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Souvenir’s Portrayal of Soprano, Florence Foster Jenkins, Offers Modern Parallels

by Sarah Wyatt

She was a socialite. Or was she awkward, gullible, clumsy? She prized her autonomy and tenacity. Yet she also hungered for approval from the cultural elite.

Will the real Florence Foster Jenkins please stand up?

Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir recently made its West Coast debut at the Seattle ACT Theatre. Broadway actress Patti Cohenour stars in this affectionate valentine to tin-eared opera soprano, Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), a real-life New York socialite who stunned concert audiences in the 1930s and 1940s with her unassailable self-confidence and unique interpretations of the opera repertoire.

Cohenour’s previous roles include Signora Naccarelli and Margaret Johnson in Lincoln Center’s The Light in the Piazza. She originated the Broadway roles of Mary Jane in Big River, Rosabud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music revival. She is a recipient of the Clarence Derwent and Theatre World Award, a Tony nomination and two Drama Desk nominations. Her porcelain skin and soprano voice give her a startling resemblance to Jenkins, whom she describes as “blind to her lack of talent, but totally immersed in making music, which resulted in a very fulfilled human being.”

Souvenir is a hilarious and warm-hearted play full of love, and honors great music and those of us who are incapable of performing it, as well as those of us who can,” said ACT Theatre artistic director Kurt Beattie.

Certainly, Temperley found no shortage of research material on Jenkins, or speculation on such matters as the dim and bright patches of her personal life, her optimistic, outspoken views on life, love and art, and her untimely death that shortly followed a failed performance at Carnegie Hall. As Temperley researched Jenkins’s life, he was struck by her Yankee grit and emotional fragility.

Jenkins, nicknamed the “first lady of the sliding scale”, received music lessons as a child, and expressed a desire to go abroad to study music, a request declined by her critical parents. Upon her father’s death in 1909, Jenkins’ inheritance allowed her to take up the singing career that had been discouraged by her family. She became involved in the musical life of Philadelphia, and later New York City, founding and funding the Verdi Club, where she took singing lessons and began to give recitals. Her mother’s death in 1928 when Florence was 60 gave her additional latitude and funds to pursue her vocal career.

“Most of us think we can sing. But most of us only sing in the shower, because in some small part of our brain we’re not really sure of our talent,” said director R. Hamilton Wright. “Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins thought she could sing. For all we know, she may have sung in her shower. But unlike most of us, she also sang at Carnegie Hall.”

The play examines Jenkins at two pivotal points in her vocal career, first in 1932, at age 64, when she hired Cosme McMoon as her accompanist. McMoon, who narrates much of the play, also served as Jenkins’ vocal coach, professional advisor and confidante. The second act unfolds 12 years later, as Jenkins performs at Carnegie Hall to a derisive audience.

The middlebrow appeal of the arts scene in Jenkins’ 1930s and 1940s clearly has modern parallels. The verbal discouragement of Jenkins’ father is not unlike that dispensed to female singers by judge Simon Cowell on the modern reality show, American Idol. Like many of the hopefuls on Idol, Jenkins’ drive could not be deterred by criticism, no matter how accurate.

McMoon’s narrative seems to speak to the thousands of tenacious twenty-something Idol wannabes: “Whether she was incredibly resilient or just plain crazy, I can’t say.”

While the contemporary entertainment elite selectively promotes emaciated female starlets and vapid fashion plates, Jenkins refused to conform to the equally harsh female stereotypes of her period. The cultural inadequacy of modern America suggests that, ironically, Jenkins could be considered highbrow today.

Jenkins declared, “I am well aware there are people who say I cannot sing. But whatever the case may be – there is no one who can say I didn’t sing.”

Souvenir runs through June 10th at the Seattle ACT Theatre.

About the Author

Sarah Wyatt is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. A native of Iowa and a Native American, she holds a degree in Journalism and English. Wyatt has been a freelance writer for 11 years, with work appearing in Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Theater Magazine.

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