The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Did she know or didn’t she? Here is the factual background about a flawed diva if you go to see the movies “Florence Foster Jenkins” or “Marguerite” | August 19, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

This week, The Ear saw the movie “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a story about the amateur singer Florence Foster Jenkins (below, in the 1920s in a photo from Getty Images), who was famous in the early- to mid-20th-century for singing terribly, painfully and laughably off-key but who nonetheless pursued performing in public and sold a lot of records.

Florence Foster Jenkins in the 1920s GETTY IMAGES

During the Wisconsin Film Festival, The Ear also saw a French movie, “Marguerite,” with a similar story line and main character.

Of the two, he much preferred “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Meryl Streep (below) plays the flawed diva with total commitment. The Ear suspects it will garner Streep, who did her own bad singing to perfection, her 20th Academy Award nomination, even if she doesn’t win a fourth Oscar.

British actor Hugh Grant might also be nominated for his supporting role as the British out-of-work actor who becomes her protector, promoter and caring love partner St. Clair Bayfield.

In additon, her piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg, who could also receive an Oscar nomination, develops into a memorable secondary character.

The English script — directed by the talented Stephen Frears –seemed more tightly written with better characters and dialogue than the French one, which dragged on too long and seemed forced in its ending, although both movies share similarities in their endings.

But to be honest, with both of the films The Ear had a major problem with suspending disbelief.

He just can’t believe that Jenkins didn’t know how badly she sang.

You can hear her butcher the famous and difficult “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Anyway, the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR, or National Public Radio, has provided an excellent background piece, a very factual biography of Jenkins, that also asks famous singers whether it is possible for Jenkins not to have known how flawed her singing was.

All The Ear knows is that if he played the piano that badly, he sure wouldn’t go perform a recital in Carnegie Hall.

Here is a link to the blog piece by Tom Huizenga:

Now if you go to either or both movies, here is what The Ear wants to know:

Which film about Florence Foster Jenkins did you prefer, and why?

And do you think it is possible to sing as badly as Jenkins did without knowing it?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. As long as we’re talking about Florence, I thought you might be interested in the article about the FFJ Scrapbook at the New York Public Library. Found this
    on the Metropolitan Opera Facebook page.

    Comment by Steve Powell — August 21, 2016 @ 10:10 am

  2. Hi Jake – I did not plan to attend the “Florence Foster Jenkins” movie because I did not want to hear terrible singing. Because you went, I decided it would be a good Mom date. My mom (age 90) really enjoyed it. I am trying to clear my head.

    The question I am considering is, how did she manage to gain friends, supporters and loved ones who let her continue to believe her illusion for an entire lifetime? Have any of us created a similar pod for ourselves?

    I am an LU grad ’68 and a widow. I was touched by your personal statement in the last class letter. Although my husband died 4 1/2 years ago I am struggling (again) this fall. I taught math in Appleton and retired in 2006, but went back to teaching in 2013 and have retired again. I have also moved closer the Lawrence. I live in the Fox River Historic Mills apartments, just west of the LU Tennis courts along the river. It is time for a walk.

    All my best, Karen Henderson Bachhuber LU ’68 P’94

    Sent from my iPad


    Comment by Karen Bachhuber — August 20, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

  3. It may be of interest to note that prior to either movie there was an excellent play on Ms. Jenkins life by Stephan Temperley,a British playwright, who wisely chose to tell the story from her accompanist Cosme’s perspective. It received a splendid production locally here in Madison with the talented Terry Kiss Frank as Florence and Tahas Nahirniak as Cosme and well directed by Betty Diamond. Apropos to your question, Mrs. Frank commented that it is hard to sing badly and that Ms.Jenkins was on pitch sometimes but her tone was unappealing and her rhythms were awkward and jerky. Of course sometimes her pitch was off too as borne out by my old album of her performances. As a side comment, it is sad when this subject arises out of two (apparently long and tedious) movies rather than a memorably fine local theatrical production dating back to 2009. Alas,if our fine local theater proper received the attention of critics and the public as much as national and international movie releases,the world would be a much happier place! The pleasures of the local production linger. Ms. Frank and her Cosme Mr. Nahirniak were delightful ( amazing costumes to boot) ; and to hear Mrs. Jenkins live, as it were, was quite delightful. I don’t intend to see either movie having been enertained royally twice locally . There was an interesting preview article about the play in the Isthmus dating from 2009 still obtainable online.

    Comment by Randall Wilkins — August 20, 2016 @ 9:54 am

  4. I saw and enjoyed both movies. I agree that “Marguerite” went on way too long, but I think the “bad singing” was better than in “FFJ”. Interesting that both of Florence’s recordings available on Youtube (Queen of night Aria and “Adele’s Song” from Fledermaus) were used in both movies. It’s too bad they didn’t use the actual recordings in the movies. I hope the real Florence didn’t know how bad she sounded. She would not be nearly as sympathetic as she’s portrayed.

    Comment by Steve Powell — August 19, 2016 @ 6:45 am

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