For years I produced a program called Opera Showcase on public radio here in Baton Rouge. I occasionally hosted a program, but I mostly left it to a group of very, very talented individuals to provide the music and commentary – which was as good as you would find on WQXR radio or anywhere else.
Since this was public radio, we did fundraisers twice a year to raise the money necessary to keep the station on the air. While my guests would provide stunning arias, duets, and overtures to motivate our listeners to pick up their phones and make generous pledges, I occasionally took a different tack. I would put an album on the turntable, and play an aria by the inimitable British singer Florence Foster Jenkins. When I call her a singer, I’m stretching a point since her voice was horrible and she was tone deaf. I was attempting to get our listeners to pledge, but with the threat that I would continue to play Jenkins until the phone started to ring. It usually worked. Rather than turn off their radios our listeners went along with the joke and pledged in order to end the pain.
I had not heard anything about Jenkins for years, and then a day or two ago I stumbled across a BBC News article about Jenkins. I was absolutely stunned to read that both a biography and a major movie will soon be released about the life of the inimitable Madame Jenkins. Furthermore, the movie stars Meryl Streep as Jenkins and Hugh Grant as her second husband St. Clair Bayfield. The article even claims that the movie, which will not be released in the United States until August 12th, “is already being tipped for Oscar glory.” Streep is amazingly versatile: she was Margaret Thatcher a few years ago and now she is Florence Foster Jenkins.
If you think the world is a bit crazy now, picture Jenkins performing to a full house at Carnegie Hall in 1944 – and being applauded, not jeered at, for her efforts (“efforts” is a close as I can come to a compliment). She had a devoted following that included English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer Noël Coward.
The album I used on the radio is still available for purchase, and some of the selections can be heard on YouTube. On the album, Jenkins tackles some very difficult pieces including the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And in an awesome finale she and baritone Thomas Burns (who is as equal to the task as Jenkins) sing a trio from what is labeled “A Faust Travesty” by Charles Gounod. To make it even more interesting, they sing the trio as a duet.