A Broadway play about one of opera’s most notorious coloraturas is set to land in Australia.
On October 25, 1944 Mrs Narcissa Florence Foster Jenkins stepped onto the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall to rapturous applause and proceeded to make musical history. Not that she was in particularly good voice – that certainly wasn’t what her legion of devoted fans expected. They had come to hear a remarkable lady with one of the worst voices in the history of the gramophone fulfil her lifetime ambition and entertain a packed house.
Her handful of hysterically execrable recordings have always offered a tempting glimpse of the Foster Jenkins legend. In recent years, however, at least three plays have sprung up celebrating her extraordinary life, vocal enthusiasm and sheer musical tenacity. One of these, Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, was a Broadway hit in 2005 and receives its Australian premiere in Melbourne this month before moving to Sydney later in March.
Helen Noonan, an opera singer with 1400 performances under her belt as the tempestuous Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera, is taking on the challenge of embodying the legendary soprano and socialite. I ask her outright: “Just how badly do you have to sing for this role?” “It actually takes a great deal of musicianship.” Noonan replies with a chuckle. “You have to make choices that allow the audience the fun of hearing a person making musical mistakes but without it sounding horrible to the ears”. I press her further. “I listen to where her voice sits in her body and go from there,” Noonan replies, “starting just under a note, maybe going just above it – it requires real precision.” She sums it all up as very clown like: “think Mr Bean…with vocals.”
Stephen McIntyre, a pianist of international repute, plays Foster Jenkins’ long suffering accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (now there’s a name to conjure with). “His taste is impeccable”, says Noonan, “and he’s been a great help – it’s been a real hoot.” – no pun apparently intended. The relationship with McMoon is central to the play. “He starts out just needing to make some dough,” says Noonan. “Playing for her is excruciatingly painful for him. But he develops a protectiveness, then an admiration and then, one would suggest, a real love for her crazy genius.”
I ask her if she ever gets to sing well in the play. “Yes!” she says, “at one point McMoon says: ‘What the audience heard was one thing, but what she heard was something quite different.’ So I get to sing beautifully at the end.”
Foster Jenkins didn’t start her vocal training until late in life, having been discouraged by her family. “She had a rotten home life and a horrible husband, so it was only when she finally came into the family money that she was able to live this luxurious life,” Noonan relates. She famously had a suite of rooms at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel from where she organised her ‘philanthropic’ concerts. She started up something called the Verdi Club, a monthly gathering of equally well-heeled New Yorkers, showcasing performances from overseas artists. “Of course she couldn’t help getting up to sing,” says Noonan. “Her friends complimented her on her ‘depth of feeling’ and word spread. She made the recordings and still didn’t twig.”
In 1944 she decided to go for gold by hiring Carnegie Hall. “I think I could die happy knowing I’d sung there”, Florence says in the play. By that time she was 76 – “a lot older than me, dear”, quips Noonan. She sold out 3000 seats within hours – 2000 people were turned away. The second half of Souvenir recreates the event, presenting Noonan with the challenge of 13 changes of outfit. “She had a different extravagant costume for each song”, Noonan recalls. “She used to throw flowers into the audience from a basket.” On one occasion, I remark, she overenthusiastically followed through by throwing the basket. Does that happen in the play? “Oh no – I hang onto that basket like grim death.”
Florence Foster Jenkins died only a month after her greatest triumph. She was shopping for scores in Schirmers, the music publisher, when her heart gave out. She wasn’t unwell or disappointed, quite the contrary. According to the play her last words were ‘ I’m feeling much better now – it was probably the creamed chicken I had for lunch’. An optimist to the end.
Souvenir plays Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne, February 20-March 10 and then Zenith Theatre, Chatswood, March 12-16