Edited by William V. Madison
298 pages
University Press of Kentucky, wwwkentckypress.com

Click here for the book presentation

 I remember very clearly that in the early ‘80’s I brought a British import (Pearl label, I think) of 2 LPs of Jarmila Novotna’s early recordings, but somehow I was reluctant to play them as soon as they arrived from the UK. I was afraid that my preconceived notions about this artist might be challenged by the evidence on the recordings. What were my preconceived ideas? Beauty and elegance were in my head. What if she were only just a good singer shorn on recordings of her fabled looks? I finally played the records, and to my delight I heard a very beautiful voice and very skilled vocalism, maybe not for the ages, but meshing nicely with the image I had in my head of her. I could now understand the esteem she evoked in some very serious opera lovers. Fast forward to the early 2000’s and the Supraphon DVD of Novotna with interviews, clips from her early Czech and German movies, and a sampling of her best recordings. I finally got it: Novotna was a treasure, a beautiful human being, an elegant lady, and a really fine and serious vocal artist.

novotnabook1 novotnabook2 Click here to listen to early Novotna footage in Olympia's aria


Her memoir is just that, a first person account of her life and career. This book, originally published in the Czech Republic and now translated into English, is not a serious study of an opera singer’s career, but rather an artist at the end of her life going over her diaries, so as not to misspeak about names, dates and places, and describing her life and career with interesting observations and anecdotes. This book does not have a detailed chronology which would be interesting in itself, but as she was working from her diaries, the performance part of her life is accurate. There is an appendix with a summary of her roles and recordings in the back of this well-indexed book. The photograph section is superior, printed on coated paper and covers the range of her life.

John Pennino, a Met archivist and the author of the superbly-researched biography of Rise Stevens, recently told me a story Rise told him: “When I was a beginner in Prague, I happened on one of the most beautifully dressed and elegant women strolling in the park with two little children. I stopped in my tracks and stared. Later I found out that it was Jarmila Novotna.”
 Although born into a lower middle-class family, her father was a tailor, she became from the onset of her career to the very end one of the darlings of “society.” Why was this? She had a magnetism that drew all kinds of people to her, and the fact that she was a really beautiful woman who represented both herself and her country in a most elegant fashion is perhaps a good partial answer. For example, in the late spring of 1939 Arturo Toscanini, who adored her, having worked with her at Salzburg, asked her to come to New York to participate in staged performances he was to present at the New York’s World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows in a new theatre constructed for his performances. However, the low flying airplanes from nearby New York Municipal Airport (later renamed for New York mayor La Guardia) drove the Maestro crazy and he cancelled the project. While in New York Novotna, through the Toscanini connection, met at social gatherings some of the top people in the music profession; also from her cinema and acting career, and her connection to the Salzburg Festival and Max Reinhardt, she was introduced to important people in the other theatrical arts. Already many of her European colleagues who had found refuge in America from the Nazi partial take-over of Central Europe lived in New York and she re-connected with them.

Rare program and photo dated 1 May 1939 of the musicale presented at the home of Mrs. Murray Crane; Mrs. Crane had previously heard Novotna in Salzburg and invited her to her 17-room 5th Avenue apartment to sing for some of the top people in New York’s music world. Courtesy of Mr. Chester Page, a longtime employee of the Crane’s and a friend of this author.


Novotna, after the cancelled New York World’s Fair experiment, returned to Europe for scheduled performances at various venues. In late August with her husband and children, they traveled to Scheveningen, Netherlands for a performance of “Nozze di Figaro,” and Ostend, Belgium for concerts. Both Scheveningen and Ostend, are beautifully situated on the Dutch and Belgian coasts, and both were prestigious destinations for top-flight European musicians. She was reluctant to return to Czechoslovakia after the war started 1 September, now under Nazi occupation, and decided to exercise her option to go to the USA earlier than originally planned for her Met engagement offered her by Edward Johnson when they met earlier in the spring. The family boarded a ship in Rotterdam and she arrived in New York with practically no money, although with high prospects for launching an American operatic and concert career.

