[I wrote this in September of 2016. For some reason I never published it. Here it is, as timely as ever.]
I was first introduced to Florence Foster Jenkins in college when my music history professor played her infamous album in class. As a teenager studying opera, naturally I found her hilarious and laughed mercilessly along with my peers. I remember marveling at her audacity to actually record those awful sounds. Didn’t she know how hideous she sounded? Why did no one tell her “no!”? But, twenty-plus years later, as an adult who spent twenty years pursuing an operatic career, my view of her as pathetic and laughable had changed. I had since read a little about her history, and now found her more of a tragic figure than risible. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see the movie about her life. I thought it would make relentless fun of her. I thought it would bring up old demons. I thought it would move me to tears for the tragedy of her story, the fears and failures of my own. I did cry, but not for those reasons at all. My tears were those of sympathy, of empathy, of understanding and comradery. I was crying with her and for her. The end…oh the end is just so beautiful, poignant and profound. I won’t spoil it any further- just go watch it! (It’s on Amazon Prime right now.) Thanks to the masterful performances of Meryl Streep as Florence and Hugh Grant as her husband, I saw her passion, the love and devotion to her art, to music, to the importance of music in the world. I felt the love and devotion that kept her loved ones from saying no; their fierce desire to make her happy and protect her dreams. Yes, there are many moments of hilarity: her singing is indeed absurd, her diction non-existent, her costumes ludicrous. The voice lesson montage is a thing of comic genius. That is how they sold the film, as a comedy. But like most good comedies, it is oh so much more than that. I left the theatre feeling intensely moved. I had a renewed understanding that devotion to people, ideas and activities that you love is what life is all about.
This film also changed the way I think about teaching and studying singing. I always try to nurture love and passion for the art form in my students, but often I wonder, with the ones who really struggle, am I doing them a favor by continuing to teach them when sometimes it seems…hopeless? I have never turned anyone away because of an apparent lack of talent, because you never know! Everyone grows on their own timeline. But doubts remained. I always asked myself, was it kinder to tell them or kinder not to? Florence has helped me to see that what I think matters not at all. If they love it, if they truly love it, they should be allowed and encouraged to pursue it in any way they can. And my job is to help them to the utmost of my abilities and with my full passion for the endeavor in evidence. As Florence (and I) have found out, the world can be terribly cruel and will do its best to knock that passion and love right out of you. There are far too many people out there ready and willing to tear you down. No, they don’t have to hire you or cast you; not everyone will encourage you and support you. But someone will, and those are the ones you listen to. And of course, we must love and support OURSELVES first and foremost. If Florence can do it, so can the rest of us mere mortals.