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?
In the early nineties, 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 Berlin based producer, Bernhard von Hülsen 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 producer: “Yes, this story has to be told,” in an extraordinary way, of course. Because that’s what she was: extraordinary!
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.
Does this documentary have any connection to the film, “Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Meryl Streep? Was it a coincidence or did you want to make something that played off that?
This is completely coincidental. We started the project in late 2013. One year later - my script was already written - we learned that a British production company is working on a movie with Meryl Streep, and a third one, a French production called “Marguerite” with Catherine Frot, was even ready to be released.
Tell us about your decision to cast Joyce DiDonato as Florence Foster Jenkins.
Joyce DiDonato is not only one of the best singers in the world, but also an artist who always thinks out of the box. I admire her for this. It is fantastic to work with her. Her stage presence is as overwhelming as well as her acting in front of a close camera.
I’ve known Joyce DiDonato for quite some time, working together in different film projects. When “The Florence Foster Jenkins Story” began to take shape and the idea was born to create a perfect sound world in her imagination, it was obvious for me to ask Joyce. I met her in Barcelona and revealed this crazy idea to her - including the challenge to sing badly in certain episodes. She immediately said yes, and we developed a concept with some surprising details.
The week of shooting was a tour de force. There was an almost magic energy that encouraged us and kept us going, and Joyce was undoubtedly a major source of it.
I studied Art History, Musicology, and Italian in Berlin and Milan before I was offered a job in a film production. I directed my first documentary in 1995 in collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In recent years, my work focuses on documentaries and fictional films dedicated to both music and notable personalities. I love to fuse fictional film and documentary, and even animation. My films about composers are designed this way, and I’m very happy they obtained international reputation. “Wagnerwahn“ (The Wagner Files) for instance won the Audience Award at the World Film Festival in Montreal in 2013, and in 2014, the film was nominated for the International Emmy.