Florence Foster Jenkins was responsible for one of the oddest cultural events of the 20th century. Jenkins, a New York socialite, believed that she was a fantastic coloratura soprano. In fact, she was painfully bad.
In 1944, Jenkins sang a recital at Carnegie Hall for a sellout crowd that included Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead, Lily Pons and other celebrities. They howled with laughter throughout the performance.
But Jenkins was no put-on. "She never knew that she couldn't sing,'' said Neva Rae Powers, who plays the deluded diva in Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley, at American Stage. "She was protected by her money. She was protected by her social position. She dropped the curtain on reality about her singing a long time before she ever got to Carnegie Hall.''
Jenkins' fingernails-on-the-blackboard singing has been a kind of party joke ever since RCA released a recording of her in 1954. Her excruciating rendition of the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute never fails to bring down the house.
"The first time I heard her I literally wet my pants I was laughing so hard,'' said Steven Flaa, director of Souvenir. "Someone singing badly is funny to me, and I just could not believe that this person was for real. I thought, this has got to be a joke. No one can sing like this seriously. But she thought she really had the chops to sing this.''
Jenkins, reminiscent of a character out of an Edith Wharton novel, was the quintessential clubwoman. She loved dressing up in outlandish stage costumes — most famously, in a flowing white satin gown and pair of angel's wings — and performing operatic scenes in recitals at the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. For a time, the fashionable set in New York couldn't get enough of her.
"It did not seem to bother her in the least that everybody in the audience was convulsed with laughter,'' said Broadway star Marge Champion in Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, a DVD documentary by Donald Collup. "It didn't faze her at all.''
Souvenir also features Jenkins' faithful accompanist, the improbably named Cosme McMoon, played by James Valcq. "It's not an easy part to cast, because you really have to be able to play the piano,'' Valcq said. "You can't fake the Jewel Song from Faust.''
Powers, who played Jenkins in recent productions of Souvenir in Cincinnati and Vienna, Austria, doesn't find it especially hard to sing badly. "I've taught private voice lessons over the years, and I've had some students who weren't so great. I wonder sometimes if I haven't stolen things from them. You have to concentrate to stay off pitch. I have to say it's kind of fun.''
Jenkins died at 76, a month after her Carnegie Hall recital, and Collup's documentary suggests that she was hurt by scathing reviews. New York Post columnist Earl Wilson said her performance was "one of the weirdest mass jokes New York has ever seen.'' But Souvenir accentuates the indomitable dowager's triumph.
"Her story is so funny and so human,'' Powers said. "It's about somebody who loves something so much that they do it despite everybody else telling them that they can't. It connects with anybody.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.