No other US Supreme Court justice has done more for the advancement of women’s rights than the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a tribute to this powerful force in the history of feminism and social justice, her daughter-in-law, Patrice Michaels created a song cycle called Notorious RBG, in collaboration with the pianist, Kuang-Hao Huang. Patrice is an accomplished performer and composer well-known for the beauty of her musical compositions, which is rivaled only by the beauty of her voice. Having the influence of RBG and the opportunity to discuss American history with her has informed Patrice’s writing for the rest of her life. In this conversation with Elizabeth Bachman, Patrice shares her views on art and leadership and the pearls of wisdom that she treasures from her memorable moments with RBG.
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Art, Leadership And RBG With Patrice Michaels
This is the show where we interview experts from around the world about how to use presentation skills to become visible and valued and the many challenges that we need to overcome as a presenter, presentation skills, communication, and the strategy that belongs to that. I am also a former opera director. This particular episode is the end of my first year of Speakers Who Get Results. Over the course of a year, I’ve interviewed many experts about business leadership and the various aspects of that.
I also did a special series called The Relationship Between Business And Art where I interviewed opera singers, opera directors, conductors, and other people who are involved in the performing arts talking about the business of it. I’m excited because I get to interview a wonderful friend who I’ve known for many years about a composer’s point of view and about justice. Patrice Michaels is the daughter-in-law of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s an accomplished performer and composer who’s well-known for the beauty of her musical compositions, the beauty of her voice, and the various things that she’s done.
She combines these in a song cycle about the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s done a couple of song cycles about the Notorious RBG. For the international readers who aren’t familiar with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was the late Supreme Court justice who made such a difference in women’s rights and arguing women’s rights. Pearls were one of her trademarks, so I’m wearing my pearl earrings for this. Patrice Michaels is the perfect person to interview for my end of the year, end of the season episode to talk about art, leadership, and our spiritual second guest, the Notorious RBG. Patrice Michaels, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Elizabeth Bachman.
I am happy to have you here. We’ve known each other for a long time back and forth. You were on my list to interview for The Relationship Between Business & Art, and then something came up with Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has been a big part of your life and a big part of your composing life. This would be a perfect summation for the end of the first year of the show, where we talk about business, art, and the art of presenting. Patrice, you do all of that together. I’m delighted to have you with us.
It’s always a pleasure to talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my mother-in-law. She’s an amazing person.
Also, to talk about you. One of the things that I asked all my guests is who would be their dream interview? Although Justice Ginsburg is a second guest on this show. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to interview her?
My husband teases me because as it’s turned out, due to my choice to write a song cycle about her, the work that I had to do interviewing her to understand the family has led me down some interesting rabbit holes in American history, in the family history, and in my own relationship with feminism and public life. I know she would be a lot of people’s dream interviewee and I felt like I had a lucky opportunity to be able to ask her things that as a regular daughter-in-law, I might not have felt bold enough to do, honestly. This is a good time to do our first show and tell.
The product of a lot of our time spent talking about her life and her ideas is in this song cycle, nine songs, of course. The title was obvious to me because she always took the long view. She always strategized to imagine what the ultimate best good could be. Winning the war, not the battles, but wanting to win the battles, too. The artwork, by the way, is by the wonderful Constance P. Beaty. Kim Beaty is her official portrait artist and it’s one of the preliminary sketches that she allowed me to use for that. Thank you to Kim who would also be a fabulous person to interview on this series.
The place I’d like to start reflecting on what I was able to ask her has mostly to do with her mother. She often would credit her mother in public as being the most important influence on her and being the most intelligent person that she had met in her life. She’s wishing so much that her mother would have been in circumstances that would have allowed her to achieve what she could have achieved. The little gold circlet that you often see in images of her, which is prominently displayed in the movie, On the Basis of Sex.
That is a replica that they made for the movie, which surprised me that they went to that level of detail. That’s fantastic. That was Celia’s, her mother’s, and one of the few things that RBG owned of her mother’s. There were no documents remaining, no letters, and no family writings through a series of unfortunate circumstances. I was fortunate to interview her biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams when I began the process of putting materials together and learned a bit about Celia’s background, and began to understand a few things about her.
The idea that she named Ruth, Joan, and the older daughter who passed away sadly of meningitis, Marilyn, those were surprising names to me. Joan and Marilyn sound glamorous names to me from that period in the late ‘20s to early ‘30s. Of course, Ruth was then renamed by her big sister, Marilyn, Kiki because she kicked. She was constantly in motion. There are close people to this day that will refer to RBG as Kiki. Ruth stuck and she preferred Ruth, which of course, you can’t spell truth without Ruth. There are many lovely echoes of Celia in all of this.
I wanted to try to understand who RBG saw when she saw her mother. Having to learn about the passing of Marilyn from an ear infection that got out of control in those days.
This work ethic thing, we’re not surprised by that. Of all the things I have appreciated about my mother-in-law, the number one thing is her desire to work on behalf of something worth working for. That’s truly noble. That’s maybe the reason why the public outpouring of love for her. This tiny little buggy package stuck in this surprising little package, but full of nobility. That’s why people respond to her so much because that is her fundamental value.
