An actress might need train professionally all her life to sing badly in the lead role of "Souvenir."
Stephen Temperley's two-act play explores the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who bought her way onto the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and earned a reputation as "the world's worst singer."
Jenkins, filled equally with optimism and delusion, specialized in opera that she was woefully unequipped to sing.
Longtime Montana actress Alicia Bullock-Muth was looking for a two-person script to stage at the Missoula Winery when she heard of scripts about Jenkins.
Bullock-Muth has three degrees in music and was a go-to leading actress for Missoula Community Theatre in the 1980s and 1990s. Longtime Missoulians will remember her from "Peter Pan" and "The Sound of Music." She's performed light opera, as well, and has traveled to Vienna.
She's been teaching for 20 years, and tells her students that opera singers are like Olympic athletes.
So singing opera badly on purpose was different, said Bullock-Muth.
"It's like clowning. Singing badly is so fascinating," she said. You have to exaggerate without hurting yourself.
Jenkins had terrible pitch and skewed rhythm. Original recordings that have been posted on YouTube sound like they transferred from warped vinyl. Bullock-Muth listened to them for hours.
"I think it takes a very trained singer to be able to learn that repertoire and make it bad," said director Andy Meyers.
It's a difficult character. The play has humor, the singing must be bad, but "because it's a real person, it's easy to cross into SNL impersonation," he said.
In Temperley's take on the story, during the first act we see Jenkins prepare with pianist Cosme McMoon.
McMoon moved to New York to pursue a career writing music, but instead spent 14 years accompanying Jenkins.
At first, he believes Jenkins is in on the joke. Once he realizes she's not, he's won over by her Don Quixote-esque optimism.
"He struggles a lot with the perception of all his music friends," Meyers said.
McMoon is portrayed by Travis Kuehn, who earned a bachelor's in vocal performance as an undergraduate and is getting a master's in musical theater at the University of Montana.
It was a difficult role to cast, Bullock-Muth said. While she butchers the classics like Mozart and Verdi, Kuehn must play them straight. They needed someone who could act as narrator, sing and play the piano.
Interestingly, Meyers said the other characters never lie to Jenkins. They seem happy she's donating the proceeds to charities, and find ways to avoid the truth via evasive compliments along the lines of, "that was unforgettable."
"He is never dishonest with her, but he skates around it so carefully in the writing," he said.
Meyer said this weekend's performances at the 75- to 100-seat Missoula Winery are a test run for a production at Fort Peck in August.
Meyers, the artistic director at Fort Peck Summer Theatre and a guest director/actor at Arizona Broadway Theatre, grew up in Missoula.