Nancy Robinette, Finding Her Voice

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Nancy Robinette would seem to have something of a problem with her latest role. As the early-20th-century socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who gave operatic recitals for more than 30 years and recorded five 78 rpm albums, Robinette has 10 numbers to sing, snippets of classic arias in French and Italian. But she doesn't read music or read or speak either language. (Fortunately, the German number is a recording.) She has never seen an opera. Having been told in high school that she was an alto, she has just discovered she's really a soprano. And on top of that, her vocal coach told her she has been tensing her throat, forcing her projection.

But in fact, it's not as much of a problem as it sounds, because Jenkins, the subject of Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins," which opens Wednesday at Studio Theatre, may be the most famous and weirdly successful terrible singer in opera history. She was almost incapable of finding a pitch or, if she did, holding on to it for very long, and she had a rather elastic sense of rhythm. She believed herself a prime coloratura (though unkind reviewers dubbed her the "Hog-Calleratura" and "the first lady of the sliding scale"). She attributed her highest notes to the shock of having been in a taxi crash -- at age 75, the year before her last and greatest recital at Carnegie Hall. At least Jenkins, too, was a soprano.

"It's a lot of fun," Robinette says, laughing. "I've been listening to the recordings and trying to find a point of departure, hearing the frailty in her voice. And here I am, not being able to read the music. Thank heavens, I have this wonderful maestro, Micaele Sparacino, teaching me. It's odd; I don't know that I want to mimic her, exactly -- and we do play this one recording, although it's pretty old and scratching -- but the other day he said to me, 'I'm not sure you want to hear this, but you're beginning to sound just like her!' "

The role has made Robinette an opera fan. As they went over the songs, Sparacino, founder of Washington's Opera Bel Canto, told Robinette many stories about opera culture and technique ("you don't move when you sing, you wait until the interlude," she says) and the great singers. "Like Maria Callas. I'm in love with her," Robinette says. "I go home now and listen, and I can hear what he was saying was important, how she's holding a certain note and finding the right place to breathe. It's a whole new experience for me."

Although Robinette, who has four Helen Hayes Awards, has certainly endured her share of costume changes, "Souvenir" really puts her through her paces. She has 10 outfits, Jenkins having also been the Cher of her time. Actually, Jenkins created most of her own costumes, ranging from fairy or angel wings and tinsel (which, considering her impressive embonpoint figure, was a little startling) to Spanish mantilla and shawl and "a sort of Heidi thing with aprons," Robinette says.

Robinette's partner in the show, J. Fred Shiffman, plays Jenkins's longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon, who went on to have a long cabaret career partly based on his reminiscences of those times. ("At least one of us can sing," Robinette jokes.) Some biographers claim that McMoon exploited the happily oblivious Jenkins, making disparaging faces behind her back and claiming to have been her lover to try to inherit her fortune after her death in 1944. However, "Souvenir," which opened on Broadway in 2005 and is one of several fairly recent plays about Jenkins, uses McMoon as the narrator and paints him as a reluctant supporter and protector. "She has no talent, but she's ambitious, while he's got talent and no ambition," Robinette says. "So they developed this strange symbiosis."

There's a lovely moment in the play when Jenkins, in her first meeting with McMoon, informs him that she -- as she believes -- has perfect pitch but that he shouldn't be embarrassed: "Not many of us are so blessed," she says graciously. She does not hear the notes he plays on the piano. She says, "I only hear them in my head," and nothing ever seems to have interfered with that internal harmony.

There have been those who wondered whether Jenkins's career was an elaborate joke, rather like a Victor Borge act before the big finish. But most people believe that she had a kind of pure and unwavering assurance, an unsullied faith in her gift -- in "Souvenir," McMoon compares her to a child with a beautiful fantasy -- and though critics scoffed, her recitals drew not just the charitable and the curious but such musical savants as Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso.

"The arts are full of people who are deluded about their talent," Robinette says, somewhat wryly. "But even so, the process can be good and true. I think it's a play about pursuing your dream."

Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins Studio Theatre 202-332-3300 Wednesday through July 1

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