 letters I received over the next four years until her passing on September 18, 2020. I went through the same range of emotions each time that familiar envelope would arrive. If I sent a letter or package, I could expect a response within a few weeks. Each letter was concise, but focused on a few details from a program I had sent or a comment on an opera we were presenting. My letters to her included every possible enticement to Iowa I could find words to offer. Maybe overly enthusiastic and somewhat impetuous. I didn’t care. Once I even included a letterbox copy of Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd with illustrations. I knew it was among her favorite operas, and she held the book in high regard. In response, she sent me a script of a lecture she had given called “Justice at the Opera.” I took that as a sign that she liked me, appreciated my letters and was intrigued by the work we were doing. When she sent me her home address just last month, I almost fainted. “Is that allowed?” I wondered. In the performing arts, we are accustomed to constantly making a case for ourselves and our value proposition. It gives me satisfaction that one of the greatest seers of the unseen saw us here at Des Moines Metro Opera and felt that we deserved a thoughtful response. She shared my belief in the power of sung stories to build bridges. She knew that great works of art could speak to a modern world. And she was my pen pal.

Our correspondence picked up this summer with the Iowa PBS streamed performances as part of our Virtual Festival. She was able to enjoy Bon Appetit about Julia Child from Summer 2019 and hoped to “retrieve” Billy Budd from YouTube. Most of her letters were printed but two were entirely handwritten. The last one was dated August 27, 2020, just a few weeks before her passing. Its final line says “With appreciation, and every good wish to you and all supporters of Des Moines Opera.” I felt a sense of finality when I read that line but I brushed past that thought and continued watching the mailbox for the next letter after she had finally watched Billy Budd. Unfortunately, my initial feeling was right. It was the last one. So instead of an eleventh letter, I will now choose to think she watched the RBG Letterperformance in her final weeks and that it brought her respite and happiness.

Most of the letters were signed with her full name. But the last three she signed using only her initials “RBG.” I wonder if there was any meaning or intention behind using her famous initials only as we wrote more often? I stare at each signature and compare one to the other. Mostly they are all similar but each one with its own unique pen strokes. I stare at her famous initials, written in her own hand. I loved the way she made her G’s.

Michael Egel

Michael Egel is general and artistic director of Des Moines Metro Opera.