‘Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!’ Fails to Fall Into Tune

Florence Foster Jenkins' music transports one to a realm of bizarre delights. Darryl W. Bullock's book on the singer remains firmly in the mundane.

I remember the first time I heard a recording of Florence Foster Jenkins. The scenario played out as I imagine it has for many of her auditors. I was attending a party hosted by an opera buff. The entire evening was underscored by the recorded performances of history’s finest opera divas: Callas, Sutherland, Tebaldi, Flagstad, and so on.

“Underscored” may not be the appropriate word here. When a recording emerged that the host felt we should particularly savor (and that applied to most of them), the recording overscored the party, drowning out any hope for idle chatter, demanding that all the guests listen attentively. As the party progressed, the volume grew louder.

The evening wore on, as evenings tend to do, and the majority of the guests had abandoned what was gradually turning into a deafening aural environment. A rare lull arose amidst the stalwarts that remained and the host was asked: “Of all of these recordings, why not play us the one you enjoy the most?” Of course, the host took this as an invitation for mischievous irony. He pulled out a purple CD. We weren’t allowed to examine the cover too closely.

The grainy recording opened with a piano playing thrumming, repetitive chords, establishing one tempo and immediately accelerating. No modern professional recording would have allowed the blunder to stand but there are certain Caruso recordings with comparably flailing accompaniments and this recording was clearly closer to that era than ours.

Then that inimitable voice entered and the piano began to sound polished in comparison. The opening line finds the soprano desperately seeking her pitch. She never finds it. Indeed she threatens to be on-key throughout the performance, but with admirable consistency, fails to fall into tune.

It didn’t take long to realize that the singer was attempting Mozart’s acrobatic “Queen of the Night” aria (“Der Hölle Rache”) from The Magic Flute. This is one of the most intimidating coloratura arias in the repertoire — terribly demanding and forbiddingly unforgiving. This singer didn’t ask for forgiveness. If the aria required a fight, Florence Foster Jenkins was prepared to do battle.

Everyone got the joke quickly enough — a brilliant aria sung in a preposterously horrid manner. But the host didn’t remove the CD and he didn’t laugh. He tolerated our laughter with a knowing smile and Jenkins continued her assault on Mozart. Soon we stopped laughing and listened ever more closely.

Once you get past her tone-deaf approach to pitch, there’s a lot of finesse to be found in a Jenkins performance. Her timbre is not pleasing. It’s far too thin for opera and lacks anything that one might regard as decent breath support. Yet her approach to tone-quality and her manner of varying it to bring out specific phrases has an artfulness to it that one wouldn’t expect in a merely bad singer. Her rhythm is not flawless, but it bears a confidence that is compelling.

Indeed, confidence is a quality that imbues the entire recording. She reaches for those high notes with aplomb. She fails to hit them but she bats at them with a beguiling exuberance. For all of her insensitivity to pitch accuracy, Jenkins evinces a great deal of sensitivity to phrasing and to the general architecture of the aria. The joke ended almost immediately, but Jenkins holds your attention for the duration.

One is reminded of something composer Charles Ives’ father supposedly once said to an educated musician when the latter objected to the tuneless singing of a local character: “Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds — for if you do, you may miss the music.”

The idea that there may be a divorce between “the sounds” and the music raises a fascinating ontological question. What is the nature of music if not the sounds themselves? And yet one can sense, when listening to Jenkins, what Ives’ father may have meant. There’s something entrancing about the spirit of her attempt at Mozart that emerges in spite of, and yet simultaneously owing to, her inability to grapple with the notes. Her musicality outwits her lack of vocal talent.

Jenkins recorded nine songs with her accompanist Cosme Moon at the Melotone Recording Studio in Manhattan in the early ’40s. They were issued privately, but still managed to circulate relatively widely. Eight of these recordings were collected and issued by RCA in 1954, a decade after her death, as A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!. RCA reissued the recordings in 1962 as The Glory (????) of the Human Voice and this recording was released on CD in 1992.

Recently Jenkins has reemerged in the public consciousness as the subject of several plays, a documentary, and a couple of films including the just-released Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep. There are also two recent books available about her life, one associated with the Streep film and the other entitled Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock.

Bullock reveals that Jenkins led a fascinating and largely spoiled life. He portrays her as a much-loved eccentric who moved to New York after her divorce to immerse herself in musical society. She founded and was president of the Verdi Club, belonged to numerous other societies, and was a benefactress to the Metropolitan Opera and several up-and-coming musicians. She threw lavish parties that, at least on one occasion, featured a bathtub full of potato salad.

She also performed a few recitals each year, attended by such luminaries as Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead. The latter laughed so hard at one of Jenkins’ recitals that she purportedly urinated herself and had to leave the hall. Porter habitually pushed the sharp end of his cane into his foot to prevent himself from bursting out in a manner that would disturb the proceedings.

This is generally the main concern of accounts dealing with Jenkins: was the laughter good-natured or derisive? Was it harmless enjoyment or mean-spirited ridicule? Bullock only glancingly deals with the issue. He portrays her friends as so genuinely affectionate that they willingly indulged her peculiar performances. Those given to more boisterous displays of their amusement were instructed to remain in the back of the hall.

But of course, audience reaction could not be so readily contained when it came to the recital that served as the culmination of Jenkins’ career: her Carnegie Hall concert held on 25 October 1944. Now critics couldn’t be turned away as easily and the public notices regarding the performance were a great deal harsher than had been the case previously. Jenkins suffered a heart attack five days after the concert and was dead in less than a month after her collapse.

Bullock mentions that some people claimed that her death resulted from reading the “scathing reviews of her final show” (119), but he doesn’t really explore the matter much further than that statement. In fact, that may be the most damning overarching criticism of the book: Bullock fails to explore much of anything in any real depth.

The book is dutiful and well researched, but not particularly engaging or well written. That it’s not engaging is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: how could any work dealing with such a wonderfully bizarre tale fail to capture one’s attention? Bullock’s book manages that failure with the same consistency that Jenkins manages to miss her pitches.

Bullock adopts that rather tedious approach to biography that has become de rigueur ever since people started to try to capture Ken Burns’ lightening in a bottle. Every time a new figure is introduced, we get a “time out” to detail the birthdate and place, the parentage, and other tidbits about their background — while, in general, none of this information winds up contributing to the main narrative.

Indeed, a strong sense of narrative never really emerges. We move by fits and starts; we are inundated with detail without purpose; we see around the thing and never engage with the thing itself. In the meanwhile, Bullock’s bland writing is constantly upstaged by the people he quotes (Simon Doonan, for example, attests that Jenkins sounded “like a turkey being gang-raped” [81]).

Of course, the thing one wants to see explored the most is the most difficult to bring to account: that voice, that approach to music, and that irrepressible confidence that allowed Jenkins in good conscience to perpetrate these musical misdeeds. That exploration doesn’t happen in Bullock’s book.

If you’re looking for biographical information on Jenkins and those close to her, Bullock adequately provides it. If you’re trying to understand this approach to music, or even if you’re just looking for a concentrated engagement with the sounds Jenkins produced, you will have to look elsewhere.

RATING 3 / 10