Florence Foster Jenkins has been called “The World’s Worst Opera Singer”. In the early 1900s, she was a patron of the arts in New York City who made vanity recordings and gave (self-sponsored) concerts in places like Carnegie Hall. (Ironically, her real first name was an homage to the original poster boy of vanity. It was Narcissa).
Unencumbered by either social constraint or artistic inhibition, Foster Jenkins barrelled onto the stage driven by what can only be regarded as pure joy. She embraced theatricality with gusto. She made her own glittery costumes, sported massive feathery wings, threw flowers, and favoured being lowered from theatre ceilings by rope and pulley. Going home seemed never to have been an option for Florence Foster Jenkins; she went big.
Her recordings are still available today, and they betray an almost gleeful disregard for the basic components of Western music. Concepts like “notes” were no obstacle to Florence Foster Jenkins. Perhaps that’s why she is difficult to forget, more than a century later. Even now, when I try to listen to anyone sing Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night aria, I can’t get her yelp-filled rendition out of my head. I’m rendered helpless with giggles every time. Florence Foster Jenkins still reliably delivers glee, long after her death. I don’t feel like I’m laughing at her- I think I’m just pleased to know that a person could be so OUT THERE. Risk-takers can make the more timid among us feel more at home in the world.
It’s hard to know whether the great lady was aware that people laughed at her. Was she in on the joke? Does it even matter? There is one quote of hers that may contain a sly wink. I believe it should stand as a clarion call at the beginning of a new year. “Some may say that I couldn’t sing,” Florence Foster Jenkins said, “but no one can say I didn’t sing”.
I think of this as an invitation to fearlessly embrace whatever brings you joy.
Too many people hold back on exploring an interest or a gift—particularly artistic ones— out of fear. Too often it’s fear of some kind of social reprisal: shame, or laughter. Never mind that you don’t get better at anything without practice. What about doing something for the pure fun of it?
We don’t have to hurl ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall in angel wings to savour the joy of living out our passions. What about drawing every night just to enjoy slowly mastering it? What about building models just to absorb oneself in a task that nothing is riding on?
The desires of your heart are uniquely you. They’re worth exploring and expressing. When it’s all over, you can look back and say you savoured the heck out of life, and never mind the begrudgers.
You’ve got one song to sing. Sing it loud, sing it long- sing it horrendously badly if you have to. Let “Who cares! Why not?” be your motto. Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without risk.