Last month, as part of our "Worst Week," Nathan Salsburg told the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer ever to perform at Carnegie Hall. Jenkins was an early-1900s New York socialite who was so profoundly bad at opera singing—and so convinced she was good—that she quickly became a spectacle, drawing massive crowds to recitals she hosted and even selling out recordings. "She was so completely naive of her talentlessness," writes Salsburg, "that propriety, in a surprisingly gracious spirit, came to dictate her congratulation and encouragement."
Sadly, propriety didn't extend to published reviews, and days after write-ups of her Carnegie Hall performance bashed her with remarks like "she can sing anything but notes,” Jenkins suffered a heart attack. She died a month later.
Her legend, however, has lived on—in records that have never gone out of print, in articles like Salsburg's and other documentaries, and even in plays. As NPR's Snap Judgmentpoints out in their own recent take on Jenkins' story, Souvenir, a two-person musical by Stephen Temperley, tells the the tale of Jenkins' partnership with pianist Cosmé McMoon as the two took New York's music scene by storm. The show opened on Broadway in 2005, and continues to be performed in regional theaters. Glorious!, a play about Jenkins' life by Peter Quilter, premiered in London that same year, and has been performed around the world since. And two less successful plays—Goddess of Song by Charles J. Fourie and Viva La Diva by Chris Ballance—introduced theatergoers to Jenkins a few years before Souvenir and Glorious!.
In a very real way, Jenkins has achieved the fame she dreamed of, and ended up far more adored than reviled. It's not easy bringing her story to life on the stage, though. "It's hard work to sing badly well," actress Judy Kaye told the the New York Times when Souvenir premiered off Broadway in 2004. "You could sing badly badly for a while but you'll hurt yourself if you do it for long."
Curious what the music sounds like? Check out a full performance of Souvenir by students at Vanguard University: