LOS ANGELES — When opera lovers ask New York’s Carnegie Hall for souvenir concert programmes, they’re not usually interested in Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland.
More often than not, the name they request is Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite who only appeared at the legendary venue once, and couldn’t hold a note.
“In order for a singer to succeed, they need to have a combination of talent, charisma, and interpretive quality,” Carnegie’s archives director Gino Francesconi wrote in a blogpost commemorating her life.
“And, by definition, they need to be able to sing. Florence Foster Jenkins had none of these attributes. In fact, she was considered one of the worst singers of all time.”
Jenkins, who craved fame as a diva but gained infamy for her terrible voice, is the subject of Florence Foster Jenkins, a bittersweet biopic which hits United States cinemas this week, starring three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.
“She almost gets it, and that’s what I found delicious in her,” Streep told the audience at a preview screening for the Paramount picture in Beverly Hills last week.
“I started listening to the recordings and I could feel her getting really excited and her thinking ‘This is going very well’,” said the actress.
Jenkins, who inherited a fortune from her father in 1909, had to give up her beloved piano due to nerve damage from syphilis contracted from her first husband when she was just a teenager.
She used her wealth to indulge her passion for opera singing instead, putting on grand artistic soirees for polite society at the Ritz-Carlton, the Waldorf and other upscale Manhattan venues.
Those who heard her — often acquaintances rather than paying members of the public — knew she was a terrible singer but none ever felt inclined to tell her.
“It became a thing to do. You had to go and listen to Florence Foster screw up every song she attempted to sing,” said Francesconi.
She was persuaded to make her Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 76 on Oct 25, 1944, and walked onstage in flamboyant homemade costumes, throwing roses into the sell-out crowd.
The concert went as poorly as had every other recital, but this time Jenkins was not among friends.
Henry Simon of the daily newspaper PM described the audience’s laughter as “the cruellest and least civilised behaviour I have ever witnessed in Carnegie Hall.”
Diagnosed with heart strain, she died a month later.
Florence Foster Jenkins hits US cinemas on Friday. — AFP