With a song in her heart
JARMILA NOVOTNA: MY LIFE IN SONG. Edited by William V. Madison. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 296 pages. $39.95 retail.
The name Jarmila Novotna might not immediately ring any show-biz bells, but the Czech-born performer certainly made her mark on the entertainment world as one of the most acclaimed sopranos of 20th-century opera – so renowned that, like Greta Garbo, only her surname was needed to herald an appearance.
Celebrated also as one of the world’s great beauties, Novotna (1907-1994) scored triumph after triumph on the stage. In 1925 and merely a teenager, she made an auspicious debut at the National Theatre in Prague, launching a career that was more international than she might have anticipated, thanks to unforeseen circumstances – namely the Second World War.
Alas, although Novotna made a number of films (most notably Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 classic The Search, and the 1951 musical extravaganza The Great Caruso) and periodic television appearances, the majority of her work was on stage, and therefore lost. The list is breathtaking: La Traviata, La Boheme, Aida, Don Giovanni, The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus, Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto, and The Marriage of Figaro, to name a few. She even portrayed the Great Detective’s love interest Irene Adler opposite Basil Rathbone in a short-lived Broadway play Sherlock Holmes. There are recordings of some of these performances, but they don’t give full weight to her presence.
Carefully and compassionately edited by William V. Madison, a former associate editor of Opera News (no further credentials are necessary), Jarmila Novotna: My Life in Song is an autobiography that is long overdue, although the circumstances surrounding that are a bit more complicated than that.
By the late 1980s, Novotna had worked on her memoirs for several years but was unable to find an American publisher. Undeterred – an adjective that could easily be applied to Novotna’s spirit – she found a European publisher, and the book sold well, particularly in her native Czechoslovakia, where she was (and remains) an icon.
Yet even then, American publishers (some of whom were personal acquaintances of hers) steered clear, not so much because her appeal could be categorized as limited (or “specialized,” if you prefer), but because the book was devoid of any salacious gossip, either about herself or the many luminaries she encountered. Publishers advised her to “sex things up,” which didn’t interest her.
For example, she co-starred with the legendary Mario Lanza, who played the title role in The Great Caruso – a highly fictionalized biography of the equally legendary Enrico Caruso (so much so that Caruso’s family won a legal settlement from MGM) – and although it’s widely known that Lanza possessed a mercurial personality and dabbled in drink and drugs, Novotna’s observation is simply: “What a curse drinking is! We have known so many victims.”
Quite frankly, need any more be said?
Arguably Notovna’s best-known big-screen work, The Search (1948) – a film she accepted in large part because it dramatized the efforts of a mother (Novotna) to find her young son (newcomer Ivan Jandl) in war-torn Europe and was, therefore, a theme she sympathized with – led to her meeting Montgomery Clift, who played a sympathetic G.I. who befriends the boy, and thus was born an enduring friendship with the actor, who actually proposed marriage!
Clift, of course, was also known to have been a complicated, even self-destructive personality, yet Notovna regards him with compassion and concern, not criticism. We know the rumors and innuendo, but Novotna offers a sensitive remembrance of an actor whose demons too often overshadowed his gifts.
Very simply, Novotna considered herself blessed, both personally and professionally, and discusses it in a warm, conversational style that mirrored her actual persona. She saw and did much, accomplishing professional feats undreamed-of, yet always remained grounded. If it sounds syrupy or overly sentimental, it’s not. There’s plenty of sentiment, but it comes across as genuine and unforced.
That said, however, Novotna certainly makes clear her disdain and disgust for the Third Reich’s occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II, and likewise its subsequent occupation by the Soviet Union. Under both, Novotna was banished from her beloved homeland.
Although her husband and family lost their fortunes in World War II, she was fervently loyal to her homeland, constantly lending her name and talent to relief and support efforts over the years – even at a time when such actions could well have made her a target of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) during the Cold War.
Needless to say, Novotna’s recollections about Czech independence following the “Velvet Revolution” of the late 1980s are considerably more upbeat and hopeful, and indeed she considered herself fortunate to have lived long enough to see it happen. Hers was a wonderful life, often lived in the limelight yet always with gratitude, humility and humanity.
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