Elena Ruehr, a composer who lives part of the year in Wellfleet, has created a new piece titled Notorious RBG, which will be performed virtually by members of the Boston-based Cantata Singers on Saturday, February 6th at 8 p.m. Also on the program are Arnold Schoenberg’s De Profundis and Peter Child’s The Year of the Rat. Watch it at cantatasingers.org.
Notorious RBG, which uses the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as its libretto, consists of four solos by four different singers: Majie Zeller, mezzo-soprano; Kumi Donaghue, soprano; Nancy Kurtz, soprano; and Epp Sonin, soprano.
“It’s very hard to write for solo voices without accompaniment,” says Ruehr, “because accompaniment gives the backdrop, the harmony, the sense of mood. The only example I know of music that is commonly sung without accompaniment is lullabies. Or you think of songs like ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”
Ruehr thought about how these songs function, and then pushed the boundaries to make her composition “a little more modern and expressive.” What it comes down to, she says, are “melodic fragments that are understandable” and as short as three notes, which can be strung together like pearls in a necklace.
Ruehr chose the Ginsburg quotes for their brevity and pithiness. The justice was a huge opera fan, and even appeared in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, performed by the Washington National Opera. This is alluded to in a line in the last movement: “If I had any talent in the world, any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva.”
While the other movements suggest a blues or folk element, this last movement is full of trills, almost “as though Mozart has landed in the room,” says Ruehr.
—Saskia Maxwell Keller