Let’s talk a little bit about you because that’s one of the things that I’m interested in you. One of the things I know that you shared with RBG is your commitment to social justice. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you, and you’ve been on my wish list, is because of a composer. We haven’t had somebody who creates a creative spirit. You mentioned once something about going from various different worlds and feeling like an outsider. A lot of people do feel like outsiders. Can you expand on that a little bit?
It’s been a great advantage for me as a creator or as a performer to have to struggle with my identity constantly. I’m sure it goes all the way back to my own family upbringing because I frankly grew up in an Orange County, California-style Republican household. Although I wasn’t quite old enough to participate in the activities of the ‘60s, I was somewhat aware of what was going on. I love that my family instilled in me also a sense that you should strive for justice. We ended up believing in different ideas of what is just. I was fortunate also to be the first in my family to graduate from college. Although my brother did eventually get an undergrad degree. I’m the one who stayed in academia, and I’m the one who is able to pull together my work life with my social vision.
I feel fortunate in that I can write and sing about things that are meaningful. You can do that by singing about flowers because flowers are absolutely meaningful. I love those times that I’ve been able to do that. As a composer, having the influence of RBG and the opportunity to discuss American history with her will inform the rest of my writing life. No question about it. The next thing I’m going to talk about is one of my published works. As we know, we had a big anniversary that was somewhat eclipsed by unfortunate events in our country, but the Nineteenth Amendment ratification was not appreciated by a lot of people. There’s a beautiful exhibit, which will be permanent at the National Constitution Center.
For our international readers, the Nineteenth Amendment was the amendment that allowed women the vote. 2020 was the 100th anniversary of this. RESOLVED is a song cycle.
I wish you could see the image of Trixie Friganza who is resplendent in her giant hat, big hair, beautiful stole draped across her shoulders, and a banner that says, “Woman Suffrage,” because, at the time, it was women’s suffrage. She is dressed in her coat standing on the stairs ready to go out and march. I have fortunately been asked to write about this. This material was presented at the National Constitution Center and filmed with J’Nai Bridges singing the wonderful mezzo.
J’nai Bridges was the first interview in The Relationship Between Business And Art series. She is the leadoff interview in that series that premiered earlier in 2020.
She is a wonderful person and a fabulous singer. We were fortunate to have NBC donate its considerable resources to videoing the cycle, so you can see it online. Learning about RBG’s relationship thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who are usually the first two names that come to mind with the Nineteenth Amendment, that’s a nice jumping-off point. As I’ve done my own research and created the narrative that I look for in the cycle, I find that a good example of maybe the second thing that I would say that I most appreciate having learned from RBG. That is with each age or era come certain opportunities and privileges that the previous generation may not have. Famously and regularly, we hear the quote of RBG that, “One should lead in such a manner that encourages others to follow.”
That is one of the quotes that I use all the time because so much of my work is about helping women who have a seat at the table and still aren’t being listened to. If you stand up and shout and say, “Damn it, listen to me. I have something to say,” people reject it and people will back off. I use that quote all the time. Don’t just sit back and take it. Do fight for what you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you. That is one of the themes that I come back to over and over again. How do you walk that tightrope?
What exactly is the right way to do that? Another famous thing that you will often hear her say in interviews is an example of a strategy for achieving that goal. She adored her mother-in-law whom I never met. Nana in the family has a lot of lore. I regret that I never met her. On the wedding day of Ruth and Martin Ginsburg, Martin’s mother came to Ruth and said, “This is what I want you to have. This is a present for you. I want you to know that in a good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little bit deaf.” She handed her daughter-in-law-to-be a pair of earplugs.
I have struggled mightily with this model that has been presented by my mother-in-law all these years. It is absolutely essential that she was a little bit deaf to many of the slings and arrows that she has received. By being able to let them bounce off of her, she was able to secure her spot amongst people who didn’t want her there, and I fully appreciate her for that. I understand that was a strategy that worked for her.
Strategy is the key.
My question is, as the next generation down, “Do I still have to use that strategy?” In this song cycle, I decided that I was going to push that envelope a little bit because as I was reading about the history of the Nineteenth Amendment and the way it came about, it’s a dirty mess of sausage making, getting anything like this done. It took 80 years to get this done. It’s interesting that many states had already allowed women to vote as a means of getting women to come to their states, Wyoming, for instance.
The role that black women played in making this happen has been grossly underrepresented in the typical history narrative. I made sure that the center of this cycle revolves around three suffragists. Sojourner Truth, who would be the only name that most people would know. Although she’s not always associated with suffragism. Mary Church Terrell, who was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Ida B. Wells, is a great hero for those of us who live in Chicago and a brilliant strategist. Maybe not as deaf, even in her generation, as RBG sometimes would choose to strategize. Maybe a little edgier.
Let me ask you a little bit about the arc of a story. How do you get from beginning to end? Those of us who work in opera think about this all the time, but the composers had to figure that out. It certainly is something that happens when you’re doing a presentation. You have to think about the arc of the presentation and where do you want to get to. As a composer, how do you think about shaping the arc of a song? That is a presentation as much as keynote speeches.
