Monday, August 29, 2005

Florence Foster Jenkins, the Musical

Tomorrow Fritz and I drive out to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. We had tickets to the two person play “Souvenir” last Thursday but got a phone call from the box office in the morning that the performance was cancelled due to the serious illness of the leading lady’s father. They offered us substitute tickets for tomorrow instead and we’re hoping the show goes on.

“Souvenir” was a huge success Off-Broadway. It deals with one of the most colorful and enigmatic figures in New York music history, Florence Foster Jenkins: society heiress, concert soprano, (possibly) unwitting pioneer of camp, and gay icon. Perhaps the main reason for her eventual fame was that she was one of the most inept singers ever to perform in public.

The Young Florence Foster

Florence Foster was born into wealth in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868 and very early on developed a love for music. Her father, banker, lawyer and eventually state legislator, dashed all hope for a career by refusing to pay for singing lessons, so she eloped to Philadelphia with Doctor Frank Jenkins as soon as she was legal. When he, too, proved uncooperative, she ditched him in 1902 and supported herself teaching piano until 1909 when her father died and she inherited a fortune. From then on there was no holding her. She founded the Verdi Society in Philadelphia as a platform for her musical and social activities, chief among them being solo vocal recitals for she gave for friends and invited musicians, and the annual Ball of the Silver Skylarks which saw her first efforts at design on a big scale which the papers described as startling. She blithely ignored all advice to withdraw from singing in public, adding Washington DC, Boston, Saratoga Springs and Newport, Rhode Island to her concert tours--all places full of appreciative, probably tone deaf dowagers where her social standing and connections guaranteed an appreciative reception.
Fully Mature Diva as the Angel of Inspiration

Eventually she decided it was time to break into New York City. She had developed some contacts there—iconic Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was very kind and encouraging—so she began an annual ritual of checking into a suite at the Carlisle Hotel and giving a recital in its ballroom, which is where her legend began. After the first couple of years, word spread that an entertaining spectacle of over-the-top fashion, unimaginably bad vocalism in some of the most demanding high coloratura music in the repertory, and unintentional hilarity was to be had whenever she performed. People flocked for tickets, which she personally sold from her hotel suite. The faithful had to sit with her, assure her they were not music critics and, on occasion, share a glass of sherry with the diva. She rewarded them on stage with no fewer than three costume changes, an extra one often thrown in for the encores.

Among them was her “Angel of Inspiration” outfit, a confection of feathered wings, satin, tulle and glitz. She could maintain neither pitch nor tempo--accompanist Cosme McMoon (known to be a stage name, although little else is known about him) frequently had to bang out particular notes repeatedly to get her somewhere within range of the printed key.

When asked if she had noticed laughter from the audience while she performed, she dismissed it as the tactics of jealous rival singers. On another occasion she said her audiences were joyously raucous and enthusiastic like those of the young Frank Sinatra. She apparently didn’t notice--or ignored--documented observations of people biting down on folded handkerchiefs or running out exits to avoid laughing out loud in the ballroom. Tickets eventually became impossible to obtain except through scalpers for a huge fee. In 1943 she was in a New York taxi that crashed, giving her a serious shock. On recovering she announced that extra notes had spontaneously appeared at the top of her range, allowing her suddenly to sing an f above high c. Instead of suing the cab company, she rewarded the driver.

In 1944, now 76, she bowed to public pressure and hired Carnegie Hall in New York for the capstone recital of her career—it sold out within hours. The critics (who always got in despite her efforts to exclude them) wrote in the same terms as always, in double-entendre prose with phrases mentioning her inimitable approach to pitch and rhythm or unique personal style that defied actual description. The crowd went wild. Her customary encore was Valverde’s song “Clavelitos” (carnations) which she sang in full Spanish dress with a basket of the flowers on her arm. She danced across the apron of the stage tossing carnations out to her fans and then tossed out the basket at the final high note. The audience demanded an encore of the encore. Her props were gone. McMoon was sent into the crowd to retrieve everything, and she took it again from the top. The hall went wild. A month later she was dead.

RCA recorded the heart of her recital repertory and put it out on a single LP record, recently remastered onto CD. The singing is truly dreadful. The recording became a regular ritual at dinner parties given by opera lovers, opera queens and musicians. It’s also a very unfair way to evaluate her, having been recorded at an age when even top stars are encountering vocal decline, and the RCA record jacket (above) clearly ridicules her. But the critics were perceptive in their obituaries. Robert Bagar wrote in the Herald-Tribune: "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And her happiness was communicated as if by magic to her listeners who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing."

