There's More Than One Way To Make It To Carnegie Hall
Stephen Temperley's funny, tuneful and poignant play about Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy socialite who thought she was a talented coloratura soprano, is given its southwest Missouri premiere by Springfield Contemporary Theatre.
Florence Foster Jenkins--the very mention of the lady's name inspires derisive laughter from opera fans. An eccentric, wealthy socialite who, for some reason, thought she was a great coloratura soprano, and was only too eager to share her "talents" with the world at large, Jenkins is the subject of the new production by Springfield Contemporary Theatre. "Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins", receives its Southwest Missouri premiere with SCT's production, directed by Jack Laufer, featuring Equity actor Erika Nadir and Alan Altschuld as Ms. Jenkins and her long-suffering, but sympathetic piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. We talked to them both on KSMU's "Arts News"... but not before subjecting listeners to a sample of an actual recording of Florence Foster Jenkins, probably her most famous recording, in fact: the Queen of the Night's second aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute." You'll hear it when you click on the "listen button."
I’m sure this sample is more than enough to get the point across.
Erika Nadir became familiar with Madame Jenkins growing up. Her mother was an opera singer who actually attended the now-infamous Carnegie Hall recital performed by Jenkins in 1944—a concert Jenkins herself booked—before a sellout crowd who were equally as familiar with her antics.
“I remember (my mother) telling the story,” said Nadir. And she could confirm that audience members literally stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from laughing out loud. “So I grew up listening to the idea of Florence Foster Jenkins—and we even had 78s of her singing.”
Mrs. Jenkins recorded five discs at the Melotone recording studio in New York in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, and had them pressed in small runs.
Jenkins had actually been a child prodigy on the piano, said Erika Nadir. “Due to an arm injury, she could no longer play.” Jenkins came from a well-to-do family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “And she later married a doctor to get out of the house--who promptly gave her syphilis!” So, for those of you who come to the show and I'm wearing a wig, and it looks like a wig, it's SUPPOSED to look like a wig,” said Nadir with a laugh, “because she wore a wig for her whole life.
“After her father's death, she came into a lot of money and moved to New York. And she always had this passion for music. And since she couldn't play (the piano), she parlayed that into singing, and she raised money for charities. That was the reason behind all of her concerts.” In addition to the Carnegie Hall recital, Florence Foster Jenkins sang many concerts in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in New York.
“So I loved this woman very much,” Nadir said. "She was very strong and acerbic and all of those things.” And highly eccentric, needless to say! “But think of it,” continued Nadir. “We are still talking about her today when there are other opera singers that have unfortunately gone by the wayside. So she did something right. She touched people in a way that is very unusual.”
Alan Altschuld plays Jenkins’ pianist and friend, Cosme McMoon, an Irish-Mexican-American musician whose real name was Cosmé McMunn; he changed it because “it was more ‘theatrical’ that way,’ said Altschuld. “He was born in San Antonio and loved music, and he moved to New York to pursue his love of music and composition. Unfortunately, he was never very successful, outside of his work with Florence Foster Jenkins.” Not only did Jenkins pay McMoon well, according to Altschuld, "it kept him going through all those years, and she supported him. She was his patron. And it was a fine line, certainly, as it's written in the play, for him to kind of give up his dream of being a concert pianist.”
Considering that Florence Foster Jenkins was a trained musician, a child prodigy on the piano, the question must be asked: whatever gave her the idea that she could sing? “I'm afraid that fact is lost to history,” said Erika Nadir. But she added, “I think she loved the music so much. And what she heard was not what everyone else heard. She just felt the music.
“And one thing I truly want to express to your listeners,” continued Nadir, “is that, even if you don't care about opera and don't like it, this is not about opera. This play is about love. This play is about love of music and the caring of two people. It's essentially an uplifting love story, but very unusual, just the same way that Florence was a singer but very, very unusual. Even if you've seen the film with Meryl Streep, (the play) is nothing like that. This is a tender, poignant, sweet and very funny rendition” of the relationship between Jenkins and McMoon—from whose point of view the story is basically told.
I asked Nadir what sort of strain is it on her own vocal mechanism to try to imitate the “sounds” made by Florence Foster Jenkins. “That's a great question, Randy. When preparing for this role, I was working with my voice teacher and I said, ‘How do I approach this?’ And he just he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, just sing absolutely correctly, but not on pitch!” “Not as easy as it sounds,” interjected Alan Altschuld. “I believe that you have to be very musical in order to do that well.”
“Luckily,” Erika Nadir continued, “I've actually sung all these roles that are cherry picked for the big concert—spoiler alert, a big concert at the end—so that at least I know what can be funny about them. Because it's not just bad singing. There are also tropes that go with these (operatic) characters, that those of you that do know opera will get a little Easter-egg kind of jokey thing in it.”
I asked Erika Nadir and Alan Altschuld what they have each learned about themselves in portraying these characters, who were living out their dream in a very unconventional way. Altschuld was first to respond. “There are so many moments that I related to--moving to New York and pursuing a career in acting and music as a sideline. What I've learned is that we can overcome all kinds of adversity to do what we love. We came here from Los Angeles and to a new place to do this. I mean, it's two people on stage for an hour and a half. I never leave the stage, so I've learned that I can do more than I thought I could do!”
Erika Nadir said she feels “like I’ve come full circle. I remember as a child listening to Florence Foster Jenkins (on records). And then, having sung many of these roles and now doing this, it just brings a certain resolution and peace in my life for me.”
Altschuld noted that he and Nadir like to joke that they’ve known each other “since the Peloponnesian War!” “Before the war,” added Nadir. “We've done salons together. We've performed together in plays. So it's a joy, really, to do this together, and now in this lovely play. We love coming to Springfield and and yeah, so we're happy to be here.”
Performances of “Souvenir—A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” continue through December 12 at SCT’s current performing venue, the auditorium at the Springfield Art Museum, 1111 E. Brookside Drive. Curtain times are 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, with 2:00pm Sunday matinees. For information, call Springfield Contemporary Theatre at (417) 831-8001, or visit http://www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org/souvenir.html.