‘Florence Foster Jenkins’: three trials, two sopranos, and one woman’s fight for artistic justice

“The theft of intellectual property has been the dirty little secret of the film world for a very, very long time.”

Julia Kogan

When Julia Kogan was an undergraduate studying music and English Literature and struggling with the challenges of the coloratura soprano’s repertoire, she discovered Florence Foster Jenkins – a figure who was to change her life.

She remembers the experience to the very day.

“I was in the music building of the Conservatory of my university, and I was walking down the corridor…and one of my friends a countertenor, was sitting on the floor and he had a boom box and…it was blaring out Florence Foster Jenkins singing the Queen of the Night aria and [it] had to be one of the funniest things I’d ever heard.

The seeds of the idea that was to become the screenplay to the hit movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” were sown then and were to accompany Julia as she developed an international career – one that also saw her singing at Jenkins’s own favoured venue – Carnegie Hall.

“The challenge was how to create a feature film around the story of an old woman who sings badly in the same way over and over again?”

Enter Nicholas Martin who was to become Julia’s partner in crime. Or rather in life as in fiction. And it was to him that Julia pitched the idea for the screenplay.

It was a difficult time for both of them: Julia had been horribly injured in a near fatal car accident which had put her singing career on hold; Martin had just lost his job writing for the TV series Midsomer Murders; money was running out for both of them.

As Julia explained to the Music Works podcast, buying an extra copy of Final Draft, the screenwriting software, for her own computer seemed an unnecessary extravagance so Julia worked on Martin’s computer, which was already equipped with the programme.

It was an economy she would come to regret.

The resulting screenplay was pitched successfully, and both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant were signed up to the project as the eponymous heroine and her pseudo-husband. The film was made, launched and became a box office success.

But by then Julia Kogan and Nicholas Martin were no longer a couple and, in 2016, Martin took pre-emptive legal action to prevent Julia claiming any right to a share of the credit in the screenplay.

It was a court case that would go through three separate trials, redefine the law on joint authorship, and finally, in a judgment published in January this year, see Julia acknowledged as having made a 20% contribution to the work.

It was a victory, but a bitter one, and one that had taken its toll. For Julia it was a matter of creative integrity and recognition:

“When you’re in this kind of situation, more than anything else in the world, you want to be believed…”

Julia’s description of the conduct of the trial is a tale of pain, misogyny and years of a systematic attempt to discredit her as a writer and an artist.

It is a story that will resonate with many women as she describes the pressure placed on her to downplay her creative contribution in order to sustain her romantic relationship.

“It’s something that happens; someone essentially rewrites your identity.”

A lot of people would be discouraged and embittered by this experience, and Julia acknowledges the trauma she still carries as a result of the days of interrogation in which the final trial judge preferred the testimony of Nicholas Martin in the face what seemed compelling evidence in support of Julia’s case.

But this is not, in the end, a story of victimhood and loss, as Julia has emerged stronger, even more creative, and determined to build an enhanced career as a writer and publisher alongside her established name as a brilliant coloratura soprano.

“These years have been probably the most creative time of my life. I’ve gotten so much writing and singing done in the years fighting this case. And I think if I hadn’t fought this case, if I hadn’t stood up for myself, I don’t think I could have continued to write.”

This is one of the podcast’s most compelling episodes as Julia, a natural storyteller, takes us on an extraordinary journey through the machinations of the movie industry and the tortuous processes of the English legal system.

If you want to find out more about Julia as both a singer and a writer, and specifically about the “Florence Foster Jenkins” case, you can find this here on the Polyphony Arts website under her client profile: https://polyphonyarts.com/julia-kogan-soprano/ and on her website: https://www.juliakogan.com

You can watch the official trailer to “Florence Foster Jenkins” here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rRVCNffvKk

And, if you really want to hear Florence Foster Jenkins singing the Queen of the Night, you can find it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwthfxxbKho You have been warned!

Why we need better working structures for women in music.

“We all want the same thing: we all want to make the best art, to work in a decent environment.”

Sophie Gilpin, SWAP’ra

SWAP’ra was established by five working artists in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera, not just in performance, but also leadership roles. The declared aim of the organisation is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, music director, artistic director, conductor, composer or librettist is no longer noteworthy.

