Left – Sue Wylie and and Jock Dunbar
I first heard Florence Foster Jenkins one morning on the radio. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that anyone could sing so badly, have the nerve to be recorded and that a reputable radio station would play it. All was explained when the announcer reminded us that it was April Fool’s Day. Not a bad joke, I thought. But Florence was no joke – not to herself anyway. To her, there was no better ‘coloratura soprano’ on earth. But why could she not hear the awful travesty she made of anything she sang? It has been suggested that regular doses of mercury and arsenic taken to combat the syphilis her husband gave her in her much earlier and failed marriage may have given her nerve damage and hearing loss and tinnitus that left her impervious to the truly horrible, flat, way-off key, screeching, hooting, wailing sounds she made in the name of opera. Just a thought – maybe it has something to do with her real first name which was Narcissa, the feminine form of Narcisse, he of the Greek legend who became enamoured of his own reflection. There’s no doubt she was enamoured of her own voice.
The Therry Society’s play, Glorious, opened outside the door of the Hotel Seymour in New York City in 1944 where a nervous, well-dressed, slim, young pianist took deep breaths before presenting himself for a job interview to accompany Madame Jenkins as she called herself. He rang, the door disappeared to reveal a lift, which went the same way heaven-wards, some suited men turned the set around and lo! we were in Madame’s apartment. The audience clapped the sheer ingenuity of it, an acknowledgement of the work of Stage Manager, Patsy Thomas, Set Designer Ole Wiebkin and the whole set construction team. Cosmé McMoon (Jock Dunbar) was in for a surprise. Madame (Sue Wylie) appeared to be wealthy, over-dressed, over confident, over the top and overwhelming. Nothing unusual there for a society woman of her class in 1944 New York. It was when the accurate rendition of his accompaniment met with her highly inaccurate, clashing, ear bashing vocal interpretation that he became, well ... gob-smacked. She asked him what he thought and he gasped, “I am lost for words.” But jobs for pianists were hard to come by, this kindly woman liked him on sight and had the money to employ him so what the heck? He took the job and, by doing so, worked with Florence in a happy and astonishing accompanying relationship where, to the best of his ability, he changed key when she did.
Florence had been putting on recitals in her apartment, in small clubs and every October in the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, her first in 1912. She became a one woman cult from the 20s to her death in 1944 and it wasn’t only her singing that had her audiences amazed. She made her own elaborate, flamboyant costumes one, for instance, with wings, tinsel and flowers to represent the Angel of Inspiration and, dressed as Carmen complete with castanets and a rose in her teeth, she had them stuffing their mouths and Cole Porter hitting his foot with his cane to stop from laughing. The costumes in this show were a credit to Gilian Cordell and the team of dressmakers.
Florence had the encouragement of Enrico Caruso, one of the founding members of the 400 strong Verdi Club which Florence founded to foster “a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English”. Wherever she performed people clapped and cheered to overwhelm any hint of laughter, claiming her performances were “intentionally ambiguous” and anyone, including the actress Tallulah Bankhead, who behaved incorrectly was ‘helped out’. Any new member or indeed anyone who wished to be part of the audience had to be interviewed – by her – to check for their suitability although Florence was a mite naive at times such as when an effeminate young man came and was allowed to book for a group – sending her afterwards, she mused, a big bunch of pansies. Strangers, music critics, journalists and competing sopranos had no chance of getting tickets – after all they could be critical and the latter would be jealous, she said.
Caruso, who is reported to have given her affection and respect said he would never hear the like again and along with Cole Porter, Lily Pons, Andre Kostelanetz, Sir Thomas Beecham and others sent her flowers and congratulatory messages. Her biggest supporter was her friend St. Clair Bayfield (Stuart Pearce) and she his – financially. They had an understanding. It wasn’t a sexual union because of the syphilis so he had a girl friend to deal with that side of his life and he was her love and manager. Dorothy (Jenny Penny) her loyal friend and helper, was always at hand (mostly with her dog) to help and support in a jittery excitable sort of way.
Then Florence hired Carnegie Hall for October 1944, taking a gamble on all she owned. It was general admission in October 1944 and sold out weeks in advance. It seated almost 3,000 people and 2,000 were turned away. She was 76 years old and died one month and one day after that significant concert. At her own expense Florence Foster Jenkins had herself recorded singing her favourite arias in 1941 and to this day from vinyl to CDs they have never gone out of print. People loved her for her sheer gall, her absolute belief in herself and the joy her concerts gave to opera lovers and others alike. She said, “People may say I can’t sing but no-one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Very ably and sympathetically directed by Geoff Brittain, Glorious is a delightful addition to the Therry Society’s list of successes. Its main cast succeeds in bringing to life and making plausible the characters in Peter Quilter’s implausible but true story. Sue Wylie is on stage just about all the time and doesn’t falter in her performance of a woman who grows on you as you watch, bringing warmth and likeability to her, never appearing anything but passionate and committed. Jock Dunbar as Cosmé is just right as the bewildered but competent pianist who, from a guy looking for a job, becomes an admirer and willing facilitator for his warm-hearted but deluded employer. Stuart Pearce’s acting as an expansive expatriate failed English actor whose love and support for Florence are real and deep, is heart warming and genuinely convincing while Jenny Penny as the fidgety dog-loving friend Dorothy, just right. Over-acting as Maria, the Italian maid, could do with some toning down by Laura Antoniazzi and Julia Whittle’s Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge’s high handed remonstrance demonstrated the frustration of opera lovers who couldn’t stand Florence while Denzil Thomas did a good job as the taxi-driver. As usual with Therry productions, performers are competently supported by a very good backstage and front of house crew from Patsy Thomas the Stage Manager to the designers of the programme, which was informative and interesting, to someone from the team to show you to your seat.
Therry Dramatic Society presents
by Peter Quilter
Director Geoff Brittain
Venue: Arts Theatre | Angus Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 8 – 17 February 2018
Tickets: $12 – $17