On my “must do” list before I leave town was seeing the movie, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the film about the amateur soprano whose singing of opera classics was preserved forever through recordings. I first became acquainted with her voice in the 70s and I remember laughing hysterically with friends at parties when her recordings were played.
According to Wikipedia, “Florence Foster Jenkins, born Nascina Florence Foster (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944), was an American socialite and amateur soprano who was known and mocked for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability.” Or as the synopsis from the Internet Movie Database reads, “The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.”
It was on CBS Morning a couple of weeks ago that I saw Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant interviewed, but what I took away was “See this movie on the big screen. See it with musical friends.” So on Wednesday night, I went with Todd and Jennifer Beckham to a mostly empty theatre (there were only a total of 7 people in the theatre for that showing!) and I can’t give you enough superlatives about this movie: Must see! Hilarious! Heart-warming! The acting of Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant (who plays Florence’s common-law husband) and Simon Helberg (who plays Cosme McMoon, the accompanist) was absolutely fantastic! Most of all, I was so surprised to hear Meryl Streep’s amazing real life-singing voice, especially at the end of the movie, when Florence is on her deathbed and dreams of what she really sounds like. Also I was surprised to learn that Simon Helberg did all the piano playing himself, according to a television interview on Build. He said it only took him three or four months of practice to perform these difficult opera accompaniments, according to the interview.
Here are some real critics’ reviews of this marvelous film:
‘Florence Foster Jenkins,’ Singing So Wretched It’s Legendary, New York Times
Streep is note perfect as a deluded diva, The Guardian
Meryl Streep Achieves Greatness as an Awful Singer, The Wrap
Florence Foster Jenkins is the perfect antidote for sobering times, The Telegraph
As far as I can tell from reading various online biographies, the film was fairly faithful to real life events. Here are the facts: Florence was born into a wealthy family. She played the piano at the White House when she was 7 years old. When her father refused to let her study music, she eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, from whom she got syphilis but never officially divorced. She met a Shakespearean actor, St. Clair Bayfield in 1909, who acted as her manager for 36 years, and whom she called her husband although they never officially married. She hired Cosme McMoon, a pianist and composer, as her accompanist. Florence joined many social clubs and founded the Verdi Club, at which she produced lavish musical tableaux and appeared in elaborate costumes. She started giving private vocal recitals in 1912, where Bayfield tried to restrict the guest list to loyal friends because the truth was that her pitch, rhythm, and diction were truly “exquisitely bad,” according to opera impresario Ira Siff. After giving a recital in Carnegie Hall at age 76, she died a month later when she realized that people had been laughing at her. Bayfield married his mistress Kathleen Weatherly after Florence died.
The movie took me back to 2009 when our local Diamond Head Theatre put on a production of Souvenir, based on Florence Foster Jenkins’ life and the relationship with her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, played by Stefanie Smart and Laurence Paxton. In the play, McMoon was also Florence’s vocal coach, and always tried to protect her from the truth about her singing. Stefanie was a singer whom I met in the Japanese wedding business and she and I did many weddings together. We were so fortunate to see these two wonderful musicians in this production and to hear Stefanie’s amazing singing, because she was hospitalized soon after starting the run and was replaced by Mary Chesnut Hicks. Not too long after, I happened to run into Stefanie at the mammography clinic when she told me about her breast cancer. Stefanie died on August 17, 2011 and you can read her obituary here.
It’s very possible that Florence Foster Jenkins’ problem was that her poor singing was due to her contracting syphilis from her first husband and that it affected her hearing. Also, she was taking mercury and arsenic before antibiotics were available, and she was slowly poisoning herself.
I was reminded of Carl Crosier’s reunion recitals with Yuko Honda after she was diagnosed with brain, liver, lung and bone cancer. Go back and re-read my post “Reunion Recitals” about their remarkable discovery about finding one another after 20 years and playing a series of piano and violin concerts. It was the brain cancer which affected Yuko’s hearing to the extent that she could not tell when certain high pitches were in or out of tune, and she had to mark the fingerboard of her violin with the notes. Still some of her intonation was not perfect, as you can hear in the slideshow I put together here:
Back to the movie—we tend to laugh at Florence Foster Jenkins’ singing less and less, and begin to feel sorry for her. (At least I did). I was particularly struck at how Meryl Streep played her not as a buffoon, and more of a sympathetic character.
Go see the movie . . . you’ll love it!