For many years I produced a program called Opera Showcase on WRKF Public Radio here in Baton Rouge. The local opera lovers who did most of the shows were as knowledgeable about opera as anyone in the United States. In fact, when the Met Opera Saturday matinees would feature an opera quiz during the intermission between acts, I would often think about how my people could have answered more questions than the opera cognoscenti who participated in the quizzes. Our local audience was small compared to those who preferred classical music or even Big Band music rather than opera, but the shows were top-notch, and the opera lovers gave more per pledge than any other group of listeners.
The WRKF membership drives occurred twice a year and my associates and I would use any means to get our listeners to pledge. For instance I used to compete with Lew Carter who did a Big Band show called Music Makers just prior to Opera Showcase. Lew had more listeners than anyone else at the station, but his listeners gave relative small pledges. So Lew and I could compete without things being too one-sided. The winner would receive one dozen chocolate covered donuts from the loser. I usually lost, but not always.
One way I used to entice my listeners to quickly make a pledge was to play the absolutely worst opera recording ever made. The threats usually works, the phones started ringing, and I ended the torture. The “soprano” who butchered arias like “Lakme’s Bell Song” from Delibes’ Lakme and the “Queen of the Night Aria” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute was a New York socialite named Florence Foster Jenkins. I knew little about her other than that she had a devoted following despite her truly awful voice. She was a mystery who we all laughed at as we covered our ears to close out her screeching.
Now, imagine my surprise when I learned that the great Meryl Streep would portray Jenkins in a movie. Not only had Streep committed to the movie, but Hugh Grant would portray Jenkins’ common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield. Truly, it was hard to imagine what was so fascinating about Jenkins’ life that two A-list stars and millions of dollars would be employed to make a movie about it. This was very strange.
Soon after learning about the up-coming movie I discovered that a biography of Jenkins’ life had recently been published as well. The book is Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock. Even stranger.
I decided to read the book and then to watch the movie. It turned out to be the best sequence. You definitely have a much better understanding of the movie by reading the relatively short book first. You also better appreciate the excellent acting by Streep and Grant.
As it turned out Jenkins’ life was quite interesting. Jenkins (1868 – 1944) was born into a well-to-do family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She was a gifted pianist, so she definitely wasn’t tone deaf. She wanted to study music in New York, but her wealthy father opposed the idea. He did, however, allow her to travel to New York City and to remain there for short periods of time. When he died Jenkins and her mother were able to do as they pleased for the rest of their lives without worrying about where the money would come from.
Jenkins soon gave up her dream of being a famous pianist due to an accident to one of her arms. The cause or exact details of the problem were never known. Jenkins couldn’t be a concert pianist, but her life revolved around music, so she joined and even started numerous organizations that promoted the love and public performance of music. Often her money was used to keep these enterprises operating.
One of her devoted followers was a man named St. Clair Bayfield. He was a sophisticated Brit who occasionally performed Shakespeare and other plays on stage. They fell in love and for 36 years he assisted her in her endeavors and shielded her from anyone or anything that might harm her. In the biography he comes across as truly loving Jenkins, not merely using her for his financial well-being. Hugh Grant does an admirable job of portraying Bayfield in a similar manner in the movie. The aforementioned undying love didn’t, however, stop Bayfield from carrying on a 14 years affair while he professed his love and devotion for Jenkins. After Jenkins’ death Bayfield married his lover, but declared his love for Jenkins until the day he died. Bayfield was as enigmatic as Jenkins.
I don’t know how to explain Jenkins’ blindness to reality. She had a few quirks, but she seemed fairly normal except when it came to her singing. How could someone with her musical knowledge – remember she had been a pianist – perform in public and not hear how horrible her voice was? Even more, how did she fail to understand the people were laughing at her? The few selections we have of her singing are the result of vanity recordings she made (with piano accompaniment by Cosme McMoon) to give to her friends. The human mind is quite complex, so she somehow didn’t realize (or accept) that she was a joke until a few days before her death in 1944.
Truly, there was much more to Florence Foster Jenkins than I ever imagined way back when I used her recordings to aurally bludgeon my listeners into making pledges. Knowing what I know now, I’m sorry that I used her lack of self-awareness to raise money for WRKF. On the other hand, lover of music that she was, she might have enjoyed knowing that she helped to keep opera alive on public radio.
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On the most recent edition of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH Public Radio I included a segment called “Ella & Friends.” The “friends” were three well-known vocal groups: The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, and The Delta Rhythm Boys. I was delighted to then find an excellent article at udiscovermusic entitled “Pitch Perfect: A History of Vocal Groups.” It’s too good to pass up if you enjoy the above mentioned groups or The Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Andrews Sisters, barbershop quartets, The Boswell Sisters, The Dinning Sisters, The Mel-Tones, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Beach Boys, or even New Jack Swing.
A wonderful bonus at the end of the article is the inclusion of 27 songs featuring many vocal group mentioned in the history. This is an awesome article. Don’t miss it.
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While you’re at the udiscovermusic website, check out their articles about Glen Campbell the popular singer and guitarist who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. One article gives you information on his life while three other articles (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) are about the recording of Adios his final album. It was recorded shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Campbell is 81 years old.