Fortunately most admirers of vocal art have a good sense of humor. Of course there have been many obvious attempts at comedy in singing going back to the acoustic recording of the Okey Laughing Record, but I've always found the funniest to be efforts of those who really thought they were good (at least they seemed sincere about it).
One of those was Madame Florence Foster Jenkins, born around 1868, so when these recordings were made about 1940 she must have been well into her sixth decade. She lived in Manhattan and had a wealthy husband who reportedly would not let her sing in public— but after he died she did so, usually giving recitals for invited friends. She even gave a concert in Carnegie Hall (Oct. 25, 1944), which was sold out. Madame Jenkins always would change costume several times during her concerts. Reports say when she appeared on the stage (which also contained a number of palm trees in addition to the piano) there would be applause—and laughter— and when all this died down she would begin singing only to have audience sounds again cover up her efforts. It didn't matter to her; she just kept going, oblivious to all the commotion. She said those in the audience who were disrupting her performace were placed there by jealous rival singers. One time, after a particularly well-received rendition of a song called Cavelitos in which she carried a basket of flower petals which she threw into the audience as she sang, the response demanded an encore—but she had no more flowers. So she and her regular accompaniest, Cosme McMoon (who never cracked a smile no matter that sounds the diva made), crawled around on stage to gather them so she could repeat her triumph. A magazine report of the time said certain members of the audience were almost hysterical at the sight of the matronly soprano on stage and began "pounding each other on the back as if demented." There are a number of amusing stories about her; it is said that one time she had a minor taxicab accident during which she "sang a higher "F" then ever before," to her delight—and she tipped the driver generously. Critic Robert Bagar of the New York World-Telegram wrote, "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And the happiness was communicated as if by magic to her hearers..."
Jenkins made a series of recordings at the New York Melotone Recording Studios at 25 Central Park West, with the intention of selling them to her friends and admirers. The first test record was the "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. When she arrived at home she listened carefully to a test pressing and called the studio saying she had concern about "one note." They told her she need not concern herself about any "one note" and, thus assured, she permitted this to be used as the master. It is one of the funniest recordings ever made. There are only nine Jenkins recordings, a few have been quite rare, and all are to be found on this fascinating Naxos CD, in very fine transfers by David Lennick. All of the performances are a hoot indeed, particularly Adele's Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, the Bell Song from Lakme, Biassy (which is sung in Russian!), and the very rare Valse Caressante in which there is a major flute obligatto—with hilarious results. RCA had the rights to these recordings and issued most of them on LP, later on CD (61175 - "The Glory (????) of the Human Voice"), long out of print.
Naxos has coupled the Jenkins performances (which take about 34 minutes) with other "comic" and unusual recordings, some of limited interest. Josephine Tumminia does a weird coloratura takeoff of The Blue Danube, and it's a delight to hear the repartee between Jimmy Durante and Helen Traubel. But Jeanette MacDonald is simply awful in The Fireman's Bride, and Lauritz Melchior's stilted singing of Please Don't Say No is an embarassment. They should have included A Faust Travesty (with soprano Jenny Williams and baritone Thomas Burns in excerpts from Gounod's opera sung in English, which was on the RCA CD), or perhaps some of the dreadful RCA recordings by Margaret Truman.
Critic Robert Bagar of the New York World-Telegram write, "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And the happiness was communicated as if by magic to her hearers..."
This CD is guaranteed to bring you much pleasure. Hats off to Naxos for making these remarkable performances available.
R.E.B. (September 2003)