Friday, December 19, 2008

Florence Foster Jenkins - Queen Of The Sliding Scale

Just came back from a wonderful musical about the life of the legendary precursor to William Hung, Florence Foster Jenkins.

The play is titled Souvenir and is written by Stephen Temperley.

It was staged in The Actors Studio, Kuala Lumpur (which is owned by my relative-by-marriage Datuk Faridah Merican, the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre).

It starred Canadian singer and actress Gabrielle Maes as Florence and Malaysian actor and musician Llew Marsh as her longtime pianist collaborator Cosme McMoon.

This is a brief biography of Florence, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American soprano who became famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch and overall singing ability.

Born Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Charles Foster and Mary Hoagland, Jenkins received music lessons as a child, and expressed a desire to go abroad to study music.

Her wealthy father refused to pay the bill, so she eloped to Philadelphia with Frank Jenkins, a doctor, who became her husband (the two divorced in 1902).

She earned a living there as a teacher and pianist.

Upon her father's death in 1909, Jenkins inherited a sum of money which allowed her to take up the singing career that had been discouraged by her parents and former husband.

She became involved in the musical life of Philadelphia, and later New York City where she founded and funded the Verdi Club.

She also took singing lessons, and began to give recitals, her first in 1912.

Her mother's death in 1928 gave her additional freedom and resources to pursue singing.

Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm and was barely capable of sustaining a note.

Nonetheless, she became tremendously popular in her unconventional way. Her audiences apparently loved her for the amusement she provided rather than her musical ability.

Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins was firmly convinced of her greatness.

She compared herself favourably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the laughter which often came from the audience during her performances as coming from her rivals consumed by "professional jealousy."

She was aware of her critics, however, saying "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

The music Jenkins tackled in her recitals was a mixture of the standard operatic repertoire by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi and Johann Strauss (all of them well beyond her technical ability), Lieder (including works by Johannes Brahms and Joaquin Valverde), and songs composed by herself or her accompanist Cosme McMoon.

Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed herself.

After a taxi crash in 1943 she found she could sing "a higher F than ever before." Instead of a lawsuit against the taxi company, she sent the driver a box of expensive cigars.

In spite of public demand for more appearances, Jenkins restricted her rare performances to a few favourite venues, and her annual recital at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in New York City.

Attendance at her recitals was always limited to her loyal clubwomen — she handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself.

At the age of 76, Jenkins finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944.

So anticipated was the performance that tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance.

Jenkins died a month later.

Jenkins recorded nine arias on five records, which have been reissued on three CDs.

The Muse Surmounted: Florence Foster Jenkins contains only one Jenkins' performance, Valse Caressante, and an interview with the composer, who was also her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

The Glory of the Human Voice contains the other eight arias, all accompanied by McMoon. Murder on the High C's contains all nine arias.

In 2005, a play about Jenkins' life, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, opened on Broadway.

It was staged in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 2008.