She walks onstage, bejeweled and powdered and resplendent. She does not have to be beautiful; she is larger than life. In the few yards from the wings to center stage, she conveys her authority in her measured gait, her regal posture, her richly patterned gown, and becomes the repository of our hopes, our expectations, our projections.
Then she opens her mouth. And — brays.
Bad singing occupies a special place in our hearts. Indeed, it has taken on a special role in the cultural consciousness. Voice-lovers can wax eloquent about Ponselle, Milanov and Tebaldi. But no bygone diva except Maria Callas can touch the posthumous popularity of Florence Foster Jenkins — a doughty matron who gave recitals in outlandish costumes, including fluffy angel wings, and whose reedy, wavering voice, bleating haplessly on high notes, was preserved in recordings that continue to sell, even to outpace many recordings by real opera singers. Jenkins has been the subject of at least two major plays and, now, three movies: a documentary feature film starring Joyce DiDonato, now in production; the French film “Marguerite,” focusing on a fictional heroine based on Jenkins; and, of course, Stephen Frears’s “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep, which opened in the United Kingdom this week and is scheduled for its U.S. release this summer.
“If you listen to those recordings, she was almost good, and then there was a point when she was off,” Streep said when I asked her about the film during a 2014 interview. “And that is what makes it funny. It was almost there. It doesn’t start out badly. It starts out hopefully.”
“You know,” she added, “those recordings [of Jenkins’s] are the most requested of the archive at Carnegie Hall. More than Toscanini, more than Callas. More than anybody, it’s Florence’s. Isn’t that amazing?”
Amazing — or perfectly understandable. Great bad singers take our greatest fears and put them on the stage in front of us. Florence Foster Jenkins lives out all of our worst nightmares: getting up in public unprepared, being mocked without knowing it, realizing you have forgotten to get dressed before going out. A painter or writer has physical and temporal distance from his or her audience. A pianist or violinist has at least the illusion of the physical instrument as an intermediary, or scapegoat. But a singer stands in front of the public and opens herself up completely, at the highest possible pitch of emotion. It’s a gloriously naive act. And when there proves to be nothing there, when the tightrope walker topples off the high wire and hangs awkwardly clinging with both hands, we react with the same empathy that triggers our cooing over Internet kitten photos: a cliched reaction to frailty. The great singer takes a human body and achieves something larger than life. The bad singer aspires to greatness and proves she is no more than one of us.
There is a genuine greatness to bad singing — which is often misunderstood. The joke is not that Jenkins is an awful singer. The joke is that she is so consumed with love for the great music and is only a hair away from achieving it. There’s a reason that opera is such a frequent subject of parody: It’s over-the-top, it’s naive, it’s big, and when it fails, it fails spectacularly. Some of the greatest opera singers have also been responsible for some of its most memorable disasters; opera aficionados remember the late days of many great sopranos, like Gwyneth Jones, who on a good night could be breathtaking, and on a bad one, breathtakingly bad. She, too, was cheerfully oblivious to the difference.
Herein lies the Achilles’ heel of the film “Marguerite,” in which Catherine Frot beautifully and movingly plays the unhappy aristocrat Marguerite Dumont, who takes refuge from an unhappy marriage in a quasi-dream world of music. Marguerite is lovely, childlike and wealthy, able to be a patron of the arts — all things that Jenkins was, as well — and Frot makes you love her. But she is an openly terrible singer. There is nothing great or noble in her singing, no inner spark, nothing to animate the audience. Her love of music (like her thwarted love for her husband) is breathless, timorous, anxious. It’s a human love, but not an operatic one. Thus, the heart of this elegant and elegantly constructed film rings false: It becomes the story of a victim who has a lovable eccentricity, rather than a fundamental commentary on our approach to art.
The truly bad singer, like Jenkins, strides out onstage like a funhouse mirror, offering a distorted view of opera, but a recognizable one. Eccentric she may have been, but she was no victim, and her delusions about music were cultivated in an operatic way. When Marguerite hears a recording of her voice, she drops dead of shock. When the real Jenkins heard her own recordings, she found them quite good. What ultimately devastated her were bad reviews, when, after a lifetime of carefully curating the audiences to her performances, she rented out Carnegie Hall and couldn’t keep out the actual press.
The difference between bad singing and good singing is the difference between two sides of the same page. Both come from the same place, the same fire in the blood, the same urge to react to the world by making noise at the top of your lungs.
“What she had — from what I’ve read about her — was a true love of music,” Streep said, before filming had begun. “And I think, I’m going to try to be as good as I can, and then, we’ll see.”
We haven’t lost the tradition of bad singing, and of loving it. We’ve just lost the cultural context that allows our bad singers to be opera ones. Yet the genre of bad singing found a whole new flowering in the first rounds of “American Idol.” Odd costumes? Unamplified voices making sounds of teeth-clenching awfulness? Unabashed love of music and undaunted optimism? Check. Florence Foster Jenkins’s legacy lives on, suspended somewhere between Susan Boyle (who really can sing) and William Hung (who really can’t). Indeed, it is either a sign of progress or of the end of days that her brand of career is more widely available to even more Everymen and Everywomen, armed only with love, a dream — and a YouTube account.