Saturday, 23 April 2005

Doing it badly (2)

My second example of a person who spent a lifetime doing something very badly and became much admired and even loved for it is Madame Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst soprano ever to fill Carnegie Hall.
These full accounts of her extraordinary career make fascinating and inspiring reading. I quote some extracts from them: “Few artists ever gave such unalloyed pleasure … She performed in public for 30-odd years and throughout them was immensely popular among her colleagues … Many of the world's most distinguished musicians - Enrico Caruso for one - regarded her with affection and respect … audiences laughed at her - laughed until the tears rolled down their cheeks, laughed until they stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths - but she was never dismayed.

No Jenkins recital was accompanied by less than three changes of costume. One of her favourite selections, Angel of Inspiration, brought her before the audience in tulle and tinsel, a rather pudgy apparition in sturdy golden wings, standing amid potted palms.

And her voice?
A dumpy coloratura soprano, her voice was not even mediocre, it was preposterous. She clucked and squawked, trumpeted and quavered. She couldn't carry a tune. Her sense of rhythm was uncertain. In the treacherous upper registers, her voice often vanished into thin air, leaving an audience with its ear cocked for notes with which she might just as well have never taxed her throat. One critic peevishly remarked ‘She sounds like a cuckoo in its cups’ ”.

Happily, she made some recordings, and HERE
you can get the flavour of her art from a couple of clips: Adèle’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus captures something of the horror of her voice, but it is The Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute that I defy anyone to listen to for more than a few seconds without breaking into uncontrollable sobs .

In 1944 Madame Jenkins took the big step. Forsaking the brocade atmosphere of fashionable hotel ballrooms, she braved Carnegie Hall, which was sold out weeks in advance. That concert was her last public appearance: the effort and excitement was too much at the age of 76, and she fell ill. But she was content. Her mission was fulfilled. On November 26th, just one month after this final triumph, the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins was stilled forever.

This comment by Daniel Dixon puts it well:
Without question, Madame Jenkins was a star. That she was touched with a gentle madness made no difference. For she had the unfathomable glint and glitter about her that, wherever encountered, divides the unique from the ordinary.
She became the comic symbol of the longing for grace and beauty that is in some way shared by everyone who is clumsy and shy and ill-favored. In the end, after all the laughter, Madame Jenkins was more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.

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