What is the distinction between simple profundity and being profoundly simple? This is not exactly the last word in semantics, rather a niggling thought about the way we think. Most particularly it is the question about how we conceive of and search for answers about what is for the best. What makes the world a better place is always at stake, on a knife’s edge, teetering on the brink … etc., etc., as, in the musical, the King of Siam was apt to opine. The desire for a perfect world is always with us. Making the transformation from where we are to what we long for, dream of and devoutly wish – there’s the rub! Is it all simple profundity or profoundly simple?
I will admit that my musing on the aforementioned question has taken a musical turn. It all began with a stray recollection. In my mind’s eye I had a flashback of La Stupenda, as the opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland was known to devotees, statuesque before a glitterati audience rendering not some soaring trilling aria but that quintessentially sentimental Victorian melody ‘There’s no place like home’. To be sure this incongruous juxtaposition probably explains why it stuck in my mind. However, I have to admit that almost everything else I thought I remembered about this incident turned out to be horribly garbled and, in short, wrong.
I got the occasion wrong, the opera incorrect and presumed it happened way back in time. It all goes to demonstrate that what I thought conforms to the most common conventions of historic memory – of which more later.
My trick of memory was conflating the encore Australia’s finest, Sydney-born Dame Joan, delivered after her farewell performance at the city’s iconic Opera House with her last public performance a few months later at London’s Covent Garden. The gala event was broadcast on New Year’s Eve 1990. Is it increasing age, mine, that makes that seem just yesterday rather than the eons earlier memory assigned to the event? Presumably the BBC’s coverage of the gala included reference to or footage of the Sydney encore. Q.E.D false memory. I thought I saw (no, not a pussy cat) a diva triumphantly stonking humility with the simplest hummable melody.
The lyric to that plaintive tune is all important for the question at hand. ‘There’s no place like home’ is the most memorable line of ‘Home Sweet Home’ which began life as part of the 1823 opera, Clari, Maid of Milan, by the American John Howard Payne. The music was provided by the Englishman Sir Henry Bishop. It became an immediate hit selling 100,000 copies when issued as sheet music. In 1852 Bishop relaunched the piece as a popular ballad and the rest is history.
So let’s think about that unforgettable line: there is no place like home. As we know, another term for ‘no place’ is utopia. With this in mind the ballad sets up a tricky conundrum. Home as it exists is not the conceptual utopian vision of the perfect world. Utopics as a vision of the future would not exist were the here and now ideal. To exist utopia implies something other, better, something beyond the home we know. The selling point of the ballad however is an idyllic vision of the irreplaceable lure and nature of ‘home’ which has overtones of hallowed ground, a sacred bond ‘ne’er met with elsewhere’.
It’s a toughie. Two senses and potential meanings of utopia as a much desired place and condition could be said to collide in the song. Two senses of scale are also involved. The utopian vision is always broadcast, an ideal of perfection for all, setting the world to rights for everyone. The utopian vision of home sweet home is a personal sanctuary where all cares are soothed in the bosom of family providing, as the lyric says ‘that peace of mind, dearer than all’.
The ballad sets the grand vision of ‘pleasures and palaces’ of splendour that ‘dazzles in vain’ against a humble thatched cottage set amidst natural beauties that is hearth and family home. It is one of the reasons it was banned during the American Civil War lest it inspire desertion from the Great Cause. Presumably its imagery was as dangerous to the endeavour of both armies battling for their different interpretations of the future. The ballad offers a quiescent vision of a disengaged personal utopia that is actual and available now, not pie in someone else’s sky and without the possibility, most often the probability, that one may need to die to achieve it– which would you choose?
There is another vital question lurking behind the two implicit meanings of utopia. One finds it encapsulated in another ravishing ballad: Stephen Sondhiem’s ‘Somewhere’ in Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical West Side Story. This song was conceived and written with decided utopian purpose. There is an abundance of home and family in West Side Story, but it is a dystopian vision desperately in need of what waits somewhere. It is not just a vision of ‘peace and quiet and open air’ but ‘a new way of living’ founded on ‘a way of forgiving’. It is utopia indeed for the doomed couple living in the world of the Jets and the Sharks.
West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, a family tragedy. The Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s fair Verona are transmuted into the ethnically distinct gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks inhabiting the crowded airless back streets of New York’s upper west side. The opening number, the wonderful ‘Officer Krupke’, defines the ‘social disease’ that underlies the racial tensions that will doom the star crossed lovers Tony and Maria. Home for the Jets is a world of drugs, drink, violence and disaffection offering limited jobs and no uplifting prospects. In this environment the gang becomes the effective family. Later, in the rousing number ‘America’ upper West Side New York may be no utopia for the Puerto Rican immigrant sweat shop workers yet it is infinitely better than the tropical idyll idea of ‘back home’ that means even worse poverty and overcrowding. In the face of racial prejudice the Puerto Ricans stick together and stick up for themselves and are ever ready to rumble.
What the scenario of a world of struggle and strife makes clear is that a new way of living is only available in another place: somewhere, some day, somehow. Utopia is not here – it is yet to be identified and achieved. As the choreography of the final scene makes clear – when the body of the slain Tony is raised like a crucifix and carried away, his bearers members of both gangs – attaining the somewhere of their dreams comes through sacrifice. Utopia is a revolution in the world we know. And as so often has been proved revolutions eat their children and entail the slaughter of innocents; it is par for the course.
