Florence Foster Jenkins: An Opera Unto Herself


When I was a little girl I liked to mimic opera singers because I could. When I was a voice major in undergrad and had days where I didn't feel great about my voice, my peers would tell me to listen to Florence Foster Jenkins, so I would feel better about myself. In fact, you weren't savvy in voice studio if you didn't know that such a person as Florence Foster Jenkins had existed complete with her Diva regalia and seemingly comical vocal delivery.

Until today, though, when I had the treat of a sneak preview of the movie about her life starring Meryl Streep, I had thought the word "seemingly" to be that of an act of sorts. I'd only heard and thought about the dissonances on recordings, which to my mind, had to have been intentional. I'd imagined Jenkins' legendary "vocal calisthenics" to be "staged," never thinking about her internal countenance or aesthetic motivation. I thought her occasional atonal antics were a precursor similar to the concept behind the Broadway show "The Producers"...again..."seemingly" - "so bad that it was funny." Additionally and before this film, I had believed that Jenkins had always performed poorly with intention to spoof veritable uber diva types; a kind of touche if you will for the lofty of head. Moreover, I had thought her renowned recitals were her interpretation of an adult presentation and homage of sorts from the comical mimicking of opera singers that we've almost all been guilty of mocking in childlike turkey gobbles. (To the less well versed in Bel Canto and coloratura vocal technique, Florence Foster Jenkins' rivetingly "memorable" as well as discordant more-often-than-not singing, is what I believe has given opera a bad name from examples of a less trained singer with stereotypical tremolos, or, in Ms. Jenkins' case, a singer lacking in supported vibrato, all the while singing with a flattened soft palate, high larynx , and retracted tongue resulting in her dominant straight toning).

Why this movie is so essential to see is not only to learn the history of such a femme fatale as well as to see another fine performance by Ms. Streep or from Mr. Grant, but because it is humbling. During the course of the movie, one is reminded of opera's snobbery and its requirements to please discerning as well as undiscerning ears; that money can erase a myriad of imperfections, however; that vocal artists are their own instruments - they go "vocally skinny dipping" with every syllable they utter; that love of music and of art , " high" or otherwise, makes us all react, and in most, certainly Ms. Jenkins' case, gives emotional nourishment and sustenance as well as raison d'etre. Whether you are a singer or not, Florence Foster Jenkins will make you laugh initially and then lead you to a softer place of recognition.

In closing: Florence Foster Jenkins has left a song in my heart and has made me see Florence, the woman, and her internal universe rather than the lavish lifestyle, theatrical threads, and her sensational salon parties. (Perhaps, too, that is why more set detail seemed apparent in the inner realms of her life throughout the movie, rather than on the streets that encased her?)

*Of special note is the beautifully chosen closing art song by Ernest Charles, "When I Have Sung My Songs To You," which couldn't have been a more perfect punctuation to this visit of operatic proportions. Lastly, this critic also believes that Ms. Jenkins, barring her deteriorating health due to tertiary syphilis and her aging vocal folds, had all the potential to be a prime singer had she been taught, rather than "coached."

Ellen Nordstrom
Lyric Mezzo & Vocal Coach