Patrice Michaels has been featured on more than 25 albums, including the Decca, Neos, Albany and Amadis labels, and on 14 releases as an artist for Cedille Records. She has earned praised as “a formidable interpretative talent” (The New Yorker) who possesses “a voice that is light, rich and flexible” (Opera News).

One of her most ambitious projects to date combines not only her singing abilities, but also her talents as a composer. RBG in Song, a salute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Cedille Records), draws a loving portrait of the Justice’s legal opinions, letters and lectures, and is a tribute to her role as a wife, mother and feminist icon. Michaels comes at this project from a unique perspective – Ruth Bader Ginsburg is her mother-in-law and that relationship adds a level of authenticity and sincerity to this very special endeavor.

Patrice Michaels and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Michaels holds B.A.’s in Music and Theater from Pomona College, an M.F.A. in Voice from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a certificate from the Music Theatre Studio Ensemble at The Banff Centre. She is former Professor of Music at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music, and now serves as Director of Vocal Studies at The University of Chicago.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with Patrice Michaels in her Chicago home for this Conversation about the breadth and scope of her work as a singer and as a composer.

STAY THIRSTY: In your current production of Notorious RBG in Song you chronicle the life of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You are credited with not only being the creator of the show, but also one of the composers and, of course, the principal performer. What was the genesis of this production?

PATRICE MICHAELS: My husband James and his sister Jane planned a special 80th birthday gift of three newly-composed songs for their mother, Justice Ginsburg. Along with Stacy Garrop and Vivian Fung, I was engaged to set a text about RBG. In addition to these three new songs, I wanted to include something by Lori Laitman, a renowned art song and opera composer who is a friend of the Justice. Lori had written a song in honor of her own mother-in-law’s 75th birthday, set to a poem by Emily Dickinson that was absolutely perfect for inclusion. The birthday performance of the four songs became, in addition to the intended celebratory gift, the genesis of another project!

Patrice Michaels - Notorious RBG in Song trailer

STAY THIRSTY: In the Chicago production of Notorious RBG in Song at the Spertus Institute in May 2019, your compositions are joined with composition from other American composers, including Lori Laitman, Lee Hoiby, Stacy Garrop, Vivian Fung and John Musto. How did you select these composers to be part of this project and what did they bring to the table during its development? How did you work to integrate so many ifferent compositional identities into one cohesive performance?

PATRICE MICHAELS:  When we recorded all the extant pieces about RBG and released them in June 2018, I was thrilled to hear how the pieces contrasted and complimented each other, both musically and thematically. I began to think about how narrative could bring all the compositions together. Because Justice Ginsburg’s story is that of immigrant families in the 20th century, the parallel to 20th century art song composers is natural and often profound. Including Lee Hoiby’s setting of part of the Emma Lazarus poem that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty was both obvious and profound. “Answering” that heroic poem and musical setting with John Musto’s darkly realistic setting of a Langston Hughes poem dealing with the same issues  is a perfect example of how the show tells the story of RBG’s life,  both abstractly and concretely. And the music is some of the greatest of our song literature, so I’m especially glad to introduce audiences who may not already be familiar with these marvelous composers.

STAY THIRSTY: One of the unique features of your production is that it is a biographical work set to music along with sections of narration. Since you did not base this production on a prior published work, biography or play, but in fact did your own extensive research into the life and times of Justice Ginsburg, have you not created a new genre that one could call “musical biography”?

PATRICE MICHAELS: I don’t know if making a musical portrait is really a new genre ­– that’s a question that would require a bit of research. My experiences as a singer of new and ancient classical music, as a music director of American musical theater, and as a composer has coincided with the opportunity to get to know an extremely inspiring and influential person. I agree, Notorious RBG in Song is a musical biography. Maybe you have coined a new term!

STAY THIRSTY: How long did it take, from beginning to end, to create this production and record the CD for Cedille Records? Of all of the elements to bring together for this show, which were the easiest and which were the hardest? What things did you leave “on the cutting room floor?”

