The worst singer in the world

Cinema still: Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep
PHOTO: Youtube screengrabs

As a new film starring Meryl Streep is released, Clemency Burton-Hill finds out what made Florence Foster Jenkins so popular - and inspirational.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a 20th-Century US socialite and music-lover who styled herself as an operatic coloratura soprano and became a sensation.

One of the most famous singers of her day, she was incredibly rich, a generous philanthropist, and garnered legions of fans including celebrities such as Noël Coward.

Florence's fame, however, rested not on her musical talent, but rather its opposite.

Her astonishingly bad voice and abject inability - seemingly unbeknownst to her - to pitch correctly became the stuff of legend as she worked hard to lovingly massacre her way through gems by Mozart, Strauss and other leading composers.

Having previously only been seen in private at New York women's clubs or in her own establishment, the Verdi Club, such was the demand for her performances that she went on to sell out Carnegie Hall in a 1944 concert that has entered the annals of music history.

While her public performances also raised millions of dollars (in today's terms) for charity, the abiding image is that of polite society guffawing, jaws clenched, trying not to roll down the aisles with laughter as they showered her with thunderous applause.

Florence Foster Jenkins remains, it is widely agreed, 'the worst opera singer in the world'.

But the most incredible thing of all is that she had no idea. The illusion that she was a truly great artist was maintained, thanks in no small part to her second husband St Clair Bayfield, throughout her life.

She loved what she did and she believed she was bringing great pleasure to her adoring audiences - which, in a way, she was.

Her extraordinary story has long held a fascination for writers, directors and musicians.

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