Tuesday, January 28, 2020

being florence foster jenkins

Yesterday I attended the first book fair in our area.

At least, I think it was the first. Local authors were invited to speak, talk with attendees, and flog their wares.

When I initially heard the book fair was going to be conducted at the new art center in San Patricio, I had no idea how many authors resided within reading distance.

The schedule included twenty-two 15-minute time slots for authors to regale the handful of attendees with samples of their work. Health issues whittled back the list, but there were volunteers just waiting to fill the vacancies. Poets. Authors of children books. Novelists. Photographers. Memoirists.

I should not have been surprised at the large number of author-participants. Our area is filled with northerners who have turned their hands to the arts. Painters. Sculptors. Muralists. Writers. Composers. Musicians. Cooks. None of whom are Matisse or Hemingway or Mozart. Even though some of us may think we are in the privacy of our personal asylums.

What we are is passionate about our chosen arts. Whether we have taken it up as an avocation only in our retirement years or it has been our life-long vocation.

Four years ago, my friend John in Salem saw Meryl Streep's Florence Foster Jenkins -- and urged me to see it. The film is based on an eponymous New York socialite who was so passionate about music that she felt it was her life.

Her circle encompassed musical stars. Lily Pons. Arturo Toscanini. Cole Porter. She used her money to ensure music would thrive in New York City.

But that was not good enough for her. She wanted to perform. Because of nerve injury in one hand, performing as a pianist was impossible. So, she sang, being coached by one of the country's best voice teachers.

She then put that training to use in public concerts where she would appear in the most dramatic and outlandish costumes singing technically-difficult pieces. "Public" in the sense that a very close-knit group of admirers, chosen by her manager, were invited to hear her sing in small venues.

She thought her singing was quite good. It wasn't. It was tortuous. That is why her manager struggled to prevent her from being exposed to people who were not her fans. Especially, the critic for The New York Post.

Let me break character here for a moment to give you some context. We know how Madame Florence sang because she was good enough to record some of her favorite pieces. Here she is singing the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. You should probably listen to no more than a sample.

And here is the same piece sung by Diana Damrau, as Mozart intended it to be heard.


But the small venues did not satisfy her. Unbeknowst to her manager, she booked herself into Carnegie Hall. The tickets sold out almost immediately in what was to be her last performance.

The film closely follows that story arc. Madame Florence's vision of her talent remains intact until she reads a review by the music critic of The New York Post that objectively destroys her fantasy by labeling her the worst singer of all time.

Lying on her death bed, in the film, Madame Florence recites a phrase she actually wrote in a letter to a friend: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

If Madame Florence sounds familiar, she should -- because she is a restatement of another literary character who was accused of being mad as he sallied forth to right wrongs. Don Quixote.

Or, at least, the Don Quixote most Americans know from the musical Man of La Mancha without having cracked the cover of Cervantes. Cervantes did not see Don Quixote as a tragic figure. To him, Don Quixote was a figure of justified ridicule, not pity. One of the greatest works of western civilization is actually a hit piece.

The Don Quixote of Man of La Mancha is just the opposite. Audience members see him sympathetically knowing that he might be wrong-headed, but he is fighting for a better world. They see him living his life without a shred of irony.

Madame Florence is the same. She does not see that objectively she is a bad singer. Her passion for music convinces her that, as a missionary, she is spreading a clear message to the world.

And even though both Don Quixote and Madame Florence are eventually felled by the forces of objectivity, they both die believing in a world fired by their passions. And I cannot think of a better way to go.

I thought of Madame Florence yesterday as I sat listening to local authors reciting their work. There are always two attitudes one can take to these functions. You can either have delusions of adequacy that you are a critic for The New York Post as you sit and dis what is on display, or you can realize that the author-participants are not there competing with Ted Kooser and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I chose the latter. Each one of the participants stood on that stage reading works they had created in the hopes that something in what they created would for one magic moment touch another person's life in the audience -- and make a difference. And, based on what I witnessed with my fellow audience members, the passions were appreciated.

I, of course, number myself among the group -- both through my writing and my cooking. I have no pretensions about aspiring to greatness. OK. There may be a few moments. But I write simply because I like to write and read. I cook because I like to eat. And I like talking about both with you.

In that sense, we are all Florence Foster Jenkins. And that is fine with me.

On her deathbed she reminisced about her success at Carnegie Hall where, to her ear, she had a voice like an angel -- and was dressed as one.

May every artist in the world die with such memories.

No comments: