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Classical 101

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Even the talented Meryl Streep will be challenged to sing the part of Florence Foster Jenkins with the famous lady's... ahem, "vigor."

Not even in the most far-fetched opera could anyone invent Florence Foster Jenkins. The only diva unafraid to play this vocal phenomenon, this leading light of musical society in the 1920s, is a diva known more for her acting chops and stunning looks than for an ability to sing Norma or Tosca; Meryl Streep.

Florence couldn't sing Norma or Tosca either, but you couldn't tell her that. 

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a nice girl from a nice family who wanted to have a career in music. She became a well trained pianist and began singing lessons. Then something went wrong. Or a lot went wrong.  When her ambitions for a career became serious, Florence discarded an inconvenient husband and left her home in Pennsylvania for New York. If opportunities to sing didn't come to her, she created them. God bless her. God help us all.

Florence Foster Jenkins sang as if she were gargling with a can of Dran-o. 


This recording of the Queen of the Night's Vengeance Aria (!) from Mozart's The Magic Flute is more vengeful than anything else. This sounds about as good as it got for Florence. By the time she made records, between 1910 and 1920, she was neither young nor comely. Meryl Streep is a magnificent actor known to physically transform herself into her on screen characters. But not even our Meryl was going to gain the 100 pounds she'd need to be physically convincing as Florence Foster Jenkins.  


Florence Foster Jenkins' mental health has long been questioned.  She gave an annual concert, often at the Waldorf in New York, for scads of society friends. The great and good cheered and laughed and applauded, helped no doubt by copious champagne and Florence's own love of what she was doing. She thought she was being applauded for serious artistry. She was being applauded but obviously she was being laughed at.

God blesses the delusional. She wanted to be a great singer, she worked hard at being a great singer, thus she became a great... butt of jokes. Three weeks before her death Florence Foster Jenkins sang to a sold out Carnegie Hall. The audience was hysterical and so was she. 

But you know what? She got up there for years and she sang and she draped herself in huge caftans and wore outrageous costumes—she invented the drag queen for the 20th century—but people enjoyed themselves. They laughed, perhaps never suspecting that she took herself and her ambitions very seriously.

In the 1920s and 30s, Rosa Ponselle was the greatest operatic soprano. She died an old lady in 1981 and there are people who will yell you today that P0nselle has never been equaled. Florence gets the last laugh. In 2016, nobody is making a movie about Rosa Ponselle, but Florence Foster Jenkins is back, and Meryl Sreep has got her!

P.S. I remember with love Linda Dorff's wonderful portrayal of FFJ for CATCO a few seasons back. 

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.