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Painted Sky Opera presents Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

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Molly Cason Johnson and Joey Harbert as Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon in Painted Sky Opera’s production of Souvenir. Photo Wendy Mutz / provided
  • Mutz Photography
  • Molly Cason Johnson and Joey Harbert as Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon in Painted Sky Opera’s production of Souvenir. Photo Wendy Mutz / provided

Most of the performances of Oklahoma City native Molly Cason Johnson’s career have relied on the methods that have allowed her to become a successful teacher in Texas and at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO).

This weekend’s Painted Sky Opera performance Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins asks the question, How do we interpret music?

Foster Jenkins was a New York socialite and philanthropist who became infamous for her tone-deaf and off-key performances, eventually selling out Carnegie Hall in 1944. Meryl Streep earned her 20th Academy Award nomination for her performance in the eponymous 2016 biopic, and Judy Kaye earned a 2006 Tony nomination for the Broadway performance as Foster Jenkins in Souvenir.

“It’s a favorite role of mine,” Johnson said. “She is such an interesting soul. How can I not love to pursue this after so much of my life has been spent cultivating quality operatic training, to say what makes us lean into an artist? Is it always just about the quality of the sound?”

Those questions are asked by Souvenir’s narrator and only other performer, Foster Jenkins’ pianist Cosmé McMoon, played by UCO grad Joey Harbert.

Breaking form

Johnson’s preparation for the role began by taking Foster Jenkins’ interpretation of classic arias and relying on her training.

“I can listen to my advice as a voice teacher and do the opposite. It’s knowing the music and how to depart from it,” Johnson said, noting that she isn’t trying to do a strict imitation of Foster Jenkins’ recordings. “It’s definitely harder to sing incorrectly than it is to sing correctly. It’s been fun, though.”

CitySpace Theatre at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave., hosts the Painted Sky Opera performance, which can be seen 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30.

“I love this show partly because it presents both sides of Florence, who was a truly unique figure in musical history. Souvenir shows how ridiculously awful her singing was, but it never mocks her or becomes mean-spirited,” stage director Rob Glaubitz said in a press release. “Florence was a good person who genuinely thought that her singing was bringing joy to people. Of course, her singing was indeed bringing people joy, but not in the way she thought.”

Johnson said the intimate CitySpace Theatre is a “wonderful marriage between venue and story.”

The performance is structured around conversations between Foster Jenkins and McMoon.

“The audience will feel so privy to it because they’re so close,” Johnson said.  “It’s not a booming space to tell a personal story.”

Possible farce

The real Foster Jenkins was born Nascina Florence Foster to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She trained in piano until age 15, when she married Dr. Frank Jenkins. The marriage only lasted three years, and he likely gave her syphilis, which is thought to be a reason for her performance irregularities late in life.

Anecdotal stories have come forward in the following decades to only fuel the debate about whether Foster Jenkins understood that she rose to prominence based on infamy.

“The conclusion is still out from people that have studied up on her,” Johnson said. “Was she aware that she was terrible? Were there medical things to make her think she was great when she wasn’t?”

Foster Jenkins used her family inheritance to invest in the arts, sponsoring social clubs throughout New York City. It is in the safe space of these clubs — away from critics — that she gained fanfare. At the age of 76, she relinquished to pressure for a public show and booked Carnegie Hall.

The performance sold out weeks in advance, and thousands had to be turned away at the doors. Foster Jenkins suffered a heart attack a few days after scathing reviews hit publications. She died a month after her biggest performance.

“What is music? What is bad? It’s all of life’s questions answered in an hour and half — not really,” Johnson said.

Painted Sky Opera’s 2017-2018 season concludes in May with Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.

Visit paintedskyopera.com.

 

Print headline: Delightfully off-key; Painted Sky Opera presents Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. Painted Sky Opera presents Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins.

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