‘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!

Anna Leese: Soprano

This blog post contains Anna Leese’s honest perspective on life as a freelance musician, parent,and full time carer for her partner, who is terminally ill with Motor Neuron disease.

Writing this blog has allowed me to share the stories of many inspirational people, and I am honoured to have been trusted with the stories and experiences, many of which are highly personal. This one has been the hardest to read and prepare, and I share it with Anna’s permission and in the hope that it will help others whose lives are unusually complex and difficult. Thank you so much for sharing this, Anna.

How many children do you have and how old are they?

I have one son, Matteo, who is 3 and 4 months.

Tell us a bit about your work and how it is structured.

I teach 4-5 days of the week when I am home (not performing out of town). I am a voice tutor at the University of Otago, I teach private voice, and music classes to littlies (all of which I love). Probably 10/15 weekends a year I travel away for orchestral concerts throughout New Zealand and Australia, and sometimes the UK. A trip away for an orchestral concert is usually 2-5 days away. And I perform an average of one opera a year, which means 2 months away from home. I have control over my schedule to a degree. On average I think I probably work 40 hours a week, not including my home duties, raising my son and caring for my sick husband. I do some sort of work every day, and I often work in the evenings after I’ve put my son to bed. I’ve also just enrolled in a DMA, which means my workload is going to change!

Tell us about your work/parenthood balance. 

I have my son in care 5 mornings a week while I teach. I get some weekends with him, and two afternoons a week. I am either working or caring for my son, 100% of the time, there is pretty much no downtime. But I have learned a lot about myself doing this, and I’ve become really resilient and also really efficient! I think I’m a better person for having been given these challenges, which means my son will have a kick-arse, hard working mum 🙂

Have you had to turn down opportunities because of being a parent? How did this make you feel?

Absolutely. But it’s becoming less so. My husband is terminally ill, so I need to think of his care as well as my sons’ care when I travel. Unfortunately all Stefano’s family are based in Italy, and they don’t visit us, and both of my siblings live overseas, so my support network is only my mum, which does limit me as most of the care I need has to be paid for,

Toward the end of last year, the stress of caring for Stefano at home began to overwhelm me and he is now in full time care in a rest home. Since there things have been much more settled, and his level of care is now consistent, whether I am away working or at home. Stefano still comes home often to visit, and we see him most days, so I am still one of his primary caregivers.

Do you have a partner, and if so are they also freelance? What effect does this have?

Yes. He is terminally ill with Motor Neuron disease and needs 24/7 care. Stefano used to be a winemaker, a steady job with little travel, which made my performing/travelling life easy. It was going to be the perfect setup, till the S*%t hit the fan.

Do you have regular childcare, and if so, in what form? 

Yes. Monday-Friday, 8am-2pm and my mum cares for my son for my short gigs. For operas and local concerts I hire babysitters. This is incredibly costly, and particularly in the case of operas, can eat away at your profit so severely, you end up working for free. Many of my opera singing friends share this same story! There is no assistance for childcare outside of 9-5 in New Zealand.

Have you performed anywhere that made the work/parenthood balance easier?

Yes, Festival opera in Napier, NZ- they were amazing with letting me bring my 9 month baby to rehearsals and I was feeding him at the time. It worked well. My mum came and sat with Matteo just off the set and I came to visit when I had a moment free. At the moment I’m singing with NZ Opera and they’ve helped with car seats and airport pickups with a seats for Matteo- they’ve worked hard to make sure I had the right accommodation as well.

What can promoters/venues/festival organisers do to help freelance artists who are parents?

Be open about mothers having their breastfeeding babies at rehearsals. Allow babies in the rehearsal room. 

Help facilitate childcare if there are more than a few children who need to be cared for- if there was a parents/play room set aside at the rehearsal venue so mums can have more contact with their kids that would help. With a change station.  

They can give advance warning for all calls and promotional commitments so that babysitters can be arranged well in advance.

Be realistic about what new mums can and can’t achieve, and keep hiring us!!! We often sing better after having a child (I know I am!). 

Are there any organisations/venues/festivals etc that you have worked with that are particularly supportive of performers who are parents?

DSO in Dunedin have always been amazing, they let Matteo and also my husband watch rehearsals because they’re unable to come to the show. Auckland Philharmonic and Orchestra Wellington are both wonderful, in fact NZ orchestras in general have done everything they can to help. 

Festival Opera were really good. 

How did being a freelance musician affect your parental leave?

My parental leave unfortunately didn’t happen because my husband suddenly became ill two weeks before the birth, and was only able to continue working for about a month afterwards- he suddenly lost all strength in his hands. We were forced to go on a benefit for a year or so until I got back on my feet and started back into work properly.

Were you freelance before you had children? If not, what prompted the change?

Yes. Full time. And I taught some private voice students. It was a conscious decision to slow down the long-haul travel, for environmental reasons, but also because I wanted a better, more balanced home life. 

Are you part of any online social groups for freelancers/freelance parents? 

The Babies and Show Business Facebook group, which is mostly useful for UK things. There is a NZ Opera Chorus facebook group which has been my sole source of finding babysitting and support for my NZ engagements, 

If so, do they cater for your line of work?

Yes, particularly the NZ Opera group, which is full of lovely, helpful people, who have found themselves in similar situations and are happy to help.

