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For Novotna, A Lifetime As Dramatic As An Opera Plot

OLD ACQUAINTANCE: A nother in a continuing, occasional series in which beloved stars of an e arlier age reflect on the musical past--and the present.

November 16, 1986|WALTER PRICE

NEW YORK — If you happen to have some pre-War Czech 100-kronen notes around the house, you might notice the engraving of a lovely young girl as a symbol of the republic.

It is Jarmila Novotna, all of 17 and just starting her opera career. She was asked to pose at the time by Tomas Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia and, not incidentally, a friend of the family.

A half-dozen decades later, she greets an interviewer at her elegant Manhattan East Side apartment with a firm handshake and a sheaf of handwritten pages chronologically detailing her career.

One of the great soprano beauties of the operatic stage in the '30s, '40s and early-'50s Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and New York, Novotna also happens to be the Baroness Daubek. She has the bearing, bone structure, skin and manner of the patrician she was born. Now 79, she looks as if she would sit for a portrait by John Singer Sargent at any moment.

Born in Prague, she says she sang as a child when saying her prayers. At 14 she was turned down by the Conservatory as too young, but she continued to study privately. The great Bohemian soprano Emmy Destinn agreed to teach her.

There were no obstacles to her progress. After a few provincial performances she made her debut at the age of 17 at the National Theatre as Marenka in "Bartered Bride" in 1925. With such other parts as Violetta, Rosina, Queen of the Night and Tatiana in "Eugene Onegin," her success was assured.

On the advice of Masaryk, she went to study with the baritone Mario Sammarco and the conductor Guarnieri in Milan in 1927. In August of 1928 she made her Italian debut at the Arena in Verona as Gilda with Lauri-Volpi as the Duke in "Rigoletto."

"I was a lyric coloratura in my early youth," she explains. "As the voice and I matured, the sound became darker and lower."

Offers from Berlin and Vienna came in, as well as one from Gatti-Casazza at the Met. She turned down Gatti for one reason only: She was in love, and New York was too far away.

Novotna had met the Baron George Daubek, 17 years older than she and scion of one of the great families of Bohemia. He had wanted her to give up her career for him, but relented when his mother, charmed by her future daughter-in-law, gave her blessing.

Berlin was closer than New York, so she made her debut at the Kroll Oper in 1929 as Concepcion in Ravel's "L'Heure Espagnole," staged by Gustav Gruendgens. Decades later, incidentally, the same stage director was to serve as the prototype for the anti-hero of the film "Mephisto."

"George saw to it that I had a duenna, a companion, with me at all times. My German was sketchy and she was a help. But he really wanted to save me 'problems' with gentlemen in the theater."

The two were married in 1931. Their first child, Jarmila, was born the following year.

"Can you imagine what those Berlin days were like?" the soprano asks. "To work with Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, Felix Weingartner, Leo Blech, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Bruno Walter and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as conductors. And then there was Max Reinhardt!"

Probably the foremost stage director of his time, Reinhardt almost robbed the opera world of Novotna. She first worked for him in a production of Offenbach's "La Belle Helene" in 1931, followed the next year by an Antonia in "Hoffmann" and in Paris the year after that as Rosalinde in "Die Fledermaus."

She made her 1933 Vienna debut as Butterfly, but Reinhardt begged her to give up music, promising to make her "the greatest actress in the world." The tempting bait was Olivia in his new production of "Twelfth Night." The lady turned him down.

By this time political events were moving rapidly. Novotna had returned to Prague for a Beethoven Ninth, celebrating President Masaryk's birthday. The vocal parts were sung in Czech.

For this transgression the newly installed Nazis in Berlin demanded her ouster from the State Opera, along with Zemlinsky, the conductor. Vienna was only too happy to take the 25-year-old beauty who had become the most popular lyric soprano in Central Europe.

Her long and happy association with Vienna included most of her great parts, Mimi, Gilda, Tatiana, Butterfly, Violetta, all four heroines in "Hoffmann," and above all, Octavian and Cherubino. Her tall, slender figure made her ideal for these "trouser" roles.

She already had assumed the more mature, ultra-feminine guise of the Countess in "Figaro" for Weingartner, but Walter would think of her only as the boyish Cherubino.

It was in Vienna that Franz Lehar wrote "Giuditta" for Novotna, and she sang the premiere in January, 1934. The big aria, "Meine lippen, sie kuessen so heiss," became her virtual theme song. The operetta is rarely heard today, but the sexy aria survives as a popular interpolation in many performances of "The Merry Widow."

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