‘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!

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/

Music Works Episode 2.2 – When live music stopped; how one singer turned from performance to a Doctorate.

“It’s like rewriting in my own head all these assumptions that I made…finding my own place, as a woman and as a performer. To share my experience with a new kind generation of other people and singers who are interested in contemporary classical music.”

For the second episode of Season 2, Soprano, Rebecca Hardwick, talked to Music Works about her interest in contemporary music and how, when Covid shut down live music, her explorations of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments led her to take up a doctorate in contemporary performance at The Guildhall.

Rebecca, who studied at York and then the RCM, has long held a fascination with the ways music from the mid-twentieth century on has offered performers the possibility of interrogating traditional modes of vocal performance. She is a founding member of Vocal Constructivists, a liberal arts collective which draws together people from different disciplines, working exclusively with graphic notation and extended compositional writing techniques which provided the impetus towards her DMus topic.

Rebecca explains: “From that, I decided that I wanted to focus on my own strand of approaching ways in which you can perform content, contemporary classical music. And because of my formal training and my sort of nerdy tendencies, I decided that I wanted particularly to approach music that’s considered to be quite vocally difficult.”

That led her, via a creative residency at Aldeburgh, to a deep dive into the challenges of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments: a setting for soprano and violin of 40 short extracts from the author’s writings.
When the pandemic hit, Rebecca had just returned from the USA where she had been on tour with Monteverdi choir to find all her work disappear overnight.
“I was in my bedroom in Camden thinking, oh my goodness, what am I going to do? I need a creative outlet. And, and so I just turned back to catalogue and to Kafka, and started reading around the topic. And the more I read, the more I realised that actually it was quite an extensive project, and maybe I could do a doctorate about it, but as a performer.”

It’s an inspiring story of finding positivity and a new creative outlet in the face of the devastating impact of the pandemic on live performance, and one that Rebecca hopes will help further inform her practice as a singer and interpreter of the contemporary repertoire.

Even if you are not a singer or even an especial enthusiast for the kind of music Rebecca finds so absorbing, this episode is a fascinating and encouraging listening.
You can find Music Works and this episode here on the website: https://polyphonyarts.com/music-works-podcast/ or you can listen on all the usual podcast channels.