Souvenir by Sing'theatre celebrates tone-deaf singer

British actress Leigh McDonald and Singapore's Hossan Leong star in Sing'theatre's production of Souvenir.
British actress Leigh McDonald and Singapore's Hossan Leong star in Sing'theatre's production of Souvenir.PHOTO: SING’THEATRE

SINGAPORE - It takes a good performer to sing badly and British actress Leigh McDonald is taking on that challenge. In Sing'theatre's production of Souvenir, she plays an early-20th-century socialite who became famous for her off-tune concerts.

The play also stars Hossan Leong and is directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall. It runs from Sept 19 to 29 at the KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT.

Souvenir is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a flamboyant New York socialite who put on lavish tableaus and private vocal recitals in which she took a starring role.

Until her death in 1944, her wealth protected her from the truth - that she could not sing and, in fact, was tone-deaf - and allowed her to make recordings of her singing, as a souvenir for her friends.

Some of these recordings have survived on YouTube, notably her take on Mozart's famous Queen Of The Night aria, described as a "massacre of Mozart" by the "world's most inept opera singer".

Cast and director wince while hearing the clip. "When you hear that, you don't laugh. You're in pain," says McDonald, who sang and acted in Sing'theatre's well-received revue, A Singaporean In Paris (2010). She also played the American painter who befriends Dowager Empress Cixi in the homegrown musical, Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (2002 and 2003).

"I'm quite daunted, if I'm being honest," adds the actress, who is in her 50s. "It's funny, the thing you try not to do all your life, go off the note, I have to do it."

  • Book It

  • SOUVENIR

    WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Sept 19; 8pm. Sept 21 to Sept 29; Tuesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday 4pm & 8pm; Sunday 4pm

    ADMISSION: $35 to $59 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

Jenkins' story inspired the 2016 movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. The Sing'theatre production, based on a script by Stephen Temperley, tells the story from the perspective of Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

McMoon, played by Leong, was a skilful pianist who needed a job and ended up staying with Jenkins for 12 years, adapting his playing to make up for deficiencies in her singing. The 49-year-old actor says: "There's this naivete in her that endears her to him. It's like, 'Okay, I should protect her.'"

Director Scott-Blackhall adds: "It's a bit of a love story, the love of the craft, the passion."

Jenkins was loved even as she was mocked. Songwriter Cole Porter was reportedly a regular at her vocal recitals and her fame grew so much that in 1944, at age 76, weeks before she died, she held her first public performance, at Carnegie Hall.

She made people laugh, explain cast and director, and laughter was much-needed in those decades which marked two World Wars and the Great Depression.

"She was so pure and lovely and honest," says Leong. "She really thought she could sing."