by Matt Ogden, The Catoctin School of Music
As a musician, in the past few days, I have reflected on the life of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, especially on her life-long love for opera. She was famous for appearing in the front row of almost every performance of the Washington National Opera and the Washington Concert Opera (I personally saw her at a WCO performance in 2014 of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “I Capuleti e I Montecchi,” his version of Romeo and Juliet). Justice Ginsberg said that it was during these performances that she could lose herself in the beauty of the human singing voice and get completely absorbed in the drama unfolding on the stage, and then emerge from the theater creatively refreshed and ready to dive back into her intensive work studying momentous legal cases and writing judicial opinions. She cultivated a very close friendship with her fellow Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia, much her ideological opposite, but who shared in common with her a passionate love for opera. This story also reminds me of anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln quoting passages from Shakespeare to his Cabinet during the Civil War, saying that it was only to these great dramas that he could turn for much needed insight into the historical events unfolding around him every day.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Blackfriar Theater in Staunton, Virginia. If you have never been to this unique playhouse, I would highly recommend it (though they have temporarily shifted their performances online due to the theater being indefinitely closed because of the pandemic, ironically something that Shakespeare himself also dealt with during his own lifetime). After the extraordinarily gripping performance which was relentless in its emotional and dramatic intensity, the players emerged from backstage following the sustained applause, and gave the audience an opportunity to engage them with questions. It was a stunning experience to see these kings and dukes and princesses of the play transformed into normal modern-day people in front of our eyes, once the spell of the play had been broken. But there persisted a sense of awe in the air at what these seemingly average individuals had just accomplished on that stage. The one question from the audience that has stuck with me ever since, and the answer that one of the actors gave, was this: How does an actor prepare himself or herself to enter into the minds of these extraordinary characters and bring them to life, and create such an intense dramatic experience on stage, literally out of nothing? And how does one cultivate the emotional stamina needed to maintain this heightened level of dramatic intensity for such an extended period of time?
The answer was unforgettable. The actor who played King Lear replied: “Creativity is a muscle; you must exercise it every day, or it will atrophy over time.” He remarked that our society places so much importance on our physique, and we invest countless hours and dollars into going to the gym every day, himself included since having the stamina to be on stage for a three-hour play requires one to be in excellent physical shape. (Justice Ginsberg herself was rigorous in her exercise routine and worked every day with her physical trainer, without fail.) But too often we neglect our psyche, and allow our “creativity muscles” to atrophy. He said that the challenge for the artist or any creative individual is to invest just as much effort into strengthening his or her mind, as one does into strengthening his or her body, and to sustain this investment over an entire lifetime, every day. When we stretch and exercise our muscles, we push ourselves beyond what we are accustomed to doing, and we build muscle mass in the process. When we exercise our minds, we must do the same thing: we stretch our imagination, and build mental mass that we didn’t previously possess. He said that he challenges himself to engage in something truly creative every single day, and to expand his imagination, whether it be listening to a great piece of music, studying or composing a poem, reading great literature, exploring a new era of history he wasn’t familiar with, reading the biography of an historic individual, learning about a different culture, contemplating a great work of art, or merely imagining what the world must look like through the eyes of someone other than himself. All of these activities build empathy, insight, emotional maturity, and intellectual understanding, all qualities crucial for allowing him to feel adequately prepared to be a vehicle for the genius of Shakespeare when he steps onto the stage each night. This actor’s remarks have stuck with me ever since.
One of the joys of teaching children is to observe their insatiable curiosity. They are always exercising their mind and expanding their imaginations. I believe as artists, and as teachers, we must keep that same childlike sense of wonder alive in us throughout our lives, which allows us to relive and share with our students and our audiences the experience of amazement and discovery which we ourselves experienced the first time we encountered a piece of music which enraptured us and captured our imagination. And the need to exercise our “creativity muscle” every day and constantly cultivate within ourselves an ever-growing imagination is not limited to actors, musicians, or other artists and performers. As we learned from the case of Justice Ginsberg, who spent her final days listening to broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and corresponding with the great singers whom she considered to be some of her closest friends: stretching our imaginations is just as important as stretching our bodies, even for Supreme Court justices! And just like physical exercise, the exercise of our creativity and the cultivation of our curiosity must be a lifelong endeavor.