Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Music students who are fans of opera - or who, like me, were friends of fans of opera - inevitably get exposed to the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins.  Imagine a late night, a group gathered in someone's dorm room, everyone's well stoned listening to all kinds of music.  Eventually, without explaining, someone plays Florence's album.  Hilarity ensues.  It's better when you don't know what to expect.

If you aren't familiar with Florence's work, here's a recording.  Enjoy:

It's natural to wonder whether Florence Foster Jenkins was having a little joke on her audiences.  No, apparently not.  All evidence suggests that Florence was completely serious.  I mean, she was no Darlene Edwards.  Florence was, at least in her own mind, a serious artist.

And that's just the beginning of her tale.  The whole story would make a good movie.

Oh right.  That movie is out now.  It's entitled Florence Foster Jenkins and stars Meryl Streep as the eponymous prima donna.  Since Florence seems like a perfect patron saint of Illusory Superiority (which is the pop psychology trope I have recently adopted as a feeble excuse for not fulfilling my own lofty career expectations), I was tremendously anxious to see it.  I dragged Leslie off to a local theater last week.   Here's the trailer.

I think the essential point is that Florence Foster Jenkins is a love story.  Bad singing is just the hook.  Florence and her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant) had a non-traditional marriage.  Theirs was clearly a loving supportive relationship.  Co-dependent even.  I ended up rooting for Bayfield to help Florence succeed.

It's a good movie because of the acting.  Streep makes you feel that this might have been what the real Florence was like.  And she mimics Florence's singing exceptionally well.   Grant is perfectly cast.  Simon Helberg, who plays the accompanist Cosme McMoon, escapes his Big Bang Theory persona and holds his own against these two formidable talents, although I found his high voice annoying.  On the other hand it was a pleasure to watch an actor actually playing a piano instead of faking.

I even liked the sound track by Alexandre Desplat - especially the Rota/Fellini-esque cue as the crowd streamed into Carnegie Hall.   The best musical moment, in my opinion, happened just after the scene where Florence and Cosme play a Chopin prelude together.  The scene cuts outside while the music transforms perfectly into the John Kirby arrangement of that same music; sad, mournful and very 40's. 

Another oft-mentioned moment shows Florence singing while we hear her presumably as she heard herself.  It's excellent singing, also sung by Meryl Streep.  Here's where I suspect the common perception of Florence Foster Jenkins goes slightly awry. 

It's been suggested that Florence's hearing was affected by the mercury treatments given for her syphilis.  The movie shows her enjoying Lily Pons' excellent singing.  It's possible that what Florence actually heard when she herself was singing was the same thing she heard when she listened to Lily, both performances would have been scrambled by a maladjusted auditory system.

In my twisted version, we would have heard Lily Pons in concert through Florence's ears rather than hearing Florence through Florence's ears.  And in Florence's ears, Lily Pons would have seemed (to us) just as distorted and out of whack as Florence actually sounds.  Maybe everything sounded different to Florence - her own audio universe.  Florence set her own standard for excellence.  Music sounded like that to her and she loved it.

It would be fascinating to learn the results of whatever audiometric tests Florence might have taken.  (I've not heard of any.)  You can anonymously test your own hearing right online - pitch acuity or tone deafness.  Give it a whirl.

Like most movies Florence Foster Jenkins has a villain - a critic from the New York Post named Earl Wilson, portrayed by actor Christian McKay.  His big line is "Music will not be mocked."  On the other hand, maybe the real villain is any classical music fan, professional critic or not, who is just too serious about this stuff.  (And, I've never understood how newspapers in the 1940's could run reviews of concerts the next morning - while newspapers of today can't.)

If you're interested in the real story behind the movie, here are two good sources I've found.  The first is at a site called History Versus Hollywood.  Also watch this documentary "Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own" by Donald Collup.  It's excellent.  I enjoyed all the first person reminiscences about Florence and the real life confirmations of some of the stranger scenes in the movie.

