Obituary: Jarmila Novotna
Monday 14 February 1994
A BEAUTIFUL woman, with a beautiful soprano voice, Jarmila Novotna was a noted performer in operetta as well as opera. She created the title-role of Lehar's Giuditta (technically an opera) in Vienna in 1934, with the composer conducting and Richard Tauber as Octavio, the army officer who deserts because of her charms. She sang Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Helen in Erich Korngold's arrangement of Offenbach's La Belle Helene, the latter on Broadway. She was a fine Mozart singer, appearing several times at Salzburg in the late 1930s, and during 16 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, New York sang parts ranging from Freia in Das Rheingold to Debussy's Melisande, from Gluck's Euridice to Massenet's Manon.
Born in Prague, Novotna studied there, with, among other teachers, Emmy Destinn. She made her debut in 1926, singing Rosina and Violetta at a provincial theatre, and the following year sang Marenka in The Bartered Bride at the Prague Opera. After further study in Milan, in 1928 she appeared at the Verona Arena as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her subsequent career divides neatly into two halves: for much of the Thirties she sang in Europe, in Prague, Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg, but not, unfortunately, in London. Leaving Europe in 1938 she then sang for nearly another two decades in the United States, in New York, San Francisco and Chicago.
Engaged at the Berlin State Opera in 1929, she made her debut as Concepcion in L'Heure espagnole at the Kroll Theatre. After four years in Berlin, in 1933 she joined the Vienna State Opera, where she sang several trouser roles - Cherubino, Oktavian and Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus - as well as Lehar's Giuditta. Appearing from 1935 at Salzburg, she sang Euridice, Frasquita in Hugo Wolf's Der Corregidor, Countess Almaviva and, in 1947, Pamina in performances of Die Zauberflote conducted by Toscanini. The same year she sang Alice Ford in Falstaff at La Scala, Milan, before leaving Europe in 1938.
Novotna made her US debut in 1939 at San Francisco, singing Butterfly and Violetta. Her Metropolitan debut took place on 5 January 1940 as Mimi in La Boheme. Her roles at the Met up till 1957 included Cherubino, Donna Elvira and Pamina; Melisande, Manon and both Antonia and Giulietta in Les Contes d'Hoffmann as well as Oktavian and Orlovsky. After the Second World War she returned to Prague and Salzburg, where in 1949 she sang an Oktavian that was greatly applauded. In 1957 she went back to Vienna for a new production of Leo Fall's Madame Pompadour at the Volksoper. Although her voice was no longer as fresh-sounding as once it had been, her personal beauty was as striking as ever.
Many of Novotna's performances are preserved on disc. These include the Salzburg Zauberflote and Rosenkavalier, which give some idea of the sensitivity of her singing as well as the fine-spun, lyrical tone of her voice.
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