Anna Leese is a soprano opera singer with an international career. She made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2007, as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Other roles include Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Auckland Opera Studio, Female Chorus in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte and Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, all for the Benjamin Britten Opera School and Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette with the British Youth Opera. She has performed the role of Tamiri in Mozart’s Il re Pastore at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House (where she made her debut at age 24) and three Mozart heroines Fiordiligi, Countess Almaviva and Tamiri with the Classical Opera Company.

Visit Anna’s website, Facebook and Twitter.

Máire Flavin: Soprano

Welcome to our new blog series, talking to leading musicians who are also parents about their experiences of balancing their careers with family life. This week, meet international operatic soprano Máire Flavin, who talks about the issues surrounding operatic contracts and pregnancy, and the childcare challenges for opera singers.

How many children do you have and how old are they?

I am a new Mom to a gorgeous 5 month old girl.

Tell me a bit about your work and how it is structured.

I am a freelance opera singer with concert work as well of course. I am not tied to any one house although most of my work is in the UK and Ireland. I do large scale tours with the big companies but no longer do the smaller, but longer, tours with smaller companies. In terms of control over my schedule, I can of course say yes or no to projects, but this is the arts so usually you are saying yes to as much as possible! Once on contract I have no control over my schedule. Most UK companies work on a weekly schedule sent out on the previous Thursday or Friday. I have spent only 30 days at home this last year, but that is also due to my husband’s schedule (he is also an opera singer).

Tell me about your work/parenthood balance. 

We are very new to the work/parenthood balance and will only really see how it works this coming year.  Already, over the summer, we have both had roles to learn so have needed to find ways to give each other time! We are also in different countries for all of our contracts this coming year so it will be a challenge as a family.

Have you had to turn down opportunities because of being a parent? How did this make you feel?

Of course I had to turn work down towards the end of my pregnancy/nearing my due date. I have not yet had to turn any work down due to being a parent but I suppose there is more financial pressure – if the contract doesn’t pay well enough to cover childcare and unless it is hugely artistically fulfilling i.e. a role I have always wanted to do and never had the chance to, then it just won’t be feasible. At the end of the day it is my choice how I balance being a parent and my work, this is just a very complicated industry within which to do that.

Do you have regular childcare, and if so, in what form? 

At the moment we do not have regular childcare. I am looking for childcare on location in each of my upcoming contracts and getting family help where I can for tech week when she is little as I’d rather family were doing her bedtime routine where possible.

Have you performed anywhere that made the work/parenthood balance easier?

I think the work that Swap’ra is doing is invaluable. They have already made progress with companies in the UK giving advanced schedules to facilitate booking childcare etc. During my pregnancy, and for one of my first contracts back, Opera North have been fantastic. They really looked after me when pregnant but also trusted me to get on with my job and also trusted, by rehiring me post-pregnancy, that I would make sure I was back on form after giving birth. This, unfortunately, is certainly not always the case. 

What can promoters/venues/festival organisers do to help freelance artists who are parents?

One of the biggest differences opera companies can make is to be willing to give advanced scheduling where possible.  There are still companies in Ireland, and it is the norm throughout continental Europe, who give out the next days schedule at 6pm the previous evening. This makes organising childcare extremely complicated, not to mention unnecessarily expensive. Expecting your childcare provider to agree to either be needed or not, or for how many hours, the evening before is ridiculous and most would not agree to be hired on that basis, so why it is acceptable to expect that scheduling to be ok for artists is beyond me.

How did being a freelance musician affect your parental leave?

Parental leave is not really a thing when you are freelance. Depending on where you pay your tax and what is available from the state you may receive some basic maternity pay but essentially time away from work is time not being paid and not being seen and potentially not getting future work. Certainly my husband only got 2 days off, including the day of labour, when our daughter was born as he was mid-production and mid-tech week. Of course the flip side of our job is once the show was up he was around to help more than a 9-5 Dad.

Are you part of any online social groups for freelancers/freelance parents? 

There are several great online support networks on the like of facebook for parents, especially Moms, in the classical music/opera business and it has already been a great resource to me. We really do support each other in the opera world!

Dublin-born soprano Máire Flavin represented Ireland in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, where she was a finalist in the Song Prize.

Her album Baby Mine is a collection of animated childhood film classics with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Any artist profits will go to Autism charities in the UK, Ireland and USA.

Last season saw Ms. Flavin make her Austrian debut as Contessa d’Almaviva Le nozze di Figaro (Salzburger Landestheater); her company debut as Contessa d’Almaviva Le nozze di Figaro, and perform the role of Hannah in the World Premiere of The Second Violinist (Irish National Opera); two role debuts with Opera North as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Anna Sørensen in the UK premiere of Silent Night; Mimi La bohème (Cork International Opera Series); and Mozart Requiem & Once upon a Dream: Celebrating Disney (RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra).

Previous highlights include roles with Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Atelier Lyrique de Tourcoing, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, Opera North, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Northern Ireland Opera, and with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and the Deutsche Philharmonie.

In the forthcoming season she will make her debut at Wexford Festival Opera in the world premiere of Andrew Synnott’s La Cucina and return to Opera North for Countess in The Marriage of Figaro

Check out Máire’s website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.