Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?
When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.
Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.
But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party.
Florence Foster Jenkins sings “Queen of the Night” (“Der Hölle Rach,” from The Magic Flute).
Streep, as Jenkins, says, “Music is my life. Music matters.” We wonder: Was Jenkins oblivious, self-aggrandizing, or exploited? Did she buy her way onstage, or try to heal the world with music? Had syphilis made her deaf to notes and jeers, or did she simply not give a hoot? There’s an ironic, provocative moment in the film, when her husband and manager (played by Hugh Grant) wards off the Post’s Earl Wilson: “This is a concert for serious music lovers, not mockers and scoffers like you.” Jenkins’s vocal inadequacies were so apparent, and audiences so clearly in on the joke, that criticizing her, then or now, reeks of aesthetic self-congratulation. What critical muscles do we flex, in dubbing her “the worst singer in the world”? How should serious music lovers respond, balancing artistic standards and mercy?
Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, the coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies (2015), was a young classical singer when she first heard Jenkins. Though she laughed at the time, she told me that her break from singing, after a divorce from her violent husband, changed her perspective:
Listening to singers has become an act of compassionate questioning: What has this singer experienced? What sorts of teachers has she had? What motivates her to bring that particular breath in that way? Why hasn’t anyone helped address that particular tension, and what’s causing it? As I learn to breathe in my new life, peeling away layers of pain, I think of Florence, her body riddled with syphilis, singing publicly because the body she inhabited could still resonate with music. Singing for her, I imagine, brought with it all the pleasure of her childhood of prodigious music production, and bled out some of the pain of the present, reinventing her body into a productive one, rather than one dying, mad, diseased … Singing, after all, proves you’re still breathing.
The midcentury soprano Maria Callas, perhaps the greatest diva of the twentieth century, once said that she hated listening to herself. The first time she heard a recording of her voice, she explained, “I don’t like the kind of voice I have at all … I cried like you can’t even believe … I had a horror of myself.”
Callas wasn’t the only person who didn’t like her singing. Opera audiences are hard to please, and they make their displeasure known through the time-honored, passionate tradition of booing. They booed Callas at the Metropolitan Opera and in Parma and Milan; playwright Terrence McNally writes, “At almost every performance, Callas paid the price for not being a ‘perfect’ singer.” Even the very few opera singers who achieve glory, after decades of labor, may find that illness, weight changes, fatigue, childbearing, age, bad advice, or chance can mangle their voices, sometimes onstage, sometimes permanently. The Italian radio show La barcaccia dubs such operatic disasters “perle nere,” black pearls.
The first time I heard an audience boo a tenor’s cracked note, I was horrified: this was how a thirty-five-year career ended, with a singer ashamed to take his bow at the end of three acts. But not every aficionado boos. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his gloriously charming and humane bible of gay opera fandom, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (1993), writes of Callas’s voice:
The steel and the wobble announced a predicament; we loved the mistakes because they seemed autobiographical, because without mediation or guile they wrote a naked heart’s wound. And if her notes had a tendency to wobble, to grow harsh, then this possibility of failure gave her fans a function. The infallible performance does not require an audience … She holds an awkward high note for its full value, even though the tone is unpleasant; she outstares the ugliness, dares it to ruin her good time … We acquiesce, and forgive, and imagine that the note’s wretched aspects are a mirror, reflecting the greedy demands we make of the singer, and asking us: How would you manage such a note?
Jenkins was no Callas. But in reembodying both Jenkins’s and Callas’s voices through queerness and disability, we might listen with identification, empathy—sometimes merriment—but also, as Hilton Als insists, love. I listened to Jenkins’s Bell Song (Lakmé, Delibes, 1883), and then Lily Pons (who attended the Carnegie Hall concert), and then Aida Garifullina, who played Pons in the film. I read YouTube comments eviscerating my beloved Diana Damrau and a medley of sopranos, including Callas. How would we manage such notes? The longer I listen to opera, the more I try to discern the many forms of vocal expression, not limited to technical perfection, and to understand the yearning toward loveliness, even or especially when singers fail.
In the aria “Song to the Moon” from Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901), a water nixie begs for transformation. We opera fans are all little Rusalkas, who might hope to be transfigured into better listeners, cherishing the aspirations and vulnerabilities of our stars. And we might give a round of applause to Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’s accompanist, who enabled her to dream of sweet things, ah, “When the moon plays / In the great mimosas.”
This is Alison Kinney’s third piece for Songs to the Moon, an exploration of fandom and how the music, art, and artifacts of opera transform cultures and desires. Alison is the author of Hood and a correspondent for the Daily. Her writing has appeared online at Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, and VAN Magazine.