Many of the legendary operatic sopranos were great singers; many were great actors; and fewer still were great beauties. Jarmila Novotna, by all accounts, managed to be all three while balancing the roles of opera star, film and stage star, wife, and mother.
She was born in Prague, on 23 September 1907. As a teenager, she began studying with Emmy Destinn and Hilbert Vavia. Later, in Milan, she studied with Antonio Guarnieri, resident conductor at La Scala.
Novotna began her professional career in 1925 as Marenka in Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Later that year, she created a sensation in La Traviata (Verdi) as Violetta. Both operas were presented at the Prague Opera House and, on the strength of her performances, she was made a regular member of the company.
AN INTERNATIONAL CAREER
In 1928, Novotna’s career expanded beyond Prague. She accepted assignments in Verdi’s Rigoletto alongside Giacomo Lauri-Volpi as the Duke, in Verona; and L’elisir d’amore (Donizetti) opposite Tito Schipa, at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. She became a regular member of the Berlin Kroll Opera in 1929. While there, Novotna appeared again in La Traviata, as Manon in Manon Lescaut (Puccini), and as Butterfly in Madama Butterfly (Puccini). She remained in Berlin until 1933; her departure was prompted, in part, because of growing anti-Jewish sentiment. “I soon realized that in this new atmosphere of manufactured hatred,” she wrote, “I did not wish to continue my activities in Berlin.”
Moving on to Vienna in 1934, she met the composer Franz Lehár. Lehár was familiar with Novotna’s work and wanted her for his new opera Giuditta. The production was immensely successful and landed Novotna a contract with the Vienna Staatsoper. She received the honorable title of ‘Kammersangerin’ and immediately launched into her standard repertoire, including all four heroines in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.
NOVOTNA AS FILM STAR
While pursuing an operatic career, Novotna also began to accept motion picture roles. In Berlin, director Max Ophuls engaged her for the film version of The Bartered Bride, as Marie. She was a huge success in The Night of the Great Love, opposite the famous German star Gustave Frohlich. More roles followed: The Song of the Nightingale (Prague, 1933); Lehár’s Frasquita (1936); The Cossack and the Nightingale (1936), with Ivan Petrovich; and The Last Waltz (1938). Novotna’s last movies were in the USA: at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she starred in a nonsinging role in Fred Zimmermann’s The Search (1948), with Montgomery Clift; and with Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso (1950), as Maria Selka.
MOVE TO AMERICA
Following her triumphs in Europe, Novotna was invited by Auturo Toscanini to sing Violetta (Verdi, La Traviata) and Alice (Verdi, Falstaff) as part of his season premiere at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. However, after a few rehearsals, Toscanini became unable to cope with the constant noise of airplanes at the nearby airport. As compensation, he took Novotna to see Edward Johnson, then general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. She was signed immediately and booked to début in the 1940 season.
Novotna made a brief return to Europe to appear in Bruno Walter’s production of The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart) in Holland. With her family, she escaped just as World War II was declared and returned to America. She was rushed to San Francisco to fill a wartime vacancy and opened there in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Novotna opened at the Metropolitan as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, a role she had previously sung in St. Louis. She followed this with a huge critical and popular success, again as Violetta, in La Traviata. The critics and writers agreed that this role established Novotna as the greatest singing actress of the period. “ One might quarrel with the fact that she looked too aristocratic to be a courtesan, but her beauty left everyone breathless, and the way she walked backward in the second act to take a last, lingering look at Alfredo was heartbreaking.” (Lanfranco Rasponi, The Last Prima Donnas)
While in New York City, she continued to appear in other venues. Along with her motion picture roles, Novotna also appeared on the stage. In 1944, she took part in a revival of Helen of Troy on Broadway; and later played Irene Adler to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes.
In total, she sang seventeen seasons with the Metropolitan, retiring from the operatic stage in 1956. Novotna had married Baron George Daubek in 1931, and given birth to two children, Jarmilina and George, Jr., and decided the time had come to devote her remaining years to her family. In social settings, Novotna rarely spoke of her operatic career, preferring to be known simply as the Baroness Daubek. Many people had no idea who she had been, and she preferred it that way. Novotna continued to perform, though, and was heavily in demand for recitals. She was also a frequent guest on many radio and television programs.
Novotna was universally known for her kindness, legendary tact, and ladylike demeanor. She made it a point to never criticize other singers; once, when a colleague was in vocal trouble, she was heard to remark, “Singing is so difficult, I wonder why anyone attempts it.”
Jarmila Novotna died, on 9 February 1994, in New York City.
DISCOGRAPHY (selected recordings)
Jarmila Novotna sings Czech Songs and Arias
, Mono 1114912, 1992
, Pearl GEMMCD9467, 1988
Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro
, Arkadia GA2031, 2000
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History
. Middlesex, England
: Penguin Books
Rasponi, Lanfranco. The Last Prima Donnas
. New York: Alfred A. Knopf