Opera singer recalls Supreme role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meeting justice

Mary Beth Nelson as Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Mary Beth Nelson, a 2010 Marble Falls High School graduate, played U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the opera 'Scalia/Ginsburg' when Nelson was in her second year at The Glimmerglass Festival. Photo courtesy of The Glimmerglass Festival 2017/Karli Cadel

Those who know 2010 Marble Falls High School graduate Mary Beth Nelson aren’t surprised by her achievements as a mezzo-soprano in professional opera. 

Her high school choir director, Bryce Gage, noted Nelson’s three qualities for success in the entertainment industry: talent, determination, and beauty.

Those attributes could have been what landed Nelson the role of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg.” The Derrick Wang opera is based on the opinions of Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia, both now dead; Scalia in 2016 and Ginsburg on Sept. 18, 2020. The two justices shared a love of the opera and were great friends, even though the liberal Ginsburg and the conservative Scalia differed on their interpretations of the Constitution.

Nelson had met Ginsburg a couple of times when the Supreme Court justice attended performances of “Scalia/Ginsburg.”  

The first was in 2017, when Nelson was in her second year working at the Glimmerglass Festival at Otsego Lake in New York. 

“It’s somewhat of a prestigious job for young artists,” Nelson said. “It’s a top-tier opera company. If you want to be an opera singer, it’s good to be there. I was lucky in 2016 to get that opportunity. I auditioned again for my second year and ended up getting the main stage role. 

“I was a young artist, and they gave me a role on the main stage singing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” she added. “At the time, I didn’t know much about her and the impact she had in law and in policy until I started learning and researching about her.”

Ginsburg was at Glimmerglass on opening night, Aug. 4, 2017, and the justice was introduced to the performers before they took the stage. 

Nelson said meeting Ginsburg was “totally thrilling.”

“She walked up to me very slowly,” Nelson recalled. “She looked me up and down. I had the ponytail, glasses, and a cute suit. She looked me up and down very slowly. I thought, ‘I hope she likes what I’m wearing.’ I think she nodded. I said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ I had no idea I would ever get to meet her or she was coming.”

Mary Beth Nelson and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Opera singer Mary Beth Nelson, a 2010 Marble Falls High School 2010 graduate, with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after Nelson played the ‘Notorious RBG’ in the opera ‘Scalia/Ginsburg.’ Courtesy photo

After the performance, Nelson was able to spend more time with Ginsburg. 

“I thought, ‘What do I talk about with a Supreme Court justice?’” Nelson recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, you did so wonderfully. I loved the aria you sang.’”

An aria is a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without instrumental accompaniment, normally part of a larger work.  

The next time Nelson met Ginsburg was when the singer traveled to Washington, D.C., for a performance of “Scalia/Ginsburg.” Again, Ginsburg was in the audience.

The more Nelson learned about Ginsburg, the more she appreciated the justice’s impact on the country. Ginsburg served on the high court from 1993 up until her death.

“She fought for women’s rights and equal rights,” the Marble Falls graduate said. “She speaks very slowly and with thought with each word. She absorbed everything. She had so much intelligence behind those glasses. I knew she was the biggest fan and supporter of opera, specifically young artists. She doesn’t crave the spotlight, it finds her. I remember spending that time with her and how beautiful she was.”

Nelson has lived in New York City for two years. She was working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which is shut down because of COVID-19. She has since found work as a vocal instructor and offers virtual lessons. 

Nelson’s quick rise in opera is somewhat unprecedented. After high school, she attended Oklahoma City University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and then turned pro. Choir teacher Gage said it’s virtually unheard of for an opera singer to find immediate success with only a bachelor’s degree, but that simply illustrates that Nelson has “it.”

Nelson moved with her family, including parents Suzanne and Chris Nelson, to Marble Falls in 2009 from Orange County, California.

“That was the best place to be,” she said. “The people in Marble Falls are the best people in the world.”   

Nelson is currently available for vocal lessons. Email her at marybethnelsonmezzo@gmail.com for more information. 

jfierro@thepicayune.com

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