Arts » Theater

Celebrating a terrible singer in Souvenir

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The contributions of soprano Florence Foster Jenkins to opera in the early 20th century roughly matched those of pensioner Cecilia Giménez, the woman who recently achieved international notoriety with her "restoration" of a fresco of Jesus near Zaragoza, Spain.

As a singer Jenkins lacked the necessary qualities of pitch, vocal color and rhythm to perform the works of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart. She did, however, have the cash and social standing to fund a classical music society or two, from which she launched one of the oddest careers in opera.

But, as we reassured audiences after the first regional production of Souvenir in January 2009, Jenkins' naiveté about her own inabilities as a singer could hardly have been as pure—or as poignant—as playwright Stephen Temperley depicts in his comic two-hander. Historically, Jenkins clearly knew something was up by the time she had to fire Edwin McArthur, her pianist for six years before the arrival of the play's narrator, Cosmé McMoon, because he couldn't stop guffawing at her during one of her performances. Such liberties with the truth don't add up to a biography of Jenkins' life but a "fantasia" instead, as Temperley labels Souvenir in the play's subtitle.

In this Hot Summer Nights/Theatre Raleigh revival, a razor-sharp Lisa Jolley effectively conveyed, under Richard Roland's direction, the enigma of an utterly candid and clear-eyed performer who either resolutely refused or was psychologically incapable of recognizing the fundamental limitations of her blighted voice. If we didn't buy Jonas Cohen's too-abrupt initial jumps as McMoon between cabaret covers, jaded chit-chat and rueful recollections on the anniversary of Jenkins' death, we warmed up as he nimbly escorted us down an errant musical memory lane.

This latest production of the Jenkins story makes me reconsider a maxim long cherished by anxious actors on opening night: The audience wants to see the actors succeed. People don't buy a ticket to a show if they think it's going to tank. And yet, well-deserved hisses routinely greet composer Peter Schickele's worst musical puns as P.D.Q. Bach, or those too, too tutu drag atrocities of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Still, in these cases, audiences and performers at both shows are in on the jokes.

But no such understanding applies at La Scala, which has earned a worldwide reputation for an audience that boos all but the most exacting of performances. (Some of their lustiest responses can actually be found on YouTube, which also returns more than 100 entries for the term search "opera fail.") Come tournament time, local basketball devotees know well the carbolic tang of watching a rival team descend in flames. And viewers don't avert their eyes when series like American Idol showcase their most inept auditioners.

What is behind our fascination with such artistic train wrecks? Surprise, expressed as comic relief, when heightened aesthetic expectations are unexpectedly dashed? A chance to sharpen our claws in some old-school schadenfreude? The cool superiority automatically conferred upon viewers who know they're watching a flop? A simple contempt for those who cannot achieve the heights to which they aim?

I suspect our responses involve some combination of these. But I think the questions explain, at least in part, why I somehow feel a little less clean for having watched—and enjoyed—both productions of Souvenir.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The not-so-divine Ms. Jenkins."

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