No one that has attended a voice lesson in a college in America has missed hearing Florence Foster Jenkins’ album, “The Glory of the Human Voice.” In all of the schools that I attended or at which I've taught, it was only a matter of time before her Queen of the Night would come wafting down the hallways followed by a gaggle of laughter and sheer looks of surprise from the uninitiated. Perhaps it’s her regularly out of tune singing, her verbose and active resonant strategy changes, the way her phrasing sheers lines of their intended character through random slides, glottal stops, tempo changes, and smears, and there is so much more to love to hate, if only to show that you know what “good singing” sounds like…and that ain’t it.
The film depicts her as an avid music supporter whose syphilis had taken a toll on her body and whose husband (though not lover) had created a sealed world around her with her money, allowing her frequent enough performances in closed venues with paid-for reviews from willing columnists. The kindness with which the film portrayed her was matched by its clear depiction of her eccentricity and the possibilities that money gave her to isolate herself from reality. Yet, it doesn’t delve into why she has been the favorite punching bag of the American vocal institution for as long as anyone can remember. That’s a topic that we get to live with.
August 10th "Fresh Air" interview with Meryl Streep
In Lady Florence’s last line of the film she says “People may say that I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing.” That line, energized by the striking blows of reality, a bad reviews after her first truly public concert (in Carnegie Hall no less), and jeers from audience members brings the intention of voice habilitation into full focus. What is our goal, after all? Are we interested in only a narrow definition of perfection, or can we create a world wherein everyone can enjoy, explore, and present their voices for others to share without judgement?
The scene where the renowned conductor and vocal coach gives her a lesson is both fantastic comedy and an eye opening vision into the voice world’s mythic past, a world where only those rare few who could make their voices function could make something out of the randomness of vocal instruction. A major question that the film seems to pose is:
Do we want a world where only a few will sing due to significant social pressures, or one where we all understand that our voices have enormous potential, should we seek to find it?
Though her central nervous system may have been tragically altered by her disease causing her to never make substantial progress as a coloratura, one can imagine a narrative where supportive and fruitful opportunities existed for a determined, dedicated music enthusiast who wanted to perform for her friends. . .
Not to say that it isn’t funny. I’ve laughed along to her album many times, simply because of the profound contrast between Lady Florence’s and others depictions of popular songs. Still, even from the first time my voice teacher put the needle on his worn copy of “The Glory of the Human Voice”, I found myself wanting to defend her, her right to sing, to be out of tune if that’s what she found herself doing, and to live in a world that didn’t seek to ridicule voice users just for trying. For all of the people out there who love their voices the way they are, and regularly strive to find new avenues to explore their vocal potential, perhaps Florence Foster Jenkins can now ascend to become your patron, if not your patron saint. And if we're lucky enough, we'll all get more chances to experience the beauty of people who sing because they love it first and foremost.