It depends on what the song is. In the case of Celia, the song about RBG’s mother, there were no documents available. There was only lore, so I had to figure out some way to tell her story and make sure that she occupied a place in the song cycle that was substantive and grounding. I thought, “I could get a lot of information if I made Celia write a letter to Kiki,” because Kiki went off to summer camp every summer. The year that Celia was dying of urine cancer, she would have known that she was dying while Kiki was away at camp.
That’s a structure that allows me to both have Celia talk directly to Kiki and pull out and reflect herself in her mind on what she’s thinking and feeling. Creating a structure was fun and challenging, and maybe the scariest thing I ever did with my mother-in-law. What kind of nerve is that for anyone to come along and think they can write a letter that sounds like her mother? I was anxious about it. I was fortunate also to have the support of Daniel Stiepleman, who was the screenwriter for On the Basis of Sex. Daniel is RBG’s nephew, so it’s an in-law thing.
I said, “Daniel, will you please take a look at this before I share it with her? Tell me what you think.” That was extremely helpful and it gave me a little more courage. By the time she saw it, she had little to tweak. In fact, and this is hilarious, one of the few things she said was Celia, her mother, had marched in the New York marches for Women’s Suffrage. At the end of the letter, I have her reflecting, “Where is my strength? Why do I feel so weak now? When I marched as a suffragette, I felt strong.” When RBG read that, she said, “It’s not suffragette. It’s suffragist.” It was lovely.
Another thing I want to ask you about leadership, which has been a theme through all these interviews that I’ve been having. The leadership of putting yourself out there and standing up and saying, “I have something to say.” Clearly, there are all documentation about RBG and what she did. Standing out as a performer is one thing and standing out as a composer is another. Assuming the leadership and saying, “I have a right to be heard.”
This is a good time to be talking about that directly, especially for Americans in regard to the Black Lives Matter movement. J’Nai and I have had many substantive conversations about this. I wrote this Nineteenth Amendment cycle specifically for her voice. I loved that I was able to make the focal point of the narrative, three black women. The next person who has sung this is a young mezzo of Lebanese American Heritage at Boston University in their young artist’s program. Immediately, the production team was concerned about whether a non-black woman had a right to sing the words of black women.
This has been a shocking development for me to see that my students at Northwestern who are in their early twenties are anxious and concerned about, whether they have a right to express things that are not from their own ethnicity and social understanding. I’m coming to peace with it, but I am of the opinion that we should all be trying to understand each other’s truths and standing up for each other’s truths. I want to be able to speak the words of Mohandas Gandhi. I want to be able to speak the words of Biko wherever in the world and whoever it is.
If it’s a value that I have, I’m genuinely expressing their words and my beliefs. That is a concern for the younger people that they would be co-opting or appropriating material if they’re of the white majority. These people at Boston solved this by reworking my piece. I haven’t seen their final project yet. I can’t wait. They had one black woman in their program who spoke some of the text and sang some of the text of the black suffragists.
Everyone on their team is comfortable with how they worked it out, and I can’t wait to see what they did. When they were struggling with it, they called me and I had to say, “As soon as a piece leaves my pen or it’s published, it’s out of my control.” I understand that it’s going to be changing and morphing. People are going to have their own perspectives on it and I might like it and I might not, but I don’t have any control over it. That’s an interesting position to be in.
That makes you think about adding your interpretation to someone else’s words. Having your words quoted and interpreted by other people is interesting, what’s in the public domain and what isn’t?
Our perspective changes so much. RBG was dealing with this every time she had a case to look at that had to do with the actual constitution and the actual authors of the constitution. Those who are so-called originalists are always looking for what the founding fathers meant. If we lived in a world where that was possible to achieve, I would not like that world at all. I would not have a vote and I would be surrounded by enslaved people. We all build on each other’s meaning, whether we want to or not, generation to generation.
Patrice Michaels, that is a wonderful phrase to end on. Thank you for having me guest you on the show. I’m honored to have wrapped up this first year with you as my special celebrity guest.
Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s been a great pleasure to be with you, try to answer your questions, and think about these things that I love to think about. I wish you and all of your audience that all of your best and finest ideas come to fruition in 2021 and beyond.
Thank you, everybody. This has been Speakers Who Get Results. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find us on YouTube and you can find us on any of your episodes. Remember, if you’re curious about how your presentation skills stack up, go to our free assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. It only takes four minutes, and then you can see where your presentation skills are strong and are giving you what you need and where you might leave a little bit of support. This has been Elizabeth Bachman, and I’ll see you on the next one.
- The Relationship Between Business And Art
- Patrice Michaels
- Notorious RBG
- Constance P. Beaty
- J’Nai Bridges – Past episode
- YouTube – Elizabeth Bachman, The Star Maker for Speakers
- “Resolved” by Patrice Michaels, sung by J’nai Bridges
- Carnegie Hall Tribute to RBG
- Ms. Michaels sings at 30 minutes Notorious RBG in Song with Patrice Michaels
About Patrice Michaels