‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ Vocal Coach Arthur J. Levy Taught Me to Sing, Kind of
Meryl Streep fans have heard her flex her vocal chops in several films over the past few years: She channeled her inner rock star for 2015’s Ricki and the Flash and rose to the challenge of singing Sondheim in 2014’s Into the Woods adaptation. But in the Golden Globes-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears’ movie about a real-life New York City socialite and amateur opera singer, Meryl accomplished something equally impressive: She learned to sing terribly, and she did it well.
The real Florence Foster Jenkins gained cult fandom for her…unique vocals in the 1940s, decades before ironic music appreciation would make internet stars out of “Friday” singer Rebecca Black and American Idol hopefuls like William Hung. Cole Porter, one of Jenkins’ famous fans, reportedly had to jab his cane into his foot to keep from laughing while she performed — yet he still showed up to watch her riveting displays. So how did Meryl bring Jenkins’ ability to hold audiences in thrall (and in giggling fits) to life onscreen? Streep’s Florence vocal coach, Arthur J. Levy, says he first spent weeks teaching Streep how to be a good opera singer, and they worked backwards from there.
Levy has worked as a vocal consultant and master class teacher at the Glimmerglass Opera and Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre, and he’s prepared stars including Audra McDonald, Lea Michelle, Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham for musical theater roles. While Levy’s success with Streep is quite evident in the funny and tender-hearted Florence, he pointed out that he wasn’t Streep’s first vocal teacher — in fact, early in her career she was trained by famed soprano Beverly Sills’ teacher Estelle Liebling, mere blocks away from where her lessons with Levy would take place years later.
Still, it was Levy, not Liebling, who helped Streep develop her winning caterwaul as Florence. So when I was offered my own private vocal lesson with Levy, I jumped at the chance to find out whether some time with a master would help me improve in any way. My brief lesson affirmed that I’m no Audra McDonald — I’m barely a Florence Foster Jenkins — but Levy and his piano accompanist were blessedly patient, and Levy had interesting things to say about the relationship between the mind and the voice, saying "the imagination informs the throat."
"How people want to sound — and their relationship to their own sound especially when they’ve studied a lot and have developed their complete sound — that technique that you develop when you get to the music, and the drama, that’s what you believe in," Levy told me. "The sounds, the dynamics — they really inform how you get your voice going technically. In a way, technique is there just for the imagination that you want to put into the music."
So how did I do in my lesson? You can see for yourself below. With some practice and Levy’s tips, I could definitely improve — and Florence Foster Jenkins puts forth the idea that anybody can achieve their dreams if they’ve got the passion, a supportive network of collaborators and friends and a strong belief in themselves (having enough money to rent Carnegie Hall also helps). And to quote Meryl Streep as Florence in the film, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, arrives with 5 minutes of bonus content on Blu-Ray Combo Pack, DVE and On Demand on Tuesday, December 13.
The 10 Best Movies of 2016