|Florence Foster Jenkins|
July 19, 1868|
|Died||November 26, 1944
Manhattan, New York City
|Occupations||Singer, teacher, pianist|
Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American amateur operatic soprano who was known, and ridiculed, for her lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, aberrant pronunciation of libretti, and overall poor singing ability.
Born Narcissa Florence Foster in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Charles Dorrance Foster and Mary Jane Hoagland, Jenkins received music lessons as a child, and expressed a desire to go abroad to study opera. Her wealthy father refused to pay the bill, so she eloped to Philadelphia with Frank Thornton Jenkins, a physician. The two were married from 1885 until 1902. After her divorce Jenkins earned a living in Philadelphia as a teacher and pianist. In 1908 she began living with the stage actor St. Clair Bayfield (later her manager), a relationship that would last the rest of her life.
When her father died in 1909 Jenkins inherited sufficient funds to begin her long-delayed singing career. She took voice lessons and became involved in the musical social circles of Philadelphia and, later, New York City, where she founded and funded the Verdi Club. She began giving recitals in 1912. Her mother's death in 1928 gave her additional resources to pursue her singing career.
From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she provided. Critics often described her work in a backhanded way that may have served to pique public curiosity.
Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the abundant audience laughter during her performances as "professional jealousy." She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way: "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."
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Her recitals featured a mixture of the standard operatic repertoire by Mozart, Verdi, and Johann Strauss (all well beyond her technical ability); lieder by Brahms; Valverde's "Clavelitos" ("Little Carnations"), a favorite encore; and songs composed by herself or accompanist Cosmé McMoon, who reportedly made faces at Jenkins behind her back to get laughs.
Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed herself, sometimes appearing in wings and tinsel, and, for "Clavelitos", throwing flowers into the audience from a basket (apparently on one occasion, she hurled the basket as well) while fluttering a fan and sporting more flowers in her hair. After each performance McMoon would collect the flowers from the auditorium in readiness for redistribution during the next show.
After a taxicab crash in 1943 she discovered that she could sing "a higher F than ever before", and sent the cab driver a box of expensive cigars.
In spite of public demand, Jenkins restricted her rare performances to a few favorite venues and one annual recital at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in New York City. Attendance was limited to her loyal clubwomen and a select few others; she handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself. At the age of 76 she finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. Tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance. Jenkins died a month later at her residence, the Hotel Seymour in Manhattan.
The only professional audio recordings of Jenkins consist of nine selections on five 78-rpm records (Melotone Recording Studio, New York City; 1941–1944). These include four coloratura arias from operas by Mozart, Delibes, Johann Strauss II, and Félicien David; the remaining selections are five art songs, two of them written for Jenkins by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. The material has been reissued in various combinations on three CDs:
In 1999 a one-woman play about Jenkins, Goddess of Song by South African playwright Charles J. Fourie, was staged at the Coffee Lounge in Cape Town. In 2001 Viva La Diva by Chris Ballance had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Another play based on Jenkins's life, Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, opened on Broadway in November 2005 starring Judy Kaye. Kaye commented that "It's hard work to sing badly well. You could sing badly badly for a while, but you'll hurt yourself if you do it for long." A fourth play about Jenkins, Glorious! by Peter Quilter, opened the same year in England starring Maureen Lipman. It has since been translated and performed in more than 20 countries.
The self-titled 2009 album of Boston-based indie folk band The Everyday Visuals contains a cut entitled "Florence Foster Jenkins" which references her Carnegie Hall performance and other aspects of her life. A hidden track called "Encore for Florence" concludes folk singer Mary Hampton's debut album My Mother's Children.
Jenkins was the subject of the "Not My Job" segment of NPR's radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on October 25, 2009. Anchorman Brian Williams, the show's special guest, was asked a series of trivia questions about Jenkins, whom he nicknamed "Flo Fo". The broadcast appropriately took place in Carnegie Hall.
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