Can Joyce DiDonato hack it as the world’s worst opera singer?

Can Joyce DiDonato hack it as the world’s worst opera singer?


norman lebrecht

October 30, 2020

The video is now online of Joyce’s attempt to play Florence Foster Jenkins.

See what you think.



  • papageno says:

    I think the world’s Worst living Opera Singer is Andrea Bocelli.

  • Bruce says:

    Quickly losing patience with the opening shots of the New York skyline, I randomly fast-forwarded to about 7:20 and heard some AMAZING singing from the real DiDonato… then some talk about how FFJ clearly didn’t hear herself the way others did… then some more amazing singing that morphs into the FFJ version (impersonated by DiDonato), followed by DiDonato “un-butchering” what she-as-FFJ had just mangled.

    I have to say, DiDonato does a wonderful job, both as a good singer and as a bad one.

    Reminds me of an article I read awhile ago about actors whose special gimmick is to be “bad” at something: someone who can mess up easy magic tricks, or juggle badly, or sing out of tune… on purpose. As the “bad” singer said: to sing badly, you have to be able to sing.

    Also, from one of those old Heifetz masterclass videos, there’s a clip of him playing for his students (I think it’s Vieuxtemps #4?), embodying all the bad habits he rails against as a teacher. It’s hilarious, and really well done.


      Please share that video’s link if you can. 🙂

      • David K. Nelson says:

        I believe this is the Heifetz video referred to – of an overly nervous violin student at an audition, where just about everything that could go wrong, does (and some future famous violinists at the masterclass can be seen laughing).

        Speaking as someone who himself gets and always got very nervous about playing in public, even before friends, but particularly at auditions, I find that Heifetz tape rather hard to listen to. It’s me and people like me he’s trashing. And the truth hurts.

        Even funnier is the LP Heifetz privately recorded and gave as a gift to select friends, of what could be called “perfectly bad” violin playing. He even had someone pose for the cover photo so it looks like a commercial recording by “Joseph Hague” (with either “Lionel De Leon” [perhaps an inside joke for toy train collectors] or Floyd E. Sharp at the piano), but now and then there are hints of Heifetz. The “Spring” Sonata is enough to make your teeth fall out.

        But it isn’t Jack Benny style ineptness – and maybe it is more of a parody of bad violin teachers, because a few difficult things are done almost well. William Primrose snuck a tape of it in the audition pile for the string faculty at Indiana University and enjoyed telling them later they’d all just rejected Jascha Heifetz. I think it was Gingold he quoted as saying that the person could clearly play but had such a laundry list of embedded defects that nobody at the university level would want to take on the task of undoing them.

        On the subject of a professional deliberately singing very badly, years ago I remember on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, in response to a question by Carson about singing, Mel TormĂ© demonstrated singing beautifully but sharp and how painful that was, worse than hearing someone sing flat, because it was more difficult to say what was wrong, only that something was clearly wrong. Only a thorough professional could demonstrate singing sharp like TormĂ© could. He was demonstrating something very different than the clearly bad singing of Florence Foster Jenkins. Until reading this entry I was unaware of the tragic medical reasons for her inability to appreciate how poorly she sang and now I feel guilty about laughing at her all these years. I always just assumed she was a foolish and deluded society matron of the sort Margaret Dumont played so well in all those Marx Brothers films.

        • Bruce says:

          Yes, it’s a kind of sad story, redeemed by the fact that she was not at all unhappy about it.

          And I was going to say Mel TormĂ© never sang a note out of tune in his life. Now I would have to add “…except on purpose.”

          The one time he sang with my orchestra, he did an amazing scat session, which he finished by pretending to run out of ideas for scat syllables. “Dibby, scubby… flooby… uh… say, do we have any be-bop fans in the audience?”

