Diva of Din to hit the highs again - maybe
Melbourne singer Helen Noonan and pianist Stephen McIntyre are bringing Florence Foster Jenkins, the Diva of Din, back to life on stage.
THEY dubbed her the Diva of Din, a tone-deaf operatic wannabe whose self-funded New York concerts were so bad they became perverse hits.
Audiences came to laugh at Florence Foster Jenkins, some having to run out into the street in spasms of mirth, but this stellar crotchet-cruncher remained undaunted and eventually, in a glorious farewell, the heiress sold out Carnegie Hall with 2000 turned away.
And can you believe that her long-suffering piano accompanist was named Mr Cosme McMoon? A year before her death in 1944, Jenkins was a passenger in a taxi that crashed and claimed that afterwards she could sing ''a higher F than ever before''. She sent the cabbie a box of cigars.
At the end of her shows, Jenkins would toss flowers into the audience - and McMoon would collect them afterwards for tossing again. ''Florence was an innately joyous human being,'' says Melbourne songstress Helen Noonan, who is bringing Jenkins back to life in the play Souvenir at Chapel Off Chapel. ''She was deeply deluded but very generous and joyful. She couldn't help herself. It's a lovely way to be.''
Noonan visited New York this year and gained access to some Jenkins keepsakes at the Lincoln Centre's Performing Arts Museum. ''Her address book is there, with phone numbers for people like Cole Porter,'' says Noonan. ''And also for other people, tradesmen, with 'not for invitation' in brackets. She was very much upper crust. There is a great big scrapbook of cuttings. She was married to a dreadful man who left her damaged but then she inherited a fortune from her father and was able to live very comfortably in upper Manhattan.''
Accomplished Melbourne pianist Stephen McIntyre plays the patient and adoring McMoon who, says Noonan, had to overcome enormous musical frustration during concerts as Jenkins meandered from the musical score. The Diva of Din occasionally became aware of audience derision, says Noonan, but ''McMoon, a kind and tender man, was able to massage Florence back to a comfort zone. So in the end she was left with just the joy of performing.''
Noonan, who ironically has played the role of Dame Nellie Melba in the past, is an operatic professional who is finding it ''huge fun'' to sing badly on purpose. ''It's like Anna Russell or Victor Borge, comedian-musicians who could tweak the notes,'' she says. ''It's a challenge … to choose notes that are incorrect so it has to be a real ensemble between Stephen and myself - he gives the audience the idea of what the note should be and that gives me the place to spring off from … I'm having an absolute ball."
Noonan returned to the stage last year after recovering from cancer, with a show she created five years earlier, Voicing Emily - the verse of American poet Emily Dickinson, set to music.
Florence Foster Jenkins was 76 when she died at her home in Manhattan's Hotel Seymour, a month after her Carnegie Hall triumph. She cut five 78rpm records during her career and her infamy was such that some of her material has been re-issued on CDs. She is also immortalised on YouTube. The Diva of Din had the last laugh.
Souvenir opens Wednesday, February 20, at Chapel Off Chapel.