Meet Miss Novotná
Why Hasn’t Anyone Written an Opera about Her Yet?
She was a dress-maker’s daughter, born in Prague in 1907. But she also found her second home as a lyric soprano for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That was a logical step for the singer who began studying in her mid-teens under the personal tutelage of perhaps the Czech Republic’s most famous opera singer, Emmy Destinn.
Ironically, these days it’s said that Jarmila Novotná is better known in the US than she is in her home country. It’s about time someone writes an opera to correct that.
Opera would be the best setting for the story of her life.
Jarmila Novotná debuted before age 18 at the Prague Opera, according to a biography from the Jarmila Novotná Festival. She began taking roles in films (even a silent movie), and at the same time, 1926-27, performed with the National Theatre – in nine different roles across 72 evenings.
She met TG Masaryk, who helped her to study in Italy. Then she was contracted to sing with the Kroll Opera, Berlin, starting in 1929, but it closed in 1931. She again turned to acting (“Fire in the Opera House”), and already, at the age of 24, her image was printed on the 100-crown notes designed by painter Max Švabinsky.
She sang at the Staatsoper and made more German films; she sang the lead in two Franz Lehar operettas. But in 1933 with the rise of fascism she moved to Vienna.
Then around 1940, Arturo Toscanini asked her to go to New York. She was the second Czech (Destinn was first) to sing at the Met. She stayed for 16 seasons.
Enter the Baron
Novotná sang Czechoslovak patriotic songs on an album in memory of Lidice (Lidické Písně) during World War II. (Jan Masaryk played the piano, according to Central Bohemia Tourism Services.) She also sang for American soldiers, for 60,000 Sokol members in a Chicago sports stadium, and on broadcasts of patriotic songs beamed at Czechoslovakia.
Following the war, she was ready to go back to Czechoslovakia. She had, in 1931, married the Czech Baron Jiří Daubek, of Liteň. They had had two children, and it appeared Daubek would be named an executive for IBM in Vienna. But the Communist confiscation of the Daubek estate and nationalization of its mills and other assets convinced them to stay put in America. Jarmila Novotná also continued to act, in American movies and even in television appearances in the early 1950s.
Eventually the couple retired to Vienna, and in 1972 she visited Czechoslovakia and gave a performance in “semi-secret conditions,” according to the tourism services agency. After Daubek died, she returned to the US where her children lived. She died there in 1994.
Czech astronomers named the Novotná planetoid in her memory, and in 2007 the Czech National Bank issued a silver commemorative coin in honor of the centenary of her birth. This year introduces the first annual Jarmila Novotná Festival, Sept 8-9. It will be held at the Daubek chateau in Liteň, and Miss Novotná’s grand-daughter and other guests are scheduled to perform. Details of the Festival will be available on Opus Osm soon. — oo
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: The Jarmila Novotná Festival