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I once heard Jack Benny, renowned for his bad violin playing as well as his comic timing, play the violin part in “Capriccio Espagnol” at a rehearsal.
      He was excellent! He asked the conductor to let him do it at the rehearsal because he never got a chance to do any “real” violin playing.
      Needless to say, at the performance he was back to his scratchy out-of-tune stage persona.
      As for DiDonato, she is certainly good enough to be bad! :=))

  • Edgar Pilbeam says:

    This UK critic appears to think so.
    “considered purely as a mezzo instrument, Ms. DiDonato’s voice is just about the least of her numerous accomplishments…to my ears the voice lacks both warmth and juice, sounding wiry to the point of hard-edged and brittle at the top of its range, and afflicted throughout with a tight, fluttery vibrato that both robs the sound of colour and can end up perilously close to tremulousness. Nor is the breath line ideally long, all sorts of stratagems being used to disguise the numerous breaks the mezzo is obliged to insert, and which regrettably often lead to inaudibility at the ends of lines as the breath support simply pegs out before the music does “

    • M McAlpine says:

      One of those cloth-eared critics who I fear who just sets themselves up to be laughed at by those of us who actually go to the opera for enjoyment. These people have accomplished absolutely nothing in their own lives, know what failure is and trie and pull down those who have achieved success. Non-entities did the same with Callas and Sutherland in their day. Joyce di Donato is one of the great singers of our day so remarks like this are laughable by those of us who actually attend opera to enjoy it. This guy should get a hearing test!

    • Robert Lee says:

      Her singing is horrid. She coos like a dove who is the only person in the world when singing softly (to herself) and when angry and vicious, it’s a horrible sound… anything above an F sounds completely out of control, the vibrato goes insane and the tone is spread.

  • Jimbo says:

    Previously on this blog Katherine Jenkins was criticised for calling herself an opera singer as she doesn’t appear in costume in productions of recognised operas. FFJ didn’t either, so we should apply the same rule. FFJ was a would be opera singer.

  • Jean Collen says:

    It is sad that Florence Foster Jenkins was entirely deluded about her voice and that so many people attended her concerts to laugh at her. Without her husband’s money she would never have appeared at the Carnegie Hall. I’m surprised that Joyce DiDonato agreed to take this role! A huge confidence trick on everyone’s part both in FFJ’s day and in the present in my opinion.

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    Of course Joyce is the best singing actress in opera at present and she is a delight as Florence!

    • Richard Cumming-Bruce says:

      To me, Joyce is a uniquely inspirational figure in the global classical music scene at the moment – as an artist and as a human being. The beauty of her voice is obviously an integral part of the package, but far from the only part and perhaps not even the most important part.

  • Brian says:

    How can you tell what is Florence and what is Joyce?

  • Nijinsky says:

    Sorry to be such a downer, but I’m starting to find this obsession with being entertained with how badly Florence sang quite childish, and a comment on what people think entertainment is. WHY? Because there’s enough evidence that Florence Foster simply couldn’t hear what she was doing, because of the same condition that lead to her emotional challenges; and getting one’s jollies out of laughing at Florence is something akin to someone staging a person with cerebral palsy doing a gymnastic routine for everyone to laugh at; and then leaving out that the person has a disease effecting their ability to move. Here are two clear reports concerning what disability Florence might have had, and it should be only clear that she had one:
    with this quote from above article: “Mrs. Jenkins contracted syphilis at age 18 and has had the disease for nearly 60 years. The chancre appeared in her left hand, an unusual location as extragenital chancres occur in less than 2% of patients. She has alopecia, a common sign of secondary syphilis; and occasional seizures, which may be provoked by cerebral gummas, characteristic of tertiary syphilis. She takes mercury and arsenic, two common therapies at the time. The most striking feature shown in the film is Mrs. Jenkins’ poor singing ability, which she does not seem to be aware of and, on the contrary, she considers herself a talented singer. Neurosyphilis can cause hearing loss and cranial neuropathies, which may have impaired her ability to hear herself and sing, respectively. Heavy metal toxicity could have contributed too. ”

    I only watched a portion of this video, and I haven’t seen the movie with Madame Streep, but how much in either flick, along with the remarks about Florence’s personality in this video or the attempt to use her disability for “entertainment,” how much in either piece of “art” is it actually acknowledged that she had a disability, and was on “medications” that would severely effect anyone’s ability to cognate what was going on or what they were doing!?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. These ‘entertainment exercises’ are tasteless and dehumanizing.

