Art preview: My life as a disaster aria

Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 10:58pm

Sweet & Sour Productions


To inspire no fewer than four plays by four different playwrights requires an exceptional personality, and operatic coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins certainly had that.

What she didn't have was any ability in her chosen métier. Unable to sing in tune, in time, or to pronounce correctly many of the words she sang, she was so irresistibly bad she consistently played to packed houses. It was reported that 5,000 people applied for the 3,000 tickets for what turned out to be her final performance at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1944.

One of the plays she inspired, Glorious by Peter Quilter, gets its Hong Kong premiere on Wednesday, May 1 at HKRep Black Box. It is produced by Sweet & Sour Productions, directed by Candice Moore and stars Jacqueline Gourlay Grant as Florence and Andrew Swift as her accompanist, the magnificently named Cosmé McMoon.

The play, which has six characters, was first staged in Britain in 2005 as a touring production with veteran British actress Maureen Lipman as Florence.

"I know a couple of Peter Quilter's other plays, one of which is End of the Rainbow, which is about Judy Garland," says Moore.

"I was thinking of doing that, and while I was researching it I came across Glorious and I thought this is a fun subject and it's true, which makes it really interesting."

There was more to Foster Jenkins than the talent she absolutely believed she had - despite evidence, perhaps, to the contrary.

She was born into a wealthy family but her father, who was, perhaps, a music lover, refused to fund her training as a singer. She worked hard, if unsuccessfully, at her calling, living in much reduced circumstances until she finally inherited family money and a position in society.

A generous philanthropist who gave money away recklessly, she acquired her reputation through charity fundraising performances. These were archly reviewed by amused critics in terms that suggested that her singing was awful, without saying so outright.

McMoon - who is said to have made faces behind her back to provoke more laughter - was certainly in on the joke. The extent to which Florence was is unclear.

But she knew she had her detractors. She once said: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." McMoon later said: "No one can do what Florence Foster Jenkins did because they all try to send her up. She was totally sincere."

"This play celebrates and focuses on what she did well - although that obviously wasn't singing," says Moore. "I think she overcame quite a lot in her life. She was very resilient."

For a trained singer to sing badly and convincingly is a considerable technical challenge, but one which the operatically trained Gourlay Grant has impressively come to grips with.

Swift is a pianist as well as an actor, and he will be performing his parts live. Snippets of the real Florence Foster Jenkins, who made a number of 78rpm records - of which the best collection on CD is probably Naxos' Murder on the High Cs - will also be heard.

"It's a comedy, but it's about a real person, and I think quite a lot of people will be interested to know more about her," says Moore.

"At the end she sings Mozart's Queen of the Night Aria at her final Carnegie Hall concert, and although it starts off as people heard her, as it goes on we hear her singing the way she heard herself - which was singing well. I think that's quite a good note to end on."


May 1, 3 and 4, 8pm; May 4 and 5, 3pm. HKRep Black Box, Sheung Wan Civic Centre. HK$225. Tel: 9131 3387