Click here to watch footage of her castle confiscated later by the Nazis and communists

One of the eye-opening facts that comes across is that in the early 1940’s opera planning and scheduling, even in top companies such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, was almost on a week-to-week basis, certainly no more than a month-to-month basis. Before her Met debut in January 1940, she was asked to help out the San Francisco Opera as that company had lost some of its marquee European singers due to the war situation. While there she was asked on short notice to replace Bidu Sayao who had cancelled a “Bohème” performance in St. Louis. Novotna flew half way across the continent to replace Sayao in the middle of her San Francisco engagement.

novotnabook3 novontabook4

 Much has been made of Novotna’s connection to the Masaryks, Tomas and Jan, father and son, leaders of the new Czechoslovakia; I had always wondered if this publicly-praised linkage was merely a Public Relations construct. No, father Masaryk early on more than followed, almost sponsored, her career and wrote her letters almost weekly encouraging her advancement. He saw her as the ideal person to shed glory on the nascent Czech nation. Novotna was always the first choice to sing at benefits and celebrations glorifying her nation. I found it interesting that in her American career she often sang concerts in communities with significant Czech populations; often in the second half of the concert she would don national dress celebrating her homeland, and during the war this was significant.

Click here for the recent movie about the Masaryk family + listen to his words after the Munich agreement

There was something very special about Novotna that I can attest to through a personal experience. Sometime in the mid-to-late 1980’s when my photo and autograph collecting went into high gear, I wrote to Novotna my pretty much standard fan letter, but I also asked her to elaborate on a statement I recalled from a long-ago interview when she praised Latvian-Russian baritone Georges Baklanoff for his strong performance as Rigoletto (she sang Gilda to him in 1928) and she wrote a little note saying that, and I paraphrase, “never was there a greater “Vendetta” than his.” Baklanoff is an artist who piqued my interest as he sang for ten seasons at the Chicago Opera, many times with Rosa Raisa, especially his Scarpia.

novontabook6  novotnabook7

(Novotna as Violetta, Baklanoff as Rigoletto and Novotna' s personal note to Charles Mintzer about the Latvian born legendary baritone)

 Another fact that leapt off the pages of this memoir was her easy acceptance of movie, television and stage offers, lectures, concerts and appearances at charity functions. The idea that an intriguing offer could stimulate her curiosity and often her immediate agreement is remarkable. At a social function Cole Porter floated the idea of a musical based on the “Taming of the Shrew,” and that Novotna would be an ideal Kate. She blurted out a conversational “Wunderbar.” This word stuck in Porter’s memory and is the genesis of his show “Kiss Me Kate”’s hit number.

Another misconception of mine is clarified in this memoir. I knew that her husband was a Czech aristocrat, Baron Daubek, and that when I read about him in the newspapers he was always described as a higher-up in IBM; my mind processed this as the usual well-connected people finding niches denied to people without “pull.” I am afraid I succumbed to this prejudice. Novotna’s memoir describes the innocent meeting after one of her concerts when Thomas Watson of IBM met her husband. Watson was thinking ahead of the economic situation after the war. This was 1944 and IBM was thinking about their needs post-war, especially having a presence in Europe and George seemed to have the right qualities for these potential opportunities. But George had to become an “IBM man,” and he went through their tough training program at Endicott, New York. Novotna, working from her diaries, notes the many dates she had to work into her schedule so as to mesh with her husband’s training. Of course, George Daubek was successful and was continuously promoted to high positions at IBM.

 I went back to the above-mentioned Supraphone DVD and with her memoir in my head I listened carefully to the various interviews of Czech musicians, her daughter Jarmilka and son Georgie, other family and friends and Jan Kralik, the Czech writer and authority on both Destinn and Novotna. I also watched the 1948 film, “The Search.” The documentary section of the DVD takes the position that Novotna was to the core a staunch Czech, and her wartime emigration to the USA was a sort of exile, while playing in the background is Dvorak’s “New World” symphony with its haunting and evocative melodies. An interesting anecdote told by her daughter, Jarmilka Packard, is that in the 40’s Toscanini bombarded her almost daily with heated love letters, which Novotna ignored charging these inappropriate letters to the pathetic fantasies of an old man. “The Search” evoked a period in my own life, post-World War II, and the horrors of the aftermath. Novotna gives a real acting performance and her quest for her son is very believable and heart-breaking.


 This memoir is a blend of old-fashioned diva memories, but the information contained jibes well with the historic record. It is a good read and highly recommended.

Charles Mintzer, November 2018