By D. Dona Le
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Derrick Wang AB '06 is the composer and librettist of opera Scalia/Ginsburg, inspired by the opinions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. After attending Harvard, where he participated in Harvardwood 101, Derrick earned his Master of Music from the Yale School of Music, before continuing his graduate studies at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, where he received his J.D. Last week, Derrick announced that he will be joining the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University. Scalia/Ginsburg will be performed at the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival this August.
Q. When did you first begin composing? Can you tell us more about your music background and how your Harvard undergraduate experience helped shape your career path?
A. I probably began scrawling notes on music paper around the age of four, when I was taking piano lessons and thought: why don't I write my own pieces? At school, I scored plays, conducted and orchestrated for the theater program, and wrote a musical (Prom)—songs from which later appeared in various Learning from Performers masterclasses at Harvard (thanks, Tom Lee!). For me, Harvard affirmed my impulse to bridge styles and genres: I could write a string quartet based on playground chants, or a Hasty Pudding show with classical techniques, and it was all not only acceptable but encouraged. From that perspective, writing an opera based on constitutional-law principles was perhaps inevitable.
Q. You were a participant of one of the first-ever Harvardwood 101 trips: how was that experience?
A. Harvardwood 101 was eye-opening. As a musician, I especially appreciated the time we spent with [Harvardwood Advisory Board member] Robert Kraft AB '76, then head of Fox Music. I remember him mentioning that he had wanted to be a music concentrator at Harvard but that his background didn't align with the departmental requirements at the time. Not long after, he was on campus as guest speaker in a music class I was taking—and when it was time for questions, I asked if he would perform "How Can I Not Love You" [the Golden Globe-nominated song he co-wrote for the 1999 film Anna and the King]. He sat down at the piano, played and sang for us—and then observed that this, at long last, was his portfolio submission to the Department of Music. And who could argue with that?
Q. What made you decide to attend law school after graduation? Were you anticipating a hiatus from music and composing, or did you always envision yourself melding these two fields?
A. Looking back, I think that on some level I was searching for an extension of the experience I'd had at Harvard—in this case, a way to move beyond the traditional boundaries of a career in the arts. Luckily, while I was in law school, I did receive some inspiration on that front.
Q. Which brings us to Scalia/Ginsburg! What inspired you to create this opera?
A. I was inspired to compose Scalia/Ginsburg by the dueling opinions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. When studying constitutional law, I was reading case after case after Supreme Court case—when I came upon three magic words: "Scalia, J., dissenting." Every time I read a Scalia dissent, I would hear music in my head: a rage aria about the Constitution. And when I read the contrasting counterpoint from Justice Ginsburg, I realized: this could be an opera.
Q. Both Justices Scalia and Ginsburg are polarizing figures. Did you encounter political criticism or get caught in any partisan crossfire because of your opera? Conversely, did you experience—whether in the creation of the opera or in meeting musicians/audiences who've seen it—any "reach-across-the-aisle" revelations?
A. There have been quite a few "reach-across-the-aisle" responses: I think one review asked for Scalia/Ginsburg to be required viewing for anyone being sworn into office in the White House or Congress! On a more personal level, I remember a law school classmate of mine telling me that, although she disagreed with Justice Scalia's political views and had therefore ignored his dissents in the past, the opera had inspired her to read his opinions and reasoning more closely. Beyond politics, I'm gratified to hear that Scalia/Ginsburg is bridging the worlds of music and law—inspiring Supreme Court followers to learn more about opera, and vice versa.
Q. Can you give us a sketch of your creative process, how you take an idea to a completed work?
A. It's not easy to describe succinctly, but the short answer is: there's a lot of mulling; I discard a lot; and spreadsheets are sometimes involved.
Q. You spent some time shadowing Y Combinator in Silicon Valley last year. Any projects or pieces coming out of that experiences you can tell us about?
A. Nothing I can officially announce just yet, but stay tuned, as they used to say. In the meantime, I've found that my time there has helpfully informed my work as a lawyer with startups.
Q. Scalia/Ginsburg will be performed at the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival this August. What's next for you after that?
A. In addition to my ongoing work as a composer and dramatist, I am Of Counsel at the law firm of Thomas & Libowitz, P.A., where I advise creative clients in all industries as they launch, run, and grow their ventures. Also, this fall I'll be joining the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music of The Johns Hopkins University, teaching new interdisciplinary courses on law and music.
Scalia/Ginsburg will be performed on the Glimmerglass mainstage (the Alice Busch Opera Theater) on the following dates:
- Friday, August 4, 2017, 4pm-5pm ET
- Sunday, August 13, 2017, 5:30pm-6:30pm ET [SOLD OUT]
The theater is located at 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, NY 13326.