Judy Kaye as Florence Off-Broadway

There are major questions surrounding Jenkins and her public’s reaction. Theories that it was all a huge joke and parody of the concert world have been shot down by those who observed the genuine, uninhibited joy she took in performing. And it should be noted that she provided free concert tickets and financial support to music students who couldn't afford lessons. By all accounts, Broadway star Judy Kaye who plays-- and sings--Madame Jenkins in “Souvenir" has captured the combination of innocence, joy, communication with audiences-- and just a hint of self-delusion--that made Florence Foster Jenkins tick.

Pope Benedict XVI

I offer the following without comment beyond the fact that I have known four gay priests during my life (not pedophiles, but normal, healthy gay men who felt a genuine calling to the priesthood) and can only imagine what their reaction will be:

Vatican plan to block gay priests
By Jamie Doward, religious affairs correspondent
Sunday August 28, 2005 , The Observer

The new Pope faces his first controversy over the direction of the Catholic church after it was revealed that the Vatican has drawn up a religious instruction preventing gay men from being priests. The controversial document, produced by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, the body overseeing the church's training of the priesthood, is being scrutinised by Benedict XVI.

It been suggested Rome would publish the instruction earlier this month, but it dropped the plan out of concern that such a move might tarnish his visit to his home city of Cologne last week.

The document expresses the church's belief that gay men should no longer be allowed to enter seminaries to study for the priesthood. Currently, as all priests take a vow of celibacy, their sexual orientation has not been considered a pressing concern.

Vatican-watchers believe the Pope harbours doubts about whether the church should publish the document, which has already been the subject of three drafts.
'Inevitably, such a directive will be met with opposition,' said John Haldane, professor of moral philosophy at the University of St Andrews.

The instruction tries to dampen down the controversy by eschewing a moral line, arguing instead that the presence of homosexuals in seminaries is 'unfair' to both gay and heterosexual priests by subjecting the former to temptation.

'It will be written in a very pastoral mode,' Haldane said. 'It will not be an attack on the gay lifestyle. It will not say "homosexuality is immoral". But it will suggest that admitting gay men into the priesthood places a burden both on those who are homosexual and those they are working alongside who are not.'

The instruction was drawn up as part of the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse scandal that surfaced in the American church three years ago, which has seen hundreds of priests launch lawsuits against superiors whom they accuse of abusing them.

As the former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body charged with looking into the abuse claims, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was made acutely aware of the scale of the problem. He is thought to have made clearing up the scandal one of the key goals of his papacy.

Next month the Vatican will send investigators to the US to gauge the scale of the scandal. More than 100 bishops and seminary staff will visit 220 campuses. They will review documents provided by the schools and seminaries and may interview teachers, students and alumni, then report directly to the Vatican, which could choose to issue the instruction barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood as part of its response.

Studies show that a significant proportion of men who enter seminaries to train for the priesthood are gay. Any move signalling that homosexuals will not be allowed to join the seminaries, even one couched in the arcane language of the Vatican, could reduce the number of recruits to the priesthood.

In a further sign of the instruction's deeply controversial nature, it is expected the document would be signed by a cardinal rather than the Pope himself if the Vatican decides to publish it.

The Vatican has been carefully trying to soften Benedict's image since he was elected earlier this year. In recent weeks he has reached out to the Jewish and Muslim communities as well as young Catholics during the church's World Youth Day. The initiatives have been seen as a significant PR success. A decision to publish an instruction that would underscore his religious conservatism would be detrimental to Benedict's standing as he enjoys his 'honeymoon period' on the world stage.

YOu have the most fascinating knowledge of the arts. I love it.

As for the Pope - I can't even go there. My blood just boils thinking about the Catholic church.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Two great posts, but so different, other than the costumes involved.

For years the Catholic Church has insisted that a celibate homosexual is not a homosexual, so, in a way, at least they're acknowledging that gay is something you are and not something you do. What bothers me though, is that it implies that all gay men are pedophiles.

3:46 AM
Will, I am very curious what you'll write about "Souvenir" ;-)

Best wishes,

After reading your post I find myself charmed by Florence! What a character.
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