Florence Foster Jenkins has truly made a splash in the opera world with her “bad singing,” extravagant recitals, and flamboyant personality. Yet, her recordings and recitals drew massive attention, even selling out Carnegie Hall. Recently, the media has taken an interest in her life and career, with several movies, articles, and documentaries produced, including the upcoming documentary “The Florence Foster Jenkins Story” starring Joyce DiDonato. This documentary explores how her drive, commitment, and rebellious personality contributed to her success. We interviewed the Emmy-nominated director, Ralf Pleger to see what sparked his interest in Jenkins, and brought her imagination to life.
What sparked your interest in this project?
RP: In the early nineties, a friend of mine introduced me to [Jenkin’s] records on a trip to New York. I heard her voice for the first time in our hotel room in midtown while I was watching the skyline of Manhattan. I’ll never forget that. Her singing became a kind of signature tune for the panoramic view of New York City.
Two decades later, the film producers Bernhard von Hülsen and Maria Willer of 3B-Produktion, asked me if I would like to write and direct a film about Florence Foster Jenkins. I looked closer into her biography and background, and it took me only few moments to reply to my producers: “Yes, this story has to be told,” in an extraordinary way, of course. Because that’s what she was: extraordinary!
What is the purpose, focus, and meaning of this project. What message do you want to send to your audience?
RP: The film will be a mix of genres: documentary, fictional, flamboyant, and magical.
One basic idea of the film is to enter Florence Foster Jenkins’ mind and recreate what she thought or imagined she sounded like. Jenkin’s mind is also depicted by tableaux vivants or living pictures, the centerpiece of the film’s audiovisual design. These fantasies display extravagant décor and costuming, signature features of Florence Foster Jenkins’ performances. In our cinematic interpretation of these tableaux vivants, our sensational star, Joyce DiDonato, appears in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins.
In Florence Foster Jenkins’ dream, we adjust her flaws, aurally and visually. The audience is invited to identify with her and her own idealized view of herself. However, from time to time we leave the dream layer and expose her “bad singing” in a very special way.
We added facts, discussed legends, and analyzed her story with experts and witnesses who remember seeing Florence Foster Jenkins perform. They gave us some insightful and entertaining interviews for the film.
My focus for this film is the story and its artistic implementation. I don’t overemphasize the idea of a special meaning or message. I do think that Florence Foster Jenkins’ story is extremely fascinating, worth telling, and highly relevant. It is a great metaphor of self-delusion and repression on the one hand, and of creative urge and determination on the other. It questions our views on alleged norms and blurs the line between what we see as ugly and what as beautiful …
Tell us about your decision to cast Joyce DiDonato as Florence Foster Jenkins.
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