So bad she was goodby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Long before the U.S. had American Idol, the nation had Florence Foster Jenkins. In the 1930s and '40s, the operatic soprano was the talk of New York. A performance she gave at Carnegie Hall sold out in less than two hours. She was dedicated to her art, and she was truly awful. A new show at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis called "Souvenir" examines Jenkins' career, and also examines the question of who decides what art is good or bad.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Director Joel Sass remembers the first time he stumbled across the woman he now calls Madame Flo. It was years ago at a thrift store, as he rummaged through a bin of old LPs each priced at 25 cents.
"Amongst the yodelers and the bad family folk singers, I did come across an album called 'Murder on the High C's,' and it was Florence Foster Jenkins," said Sass.
When he recently heard there was a play based on her life, he leapt at the chance to stage a production at The Jungle. He immediately thought of Claudia Wilkens as someone who could handle the challenges of portraying Madame Flo.
Wilkens says Florence Foster Jenkins was a society lady who wanted to sing. There was just one problem.
"She really had no ear," said Wilkens. "She really couldn't match a pitch. She had no idea. She heard the music, and then she would sing it as she heard it."
Jenkins' parents tried to direct her passion elsewhere, but once they died and left her independently wealthy, she devoted her life to her art.
"She went to New York, and she founded something called the Verdi Club, where she would do her music," said Wilkens. "All of her friends would come, and she would give recitals a couple of times a year. And she would design costumes, and it was hilariously funny, but they were too polite to tell her."
Most people would realize that the laughter indicated something. Wilkens said such was Florence Foster Jenkins self-confidence, that she saw the audience reaction as a natural response to a great performance.
"She was one of those people who had no doubts about anything," said Wilkens. "She had money, she had her music, she had her friends, she had everything. And so she was a happy, happy, woman."
The demand for tickets for her private performances was so great that Jenkins eventually decided, as a service to the public, she should sing to larger audiences.
But for that she needed an accompanist, and that is how she came to meet Cosme McMoon. Director Joel Sass says their relationship becomes a central part of the play.
"It's about a kind of platonic love affair that grew up between these two musical odd-balls," said Sass. "A guy who aspired to write music, but never really broke into that, and a woman who thought she was a diva soprano but really wasn't, and together they achieved more than they ever could apart."
For her role in "Souvenir," Claudia Wilkens had to train to sing badly. She has to be reminded sometimes that she is getting too close to singing on key.
Peter Vitale plays Cosme, and also is music director for the show. He says while the play is designed for laughs, it's possible to draw some larger lessons, too, about how we define good art.
"Especially in music," Vitale said. "In music, there's just in our Western ear, in our Western mentality, there are certain lines we don't cross because then we are into noise. But why?"
In the show, Cosme McMoon finds Madame Flo challenges his musical assumptions.
"I began to wonder if she hadn't discovered some new kind of form, if her performances weren't really commenting on what music is, and isn't," said Vitale. "It got so I almost preferred the way she sang."
"Souvenir" runs at The Jungle until just before Christmas, a time when many amateur performers will take to the stage in holiday shows. Director Joel Sass says in a way, "Souvenir" is about some of them.
"That kind of jaw-dropping spectacle of someone who is attempting something so difficult and failing so spectacularly. But their heart is so pure in the endeavor," he said.
Sass says it's important to remember that while Florence Foster Jenkins' audiences may have laughed during her performances, they respected what she was attempting to do, and so, the applause was real.
- Morning Edition, 11/13/2008, 6:55 a.m.