PATRICE MICHAELS: Once the recording was done and I realized that the narrative material I had used for live concerts needed to be turned into an actual script, I set the goals of enhancing that aspect, the visuals, and creating a chamber ensemble accompaniment (for which I had wonderful assistance from master arranger Peter Labella and copyist Joe Clark). It was was nearly a year of tinkering and tryouts until our piano/voice debut at the Skirball Center in LA. After that January 2019 performance, we gave the chamber ensemble premiere in Washington the following month. It’s been wonderful to adjust the script in small ways that help make a point or land a joke. Once the framework of RBG’s early years is set up, the music is organized not in chronologic order, but rather by her public and private lives. I was surprised that it turned out that way initially, but I think, especially since the penultimate piece is excerpts from her dissenting opinions, it creates a really well-balanced arc for the 75-minute show.

STAY THIRSTY: For your performance at the Spertus Institute, you were joined by Pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Soprano Michelle Areyzaga, Tenor Matthew Dean and Baritone Evan Bravos. How did you select these particular artists to collaborate with for this production? How involved where they in the evolution of this show?

Notorious RBG in Song - stage production

PATRICE MICHAELS: Kuang-Hao has been involved in the project since the point when I decided to create a song cycle. Dana Brown, the marvelous coach-pianist, debuted the first songs with me, and I hope he’ll continue to be involved in the project. Incredible Andrew Harley also plays the show, and was the first to work with the underscoring.

I’ve always imagined that the song cycle could be shared, and the second full performance was actually prepared with nine different singers, each one taking a movement. The third performance was in Washington with J’nai Bridges and Susanna Phillips taking four songs each, with The Capital Hearings a cappella ensemble performance the eighth movement, “Dissenter of de Universe.” Young artists Derrell Acon, bass-baritone and Olivia Boen, soprano, sang with me at the record release party last June at the Poetry Foundation. Michelle Areyzaga and Dana have performed portions of the cycle together on their own. I asked Evan Bravos to be my prototypical baritone, and Matt Dean is a wonderful addition to the mix with his gorgeous tenor, great diction and comic timing. 

In short: this has been and will continue to be a wonderful opportunity to collaborate, to celebrate an incredible community of vocal artists and collaborative pianists. I’m so grateful to each and every one!

STAY THIRSTY: One other relevant fact about Notorious RBG in Song is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is your mother-in-law. How involved was she in the creation of this production and how does she feel about all of the public attention she has received in the past two years with your work, a documentary on her life and a feature film about her?

PATRICE MICHAELS: My integration into the Ginsburg family happened to coincide with the “Notorious” tumblr site becoming a phenomenon. My mother-in-law has taken it all with the equanimity we observe as a hallmark of her persona. She often quips that she can’t imagine why so many people want a photo with an old person, and she laughs heartily at the Kate McKinnon parody on Saturday Night Live. The humor and lightheartedness is quite a contrast to the very sober and challenging responsibilities born by RBG and her colleagues. My efforts to create her musical portrait have, not surprisingly, been a great opportunity for me to learn about my family-by-marriage, and have brought us close together in a unique and wonderful way. I ask her a lot of questions!

Patrice Michaels

STAY THIRSTY: After all that you have done in memorializing and honoring the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, what two thoughts do you want people to walk away with after seeing your show?

PATRICE MICHAELS: I want two things: for the audience members to enjoy an artistic experience that uplifts and entertains them; and, for each person to feel reaffirmed that each one of us really can make a difference, as RBG so magnificently demonstrates. We may not all have the aptitudes and opportunities to effect law and social justice, but each of us can live by our values, persevere in the face of extreme challenge, and contribute to the well-being of those around us.

STAY THIRSTY: In July 2019, your next work, Refuge, will debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for the Serenade Festival. What are the themes of this work and how did it come about? How does your interest in strong, dynamic women and their stories inform your choices for future projects?

PATRICE MICHAELS: Doreen Rao, the internationally renowned choral conductor, heard Michelle and Dana performing some of THE LONG VIEW song cycle on a recital. She liked my musical style and ability to set text and put my name forward for a commission for the Serenade! international choral festival that happens every summer in Washington. I was very honored and excited to be invited to write the closing piece for their concert, and since the theme this year is “The Human Journey,” Sara Teasedale’s wonderful, uplifting poem from 1917 seemed like a natural choice. I added musical interjections in all the languages of the choirs, and I can’t wait to meet them, hear their own repertoire, and hear them together in my piece!

(Header and production photo credit: Larry Sandez; Album cover drawing of RBG credit: Tom Bachtell; Notorious RBG in Song trailer credit: Matthew Gilmore)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.