So why pause over the thought that there is no place like home? Is it the concern that our most prevalent conception of utopia is in reality anywhere but home? Home, our current condition and circumstances, generates the problem that the utopic master plan is to resolve. Release from what ails our present home world demands dedication to the new utopian order that must be constructed, dragged into being, forced into life, imposed against all odds because it is for the best. What happens then is the Bolshevik curse at the heart of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. (Thankfully, not yet made into a musical!) Come the revolution its characters face the simple profundity that the life of the personal is over. Individual comforts and contentment are bourgeois indulgence anathema to the utopian grand scheme of remaking the world by creating and serving the ideal state for the disembodied idealised collective.
Having a problem with the Bolshevik kind of utopian vision is not difficult precisely because it eradicates the home grown benevolence and comforts explicit in ‘Home Sweet Home’. It is redolent of the master plan that makes the individual a cypher, a cog rather than the object of the exercise. It instils and demands a depersonalised utter dedication to the grand end that allows for no humane accommodation to the peculiarities, peccadillos and personality of people as individuals in their infinite variety. Such an outlook gives utopia every justification to be brutal in its means to the end.
On reflection I have just as deep seated an objection to the somewhere vision of utopia. It concedes home ground. Somewhere, someday somehow is not just an incapacity to define the means by which the utopia of a new way of living will be made a reality. It implies a not here, not with the material we have to work with; a ‘no redemption on my turf’ capitulation – but in another place all things may be possible approaches. What such a vision lacks is rootedness as much in people as place. Home is both a populated concept, a cultural artefact, as well as a location. Home is the microcosm of society and humanity from which we begin and by which we come to know our circumstances and the world at large. Home is context: history, tradition and present reality. In understanding what would, should and ought to be better context is all. Only context can inform the vision of what improvements must, should and ought to be made. Without context there is no yardstick to assess whether change is meaningful, if it is indeed substantive and quantifiable betterment or mere surface difference. As a very wise man once said to me, ‘Things have changed many times, they just haven’t improved’. There’s simple profundity for you!
Present reality and home grown solutions – these are the only bedrock, rationale and means to utopia I can acknowledge. I have seen grand visions come and wither on the vine. They always seem to pass by my home place, make a detour to avoid our convenience and inclusion. So you keep your grand visions I say. I’ll take the hard slog of small increments of making things better here and now. At least in this way I can be sure there is improvement that is meaningful and ministers to real people in their actual need according to their infinite diversity. There never will be any place like home by this autochthonous – grand word for home grown rather than grand vision – procedure. Everywhere can participate and all can share in betterment ‘ne’er met with elsewhere’. Meaningful improvements enhance human life, human dignity and respect for the diversity of humanity. When we are all in a better home there may be nothing simple about the descriptive vision but it will be profound change for all that.
When I recall Dame Joan singing ‘Home Sweet Home’ I am not thinking of nostalgia or sentimentality, though I am conscious of a deep irony. First, the choice was inspired and profoundly appropriate on many levels. Context is all to appreciate the point. Singing a tribute to home in one’s home town can never go amiss, of course. Choosing something utterly humble and homely certainly fits Dame Joan, famously a game Aussie girl without the vanities and self-importance of a diva despite decades of huge international stardom. Apparently she used to sit in the wings quietly stitching tapestry before strutting her stuff on the stage. And then there is the melody, the musical theme of ‘Home Sweet Home’ has been appropriated and recurs in many places such as in Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, played every year at the Last Night of the Proms. I grew up watching the annual television broadcast of this particular concert that concludes the summer season of Promenade Concerts bringing fine music to the masses. The theme was also picked up by Donizetti and included in his opera Anna Bolena. His operas fell out of fashion until the special match between Donizetti’s style and the amazing coloratura range, the incredible high notes Dame Joan sang so purely, revived this repertoire. Dame Joan performed Anna Bolena. The careful selection of the Donizetti repertoire was the inspired vision of Richard Bonynge, who was Dame Joan’s husband and conducted so many of her performances including her Sydney farewell. There is indeed no place like home!
The irony is that the context of a full opera is quite beyond me. I would thank you to permit me never to have to endure an entire performance of an art form to which I simply cannot respond, beyond cringing and toe curling at the dreadful device of singing operas in English so one hears and understands the awful recitative – the sung dialogue bits. Gala concerts, great voices, great arias shorn of context – now we are talking my language. The beauty of the human voice and the raptures of emotion it can occasion can transport me to a state of bliss for hours on end. Therefore we can be absolutely sure I did not sit through the broadcast of Die Fledermaus, the opera during which Dame Joan made her final public appearance. I guarantee I decontextualised the event and only watched the party scene, the device which allowed Dame Joan, Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne as special guests to sing a selection of their greatest hits. It is also true that just as Placido Domingo is my personal preference over Luciano Pavarotti so Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is my preference over Dame Joan.
Lack of context, foreshortening or expanding time spans and wrong attribution – the litany of the frailty of historic memory – is part and parcel of the tale I have laid before you. It is impossible to escape from history but it is endlessly possible to manipulate what is history or what one thinks history is. This is as true of manufacturing utopic visions as it is of recruiting people to utopian causes. History is deeply entwined with human frailty in its making and remembering – and sometimes it is just a good story.
The simple profundity of the issue is: context is all – with the profoundly simple exception that there are instances when one is better without it. In which case I shall continue to hear Dame Joan and Marilyn Horne incomparably singing the flower duet from Lakme and call myself blessed until I no longer have ears to hear. Simply marvellous.