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2006-01-17 The glory of a "special" voice

I have never been able to forgive myself for not having the courage to tell a singing friend in London that she was simply not good. When she asked me after her recitals what I had thought, I realised I had developed a sort of reversed-English, employing phrases which could double as a compliment or insult.

 

"That was out of this world. I have never heard you sing like that - the best I have ever heard you. Memorable. Special." At least I never lied. But I hated that side of myself which allowed her to stand in front of an audience, who struggled to keep straight faces and were there for the wrong reasons. The saddest thing was that she was dedicated to her `art' through and through, and the sincerity in her performances was heart-breaking.

 

The most famous of all `non-singers' was Florence Foster-Jenkins (1868-1944). She was renowned for her total lack of singing ability, absolutely no sense of pitch and rhythm, and her inability to even sustain a note. Despite the fact that Florence's parents and husband discouraged her from pursuing a singing career, this woman had goals, and no-one was going to stand in the way of her achieving them. She was wealthy, and could fund her pursuits. She had a huge ego, behaved like a Diva, and was a vain snob. She compared herself to the great sopranos of her time - Melba, Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini - even inviting her audiences to publicly vote her as their superior. During her sold-out concerts she insisted on several costume changes, and would appear dressed as a shepherdess with crook, as a Spanish Flamenco girl complete with mantilla and basket of carnations for her audience, or in her famous `Angel of Inspiration' costume with tinselled wings.

 

Her talented accompanist Cosme McMoon was somehow able to keep a straight face, and indulged her obsequiously. As if the singing was not bad enough, she also insisted on a whole range of histrionics, choreographed actions, and dances during the piano interludes. Her audiences tried not to laugh out loud, so as not to hurt her feelings, and would applaud her high notes uncontrollably in order to cover the laughter. Any laughter the Diva heard she always put down to `professional jealousy' from her rivals.

 

In 1944, at the age of 76, Florence made her Carnegie Hall debut. Tickets were sold out weeks in advance. The LA Times described her performance as `a pathetic exhibition of vanity'. One month later, Florence Foster Jenkins died. Some say she died of a broken heart, others say she was completely oblivious to being the Opera world's laughing stock. After her death, record companies fought for the rights to release her `special talents' to a wider audience. RCA Victor won, and released "The Glory (????) of the Human Voice" (GD 61175). Another CD called "Murder on the High Cs" is also available.

 

But I still feel a little guilty and cruel listening to her unique interpretations of Mozart's `Queen of the Night', Adele's "Laughing Song" or Lakmé's "Bell Song". Now, in the West End, Maureen Lipman re-enacts Florence in a new stage-show called "Glorious", and beautifully portrays this funny, sad, and perhaps vulnerable Diva.

 

Two other performers on the RCA disc provide a painful filler with their take on Gounod's "Faust". It is hard to believe that Thomas Burns and his wife Jenny Williams were singing teachers, and wrote books on singing technique, as you hear their own laughable English translations, hilarious diction, while the sound makes your larynx bleed in empathy.

 

Another collection worth having is "The Muse Surmounted - Florence and 11 of her rivals" (Homophone 1001). Some extracts however seem particularly cruel, as they are of successful singers with big careers, now in their twilight years, singing long after they ought to have hung up their vocal cords. Highlights on this recording are the incomparable Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller who cannot even master the simplest of folk-songs, Sara Bunchuk who simply sounds as though she has lost it on a whole load of levels, Marilyn Sussman's Rossini sounding like a chimpanzee on speed, and Natalia de Andrade's Massenet aria resembling a badly constipated hen.

 

But for me, Florence is the original, and the best. Or should that be worst. May she rest in peace. Or at least be entertaining the angelic choirs.