Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Voice

"People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing!"

From her American National Biography entry:
...Undiscouraged by the uniform criticism of her inability to carry a tune, her uncertain sense of rhythm, and her complete failure to reach the upper registers in pitch, [Florence Foster Jenkins] vigorously undertook a professional career, staging the first of a series of annual recitals in the foyer of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City in 1912. Her mother died in 1928, giving her control of a considerable family fortune and freeing her to expand her range of performance venues to regular concerts... She also became active in cultural affairs in New York City: She chaired the Euterpe Club's yearly tableaux-vivants, served as president of the American League of Pen Women, and founded the Verdi Club, whose annual Ball of the Silver Skylarks she financed.

Mme. Jenkins, as she styled herself, became a byword for artistic ambition and self-delusion. The author Stephen Pile ranked her "the world's worst opera singer," asserting: "No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation". She nevertheless performed the most challenging arias and lieder, specializing in work by Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms. She occasionally lightened her repertoire with her own modest compositions and those of her accompanist McMoon, and a favourite encore was Joaquín Valverde Sanjuán's Clavelitos, a Spanish song about carnations, after which she would throw handfuls of rosebuds into the crowd. An additional source of amusement for the audience was the ornate self-designed costumes she wore for her appearances, the most famous being an elaborate confection of tulle and tinsel with huge golden wings attached, in which she identified herself as "the Angel of Inspiration."

Apparently she never doubted the excellence, and indeed the continuing improvement, of her performances...[and] the enthusiasm of her audience, including professional musicians, supported her confidence in her ability. The journalist Brooks Peters wrote that Cole Porter never missed one of her concerts and even composed a song for her; Jenkins's other ardent fans included the opera stars Lily Pons and Enrico Caruso and the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

Between the late 1930s and early 1940s, Jenkins made, at her own expense, five 78 rpm records containing nine operatic arias for Melotone, a New York label that ordinarily issued discs of popular music. Intended for sale to her friends at $2.50 apiece, her recordings were avidly collected as humorous novelty items and quickly became collector's items. Time described a recording she made of an aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, stating that her "nightqueenly swoops and hoots, her wild wallowings in descending trills, her repeated staccato notes like a cuckoo in its cups, are innocently uproarious to hear"...

On 25th October 1944 Jenkins achieved national prominence with the climactic event of her musical career, a recital she arranged at Carnegie Hall... [which] was said to be the fastest sold-out concert in the hall's history. The success of the concert was widely noted in the press; Newsweek reported that two thousand ticket seekers were turned away. The magazine's sardonic review stated: "Howls of laughter drowned Mme. Jenkins's celestial efforts. Where stifled chuckles and occasional outbursts had once sufficed at the Ritz, unabashed roars were the order of the evening at Carnegie". A month and one day after her performance at Carnegie Hall, Jenkins suffered a heart attack and died at her residence, the luxurious Hotel Seymour in New York City.

And so it was that a little gaggle of "our gang" eagerly entered the cinema on Friday to see Stephen Frears' brand new biographical (and eponymous) film about the divine Miss Jenkins' life, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

It is beautifully done - much in the manner of her own all-too-knowing real-life audience, we are encouraged not so much to laugh at the terrifying vocal ineptitude of Miss Jenkins, but to laugh with her. So utterly ingenuous and charming a woman is she - as reverently portrayed by Miss Streep in a sublime performance - and how sincere her efforts to please (and the love she engendered in return, particularly that of her "husband" [theirs was a platonic and never legally-bound relationship; she feared consummation due to a legacy of syphilis she contracted from her first husband, and he had mistresses on the side throughout their life together] St. Clair Bayfield, the "ham" actor-manager played with phenomenal precision by Mr Grant), that one genuinely empathises with her.

What could easily, in lesser hands, have ended up as a bit of a "freak show" piss-take, despite its comedic moments (the sheer stifled horror-mixed-with-giggles on the face of her long-time pianist Cosmé McMoon, played brilliantly by Simon Helberg, for example; or the hysterical laughing-fit the the tart-with-a-heart Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda) has on first hearing her), is actually made into a heart-warming and very enjoyable story.

Having long been "admirers" of Florence Foster Jenkins - her compilation The Glory (????) of the Human Voice adorns a prime position in our CD collection here at Dolores Delargo Towers, and way back in 2005 we went to see Maureen Lipman's stage turn as the lady herself in Glorious - Madam Arcarti and I absolutely adored the film.

A highly recommended experience...

Here, for your delectation, is Mme. Jenkins herself doing what she did - with Mozart's Queen of the Night aria (Der Hölle Rache):

...and here, the official trailer for the film:

Florence Foster Jenkins is playing up and down the UK as we speak, and is released in the US on 12th August 2016.


  1. I can't wait until this comes to our city! By the way, did you see Meryl's Donald Trump 'drag' at a recent fundraiser?

    1. Meryl Streep for President! She'd do a better job than either of the candidates. Jx

  2. Thank you so much for the review. I hadn't even heard of this and now I'm looking forward to it.

    1. You'll be clutching your pearls throughout... Jx


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