It would be an incredible premise even for an entirely fictional show. A society matron with a passion for opera begins giving concerts in the ballroom at the New York Ritz-Carlton hotel where she lives. The concerts catch on, with more and more people turning up until finally, by popular demand, after three decades, the 76-year-old diva makes her debut at Carnegie Hall. There’s only one thing more—this legendary soprano, Florence Foster Jenkins—she can’t sing a note. She has no vocal talent whatsoever, and constantly slides off pitch. The primary reason people come to her concerts is to laugh at her. Beginning this week, Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir brings the amazing story of the real-life figure Florence Foster Jenkins to the Ensemble Theatre Company in a production directed by Michael Evan Haney and starring Neva Rae Powers as Jenkins and Edwin Cahill as her accompanist Cosmé McMoon.
The director and his cast have produced the show to general acclaim in several other cities, including Vienna, where they gave this opera lover’s bouquet of laughs its European premiere. I asked Haney how the author had managed to create a show out of this extraordinary piece of music history. He said that Souvenir is “a love story, because it describes the process through which the accompanist, McMoon, comes first to respect and then to love, care for, and protect Jenkins from the people who surround her so that they can laugh at her.” Jenkins, who died just a month after her Carnegie Hall concert, never let on that she knew what was going on, insisting that the hysterical laughter with which her attempts were greeted was the equivalent of teenagers swooning at a Frank Sinatra concert.
How was this possible? I asked Haney, who insisted that the odd form of acceptance that Jenkins achieved stemmed from her purity of spirit. “She didn’t need the money, and she didn’t promote herself to the laughing audience by doing interviews,” Haney said. “There was a purity to her spirit, which is what made her so endearing.” For Powers—a classically trained singer who has sung successfully, and to no unintentional comic effect whatsoever, at places like the Chamber Opera of Vienna and the Salzburg Festival—Jenkins is a challenge of a very different sort. As Haney said, “one of the hardest things you can do as a singer is to sing off key on purpose. It’s just unnatural. The body rebels against it.”
But apparently not the spirit, as Jenkins wins over her accompanist and the audience in an ending that Haney assures is very powerful. The Carnegie Hall concert is in there, as are several songs done in a more conventional idiom by Cahill. Although “you can know nothing about opera at all,” according to Haney, “and still enjoy it, for the opera buffs, it’s a feast.” Jenkins lived her life hearing beautiful music—even if it was only inside her head.
Souvenir opens Thursday, February 4, and continues Tuesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. until February 28 (with no show Sun., Feb. 7, at 7pm) at Ensemble’s Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). For tickets and information, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.