      • brian says:

        You guys are musicians, so film is not your thing. But when I saw that the movie was coming out, I said, an artist of depth and quality like Streep does not do shallow, shrill, superficial characters. So I went to see it in its first week, knowing that the script had to have at least some substance or Streep wouldn’t have touched it. Sure enough, I encountered a complex character: shrewd, calculating, vain, wounded, dependent, fiery. So before you pass your judgments, I’d suggest going to netflix or wherever and watching it. If you then still think Streep’s portrayal is the least bit superficial, then all I can say is that we have very different and probably irreconcilable tastes in film and acting.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The point is that the subject is dehumanizing a woman who should be pitied and not made fun of, and making fun of her bad ‘singing’ is certainly an important ingredient of the Streep movie.

          When you first hear these historic recordings, without knowing the background, it’s just hilarious, creating lots of fun. After you have read about the background, it suddenly is not so funny anymore.

        • Brook Noidiots says:

          Musicians are incapable of appreciating film? What rock do you live under?

          • Nijinsky says:

            Rather than asking if a whole profession (musicians) are capable of appreciating film or asking what rock they live under, implying that when someone has a different interest than you they are free bait for discriminatory stereotyping, I don’t think it would do you any harm to do a search for mercury as medicine as read the the true history of it.

        • Nijinsky says:

          Sorry, I completely lost the ability to follow this, or who was saying that musicians are incapable of appreciating film. But this statement: “You guys are musicians, so film is not your thing,” I hadn’t noticed who it came from and thought Brook Noidiots was questioning musicians’ ability. And that statement is absolutely ridiculous. As the statement about who knows what about film.

          To begin with, that film isn’t at all about the person that it’s made out to be about, whether Madame Streep plays a character that’s compelling or not has nothing to do with it, mostly. To leave out how mercury as medicine would effect someone, is akin to spiking someone with mild altering drugs, and then start to argue about their personality or genetic makeup, and leave out the spiking as relevant. What’s worse is making out that leaving that out, and tending to the rest that’s made up and not really addressing reality is “therapy.” Or that this is what film is about, and those who point out there’s a gaping vacancy there where truth should be tended to, that they just are one of those “personalities” or “professions” where film isn’t their thing. Same as pointing out what mercury really does means that medicine just isn’t someone’s thing; and there are enough example of modern “medicines” and modern “practices” akin….

          • Nijinsky says:

            “To leave out how mercury as medicine would effect someone, is akin to spiking someone with mild altering drugs, ” was supposed to read mind altering, not mild. Which it certainly wouldn’t be, sorry about that…

    • Edward says:

      I watched the Meryl Streep film, I don’t know how accurate it was to her real life, but her condition was mentioned in the closing credits I seem to recall, as I hadn’t known about it previously. My overall memory of the film was that it was largely a sympathetic portrait of FFJ, sure we were encouraged to laugh at the bad singing, but my feeling was one of sadness for her as she was a victim of the people who wouldn’t tell her the truth, and persisted in deluding her. The end of the film when she reads a review of her Carnegie Hall concert by a critic who hadn’t been paid off to be flattering was heartbreaking.

  • Edgar Self says:

    [s it known who will play Mme Jenkins’s long-suffering accompanist, Cosmo McMoon? Their bizarre performances are too painful to brar without anesthesial intervention.

  • Peter A says:

    This is great fun, and DiDonato is wonderful. And it is the perfect way to spend a couple of hours when you don’t want to be paying attention to the news.

  • Martin Spencer says:

    There is the possibility that she was simply doing the best that she could. Obviously, she was an opera lover and actually knew the music, even if she couldn’t sing it. I value her as the most original opera singer of all time, and delight in her well-aimed coloratura, even if it always misses the mark. Her intent was genuine, and hence her legend lives.