From France and the USA/UK, two movies have been made recently about the same woman. The French movie, titled “Marguerite,” presents a fictionalized version of the story, while the U.S. film, starring Meryl Streep, is presented as a “biopic” titled simply “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with the explanatory subtitle, “The Inspiring Story of the World’s Worst Singer.”
Biopics are an old Hollywood genre: Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy played the young and old Thomas Edison respectively; Greer Garson portrayed Madame Curie, George Arliss nearly everybody (Disraeli, Cardinal Richelieu, Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, the Duke of Wellington, and two Rothschilds) and Paul Muni nearly everybody else (Emile Zola, Louis Pasteur, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Josef Elsner, and Benito Juarez), etc. The Meryl Streep version follows that genre; the Marguerite film does not name names or portray the New York socialite exactly—because it’s set in Paris.
Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) loved music; she attended concerts and operas; she studied singing; she wanted to perform. She had the money and time to dedicate to the art of classical singing; to learn the languages and the arias; to pay her accompanist and to rent the concert hall.
The only problem: Florence Foster Jenkins could not sing on pitch. Or in rhythm. Or even with proper diction. There was indeed a medical problem as her husband had, like Isak Dinesen’s, given her syphilis. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her dreams of singing on stage.
The two movies examine this story to depict what happens when someone so self-deluded takes the delusion public. It’s one thing to sing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” in the shower (you’ll swallow lots of water!), another to sing it on stage at Carnegie Hall. Sample her efforts at singing Mozart here.
While Florence Foster Jenkins fulfilled her dreams, audiences laughed at her. While she practiced and rehearsed, no one dared tell her the truth: you cannot sing. People either enabled her because they thought it made her happy or because they enjoyed her seeming humiliation.
Perhaps a counter-balance to her story is Gilbert Kaplan’s fascination and dedication to Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Kaplan, who died at the age of 74 on January 1, 2016, followed the same path as Mrs. Jenkins—but as a conductor.
He earned his money on Wall Street in financial publishing and went to a performance of Mahler’s Second conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1965; it changed his life. With money enough and time, he studied the score; he learned how to conduct; he traveled around the world to hear live performances of Mahler’s massive symphony: five movements; 90 minutes long; 100 piece orchestra; large choir; soloists; offstage brass and percussion—and an organ!
Then he conducted the Mahler Second Symphony with several world-class symphony orchestras, recorded it twice, and still continued to study it. There was quite a debate among critics and even symphony orchestra musicians whether or not he truly conducted the performances or what he contributed to the interpretation of the masterpiece.
But Kaplan’s dedication bore great fruit and he became known as a specialist on the “Resurrection” Symphony. He purchased the autograph manuscript and published a facsimile, co-editing the latest critical edition of the symphony. Kaplan never accepted a fee for his conducting engagements and limited them to three outings with the Second Symphony annually, the only work he conducted in public, although he did record the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. When the Vienna Philharmonic, which Mahler conducted, invites you to conduct and records the results, you have succeeded.
For all their training and efforts, Jenkins and Kaplan were amateurs. She loved opera; he loved that symphony. They poured themselves into that love that is at the root of the word amateur. Perhaps that’s why they receive our sympathy and even admiration. And they do no harm: opera survived Jenkins and the “Resurrection” lives on after Kaplan. And, in the case of Kaplan, the cause of Mahler has been greatly served.
In Jenkins’ case, her delusional love of singing opera might have led to her death: two days after her Carnegie Hall debut on October 24, 1944, she suffered a heart attack at a music store. The New York press had not been as kind as her society friends; the reviews devastated her, and she died a month later on November 26, 1944.
Shortly after Kaplan’s death on January 1, 2016, music critic Norman Lebrecht published this 30 minute video tribute: “Mahler & The Millionaire.”