Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
Saying Florence Foster Jenkins was the worst soprano of all time is an exaggeration, but she's probably the worst soprano to sell out Carnegie Hall. Jenkins was born in 1868 and grew up studying music in Wilkes-Barre. Her father was wealthy, but refused to send her to Italy to study opera (possibly because she was so obviously ungifted musically). But once she got out on her own in New York in her mid-30s, she turned herself into high society's camp heroine. At recitals, she tackled difficult coloratura soprano arias in elaborate costumes, apparently unaware that she was consistently flat or that her audience was laughing. We spoke about the legendary singer with Curtis alum April Woodall, who stars as Jenkins in Center City Theatre Works' production of Souvenir through Saturday.
City Paper: Were you familiar with Florence Foster Jenkins before playing her?
April Woodall: When I was a vocal student ... we were given the assignment to go down into the basement, get the reel-to-reel recordings out and listen to her as an example of what not to do. And you listen and your heart sympathizes with her, because someone who loves what they do that much, you have to admire them. ... [But] her technique was just so bad. She didn't have a voice that you'd really want to listen to. When you Google "worst singers in the world," she comes up, also that young fellow who was the first person they kicked off American Idol — the "Shebang-Shebang" fellow?
CP: William Hung!
AW: Yes! And he went on to make a career of singing the way he felt like singing, and she did too.
CP: How did people react at her public concerts?
AW: There was a gentleman who walked by the theater the other day and looked at the poster and said, "I got to see her, and people did laugh right out loud!" Probably her society ladies were polite, but people did laugh. ... And because she didn't seem to hear them laughing, they simply let loose.
CP: Was that cruel?
AW: Well, they didn't think it was, because she was setting herself out there and not responding to their laughter. I think they also wondered whether she was doing it for the laughter — that they would disappoint her by not laughing at something so obviously funny.
CP: Was she in on the joke?
AW: I don't believe so. I think that she may have been telling herself what she needed to hear in order to keep her head up, as we often do. We build a legend about ourselves and then we believe it.
CP: Vocal training helps singers sound good, but it's important in not damaging the vocal cords. How do you sing so badly without hurting your voice?
AW: What I've been doing is to use my full vocal support, but just mis-tune my ear. I try to go at it with the fervor she did — it is not easy, because at the end I have to sing well.
CP: Singing well and singing in this comic way are so different; is one easier or more enjoyable for you than the other?
AW: Being able to sing badly and hit any note I want to is really enjoyable. (Laughs.) Training as an opera singer, every sound that comes out of your mouth is critiqued. Being able to open up and do anything that strikes my fancy is a lot of fun.
CP: Why do people love to sing?
AW: People sing at karaoke, in church choirs, on the street, to themselves. I think it's a deeply, deeply human thing and it — it actually makes me kind of emotional, sorry! (Laughs.) Mostly you do it for yourself, but if other people get something out of it, then what better kind of human connection is there?
Through May 19, $16-$20, Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 215-732-3797, centercitytheatreworks.org.
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