When SWAP’ra co-founder, director Sophie Gilpin spoke to Music Works (Season 2 Episode 2.5) she covered some of the issues that women and parents face working in the classical music industry. One of the key messages she brought to the table was how important it is for everyone involved to have a stake in this and work together to create an environment in which it is possible to have a family and work, even in a difficult medium like opera where the hours militate against anyone with childcare commitments.

Sometimes it seems like a big ask, but she sees these essential conversations happening more and more with more small initiatives, more little step changes, but all of which add up to a movement in the right direction.  

Of course, a lot of it goes back to traditional attitudes about women in the creative work space and how that is sometimes harder to tackle. It is generally understood that the industry has to be more representative, but that can lead to unhelpful tokenism which can in turn lead women to feel they are unfairly pitted against each other.

“There’s the men’s table [that] has space for one woman and…you know that…your gender is so present, and that you are being looked at as a female director, a female producer, a female conductor.”

The statistics are not always encouraging. The Arts Council’s diversity report last year shows that there are something like 32% of women employed across all roles in music (not counting freelancers) whereas across the arts as a whole the figure is 57%.

To challenge this, the gala that launched SWAP’ra at Opera Holland Park in 2018 used 150 music professionals: an all female orchestra, all female conductors, all female directors, all female state management team, all female repetiteurs and all female singers. The message was overt: “If anybody is in any doubt that the talent is out there, here’s 150 of us.”  

But, while Sophie and SWAP’ra may feel militant about something that she believes matters deeply to the health of industry and everyone, male and female alike, employed within it, she ends on a positive note:

“The most important thing is that we want to have this conversation in a positive way. We want to be celebratory and we want to be supportive and we want to highlight all the things that are going really, really well.”

Things may be a long way from ideal, but with people like Sophie and organisations like SWAP’ra pushing for change, it will, it has to get better.

If you’d like to find out more about Sophie’s work as a director and with SWAP’ra, you can find this on http://www.swap-ra.org and http://www.sophiegilpindirector.com

New music: why we need to challenge the “repertoire”

“The composer is a bit like the director of a movie and we are the actors and the actors have to express what the script says to their best ability.”

Avguste Antonov

The case for performing new music is a compelling one, but one that keeps having to be made in the face of entrenched views, a conservative mindset towards programming and a fear that audiences simply will not enjoy contemporary work.

Professor Avguste Antonov is a concert pianist and a professor of piano at the Châteaubriant Conservatoire who has made a specialism within his distinguished career of performing contemporary American music. When he spoke to Music Works in January, he described how he experiences the collaborative relationship with living composers and why he thinks this repertoire is important and needs to be heard.

First of all he challenges the idea that there is only one type of new music and the perception that it is inevitably atonal and “difficult” for the average listener. Instead he wants to see programming and promoters celebrating the wealth of work that is out there and have the courage to allow new pieces to be performed. And not just once as a world premiere which can catch the eye, but then see a work slip into oblivion, but to market cleverly.

“What’s left? Country premieres, city premieres, village premieres, you’ve got a whole type of type of premieres you can do and it all depends on how you promote that premiere…It all depends what you do with it.”

He also speaks compellingly about the special relationship that is possible when performing the music of a living composer. Although the performer feels a duty to perform a work in a way that reflects the composer’s original intention, no one can go back and ask Bach or Beethoven what they meant by any particular piece of scoring, but direct access to a living composer offers huge opportunities.

“You can actually go and talk with them and understand where they’re coming from as far as how they composed the work, what type of ideas, where they came from, and where they’re looking to go.”

But he also acknowledges that, once a piece has entered the domain of the performer, the composer has to allow that performer to place their own mark and interpretation on the work.

“Each composer is different. I’ve known composers who never want to hear me practice or rehearse their work before the concert. Not because they didn’t care, but because they want to give me that complete freedom.”

And that brings its own responsibilities. His approach is to always to be open minded whilst keeping a weather eye on the composers intent. It’s highly collaborative work.

“Composers write what they what they would like to express. But if we look on the other side of the map, it’s the performer when he gets on stage, that puts everything into place.”

One thing Avguste is certain of: new music offers a wealth and variety of pieces that should and can be heard. All it needs is a little more courage on the part of programmers and the persistence of artists like him in seeking out more repertoire, engaging with composers and making the case both in the lecture theatre (as well as the occasional podcast!) and on the concert platform itself.

You can listen to Avguste and all our other great guests on the Music Works podcast here: https://polyphonyarts.com/music-works-podcast/