Also don't miss the picture of Cosme McMoon with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In this documentary, starting at about 1'14", several actual reviews of Florence's Carnegie Hall recital are read.  I've transcribed them here:
NEW YORK POST by Earl Wilson  Hey you music lovers, I heard Madame Jenkins.  Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins, 76, a widow lady of our town, has a great voice.  In fact she can sing anything but notes.  Lady Florence, or Madame Jenkins, as she likes to be called, if you are thinking of her as an artiste, indulged last night in one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen.  I witnessed it.  She gave a quavering recital at Carnegie Hall on a stage filled with flowers to resemble an expensive mortuary.  She hired the hall.  She filled it with three thousand people with an acute sense of humor who paid about $6000 for the privilege of snickering squealing and guffawing at her singing, which she took very seriously.  
I sat in row T and around me I heard people saying "Shh.  Don't laugh so loud." "Stick something in your mouth."  "We were jackasses for coming."  "She didn't hit three notes in that one."  "Now that one wasn't bad at all."  But Mrs. Jenkins today can brag that she probably packed in more than Lily Pons could.   "Bravo!" roared the playful listeners.  She heard some of them laughing.  It came, she said, from those hoodlums.  Which hoodlums?  The hoodlums planted in the audience by her enemies of course.  When she walked onto the stage in white and with a large white ostrich fan, she looked like a plump apparition.  The mirth exploded when she took her place beside some flowers as big as a small tree.  From all over the house came the laughs - at the wrong time.  "I'm no music expert," Irving Hoffman (who isn't, either) remarked, "She hit only a few notes."  The rest were promissory. 
It was a great show she gave.  Her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, leaped up and kissed her hand in courtly fashion after several numbers. She got herself mixed up flinging some rose petals and singing Clavelitos.  The first one she undertook to throw stuck to the end of her finger.  She kept trying to pitch it off and it was like some one frantically trying to divest oneself of some flypaper.  Even the rose petals were playing.  And, incidentally, she walked away with about four G's last night.  Maybe the joke's on us.  None of us walked away with anything except dizziness, a headache and a ringing in the ears.  
NEW YORK SUN by Chester Thompson -  It was largely a recital without voice.  For the tones Madame Jenkins produced were tiny to the point of disappearing.  Most of her singing was hopelessly lacking in a semblance of pitch.  But the further a note was from its proper elevation, the more the audience laughed and applauded.  And the upper notes, when they could be heard, had an infantile quality.   But the audience always backed up its laughter with thunderous applause and everybody had a pleasant evening.  
WORLD TELEGRAM by Robert Bagar  The quarter tone touch.  Of all the singers appearing before the public today, only Madame Jenkins has perfected the art of giving added zest to a written phrase by improvising it in quarter tones, either above or below the original notes.  Think of the difficulties involved in making this possible.  She was exceedingly happy in her work.   It is a pity that so few artists are, and the happiness was communicated, as if by magic, to her hearers, who were stimulated to the point of audible cheeriness, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing.  A night of nights in the musical annals of this fair city.    

So, what's the moral of the story?

It would appear that Florence Foster Jenkins was, as so many of us are, a devotee of the magical power of music - there's a strong positive psychic payback for listening, creating or performing music.  She had ample determination and resources to overcome any obstacles to participating in music making.  It was her right to pursue something that made her feel good.

As long as she followed her bliss in private, for her friends, things were okay.   Florence's problems really began when she opened herself to public criticism.  It can be difficult to accept the negative judgements of others.  The public simply does not hear things the same way you do.  Discovering this could kill you.

And yet, decades later, Florence is still fondly remembered.  Her recordings still give us pleasure - much in the same way the audience got pleasure, as reported by these music critics, at Carnegie Hall.  Besides this movie there are books and plays about her.   Despite her naive cluelessness, her alternative musical interpretative style represents a very real, very unique talent.  And that talent has been clearly validated by her audience over the years.  Hers was the power to transmit happiness.  The danger, either for music critic or coloratura soprano, comes when you take yourself just too seriously.

It's not impossible that Florence's fame will continue to grow.  That has happened to other great musicians.  J.S. Bach comes to mind.  The question is not so much what they accomplished during their lifetime but how we, the listeners, regard those accomplishments right now.
the happiness was communicated, as if by magic, to her hearers, who were stimulated to the point of audible cheeriness, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing.

Here's a photo of the crowd at Florence's Carnegie Hall recital:

As far as I can tell, this movie actually looks like the 1940s in New York City - in full color yet. Yeah, a few bloopers are listed on IMDB, the biggest being (I think) that parts of the story were compressed into a much shorter time span.  The bustling New York street outside Florence's hotel is actually in Liverpool and who knows how much digital cleanup was required to send the exterior of Carnegie Hall back in time.   Period costumes and technology and set design - all good.   I laughed at Florence's battle with a roll of old-fashioned cello-tape.

In this video Meryl Streep mentions that the she recreated Florence's entire Carnegie Hall recital for a live audience and that it can be found in the extras section of the DVD.  I'm looking forward to that. Also, in the same video Donald Collup talks about Florence's hearing problems, including tinnitus (a ringing in the ears.).

The actors Nina Arianda and Stanley Townsend who played the comic characters Agnes and Phineas Stark, real "New Yawkers", deserve a mention.  The least musically "authentic" scene in the movie - in my opinion - was Florence's singing lesson with vocal coach Carlo Edwards played only for laughs (by actor David Haig).  One wonders if, in real life, anyone ever suggested to Florence that she might want to practice matching pitches.

In this program of Florence's recital, note the name Pascarella Chamber Music Society.  When I was studying at CalArts (in the 70s) there was a gentleman on the faculty named Cesare Pascarella.  He and his brothers apparently performed quartets while Florence changed costumes.  I guess those of us who knew Cesare were only one handshake away from Florence herself.

You can see other pictures of Florence here