Last week, a small woman of modest demeanor and appearance walked quietly on stage at the Glimmerglass Festival Theatre and seemed pleased but genuinely surprised when the standing-room-only audience rose spontaneously to its feet, expressing respect with thunderous applause.
The woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, smiled and politely waited for people to be seated. She was appearing on stage not as a judge but as a commentator on the ways some operas portray the law.
She spoke of opera plots in which some people condemned others to death, and the manner in which justice may or may not have been served. Her comments were illustrated by deeply moving performances of the Glimmerglass Young Artists, including a song in which a mother begs for her condemned son’s life and another in which a ship’s captain says he will agree with the death sentence imposed on a young, naive member of his crew who has been tricked into committing a crime.
Ginsburg described the personal importance of her first experience listening to opera as a public school student on a tour of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. When Glimmerglass Festival Director Francesca Zambello invited audience members to pose questions to Ginsburg, Oneonta High School Choral Director Megan Dyer asked the Supreme Court judge what she would say to people who are wondering whether to save tax dollars by taking music out of our schools.
Ginsburg’s face showed a deeply concerned expression as she said, “Depriving students of the opportunity to know and study the arts would be a terrible disservice to our nation’s children and for our country’s future.” Ginsburg, often regarded as a liberal member of the Supreme Court, said she was joined by her very conservative judicial colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, in her love of the arts. Differences of opinion about the law do not inhibit shared enthusiasm among the justices for the arts.
Opera performances are regarded by some as stodgy events quite unrelated to “real life,” but opera’s main attraction for many is its direct application to experiences of their own. Opera opens the hidden spaces of “polite society” and tells the world about injustice, scandal, assaults on innocence and the enduring power of true love. Many opera composers, such as Verdi and Puccini, were required to change their work by powerful censors among the nobles or the church because those in the ruling classes were afraid that the opera might encourage the working classes to rebel against the aristocracy.
Real art, whether it is a painting, a photograph, an opera, a Broadway musical, or a performance by a DJ, never worries about being “politically correct,“ and has always evoked reactions that challenge, and at times frighten, audience members. Although we value art for his inherent beauty, we also value it for its ability to help us re-examine our most basic values, and to build our determination to support those values.
The importance of art in the form of music, paintings, photographs, dance, theater and other new forms is recognized by all. Each of us can remember an experience with art that brought a smile to the face and joyous feeling of freedom for the spirit.
In many countries, performance and display of art is supported by the government, but we have not chosen to dedicate much government support to art we produce in our own country. In the United States, citizens have both a right and a responsibility to support their beliefs, including a belief in our need for expressive art that tells the truth.
Why do people want to support art?
• They find some art to be honest expression of their own beliefs.
• They feel that supporting art helps to maintain and build a national culture they value.
• They believe that art in its many forms is an ideal way for people of different languages and histories to communicate in beneficial ways.
• Experiencing art can allow people to view the world in which they find themselves as a richer, more fulfilling space than otherwise.
• They have view art as homage to the past and hope for the future.
•If you wish to support the creation of art and artistic performance, how can you do so?
• Make sure that art in many forms is part of the curriculum in all our schools.
• Buy tickets to amateur and professional art and photography shows and to concerts, recitals and theatrical productions.
• Tell your friends about your pleasure in attending arts events.
• Donate generously to arts organizations.
• Take part in arts events in whatever manner possible. Join a theater company, play in a band, exhibit your photographs.
If you are an artist, actor or musician, spend all the time you can afford to make your art a creative statement of your thoughts about life, and a generous gift to those for whom your message is intended. Trivial art is produced by trivial people. Do your best to make your art a gift of honesty and beauty to share with others. It’s always hard work, and it’s always worth the effort.
If you can think of other reasons and ways to support the arts, please join Justice Ginsburg, Justice Scalia and others of our nation’s highest court by sharing those ideas with all who will listen.
Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.