Book Review: 'My Life In Song' By Jarmila Novotna

Jan 14, 2019

Jarmila Novotna (1907-1994) was a Czech opera singer who made movies with Fred Zinnemann, Montgomery Clift and Mario Lanza. She was a favorite of Arturo Toscanini, who brought her to New York in 1938. Just in time, as “the lights were going off all over Europe.”

Novotna sang over 200 performances at The Metropolitan Opera between 1940 and 1956. She appeared in Broadway musicals and in Europe was a protégé of the great director Max Reinhardt. It was for Novotna that Franz Lehar wrote his opera Giuditta, which she introduced to Vienna in 1934.

Let's start with the pronunciation: YAR-mee-lah NOE-vut-nhah.

I used to see her during my New York years, from the audience at the Met – she in the General Manager’s box, me in standing room upstairs ($2).

The lady's memoir, Jarmila Novotna: My Life in Song, is now in print, 25 years after her death. A version of this book was first published in Prague in the late 1980s. After her death in 1994, her heirs allowed William V. Madison to edit the various drafts, from which the present book arrives.

Why a book about a long-deceased opera singer? That her voice was very beautiful is evident even in the old recordings and broadcast tapes. The soprano was good enough for Toscanini, Reinhardt, Lehar, the Met and Hollywood.

Novotna's was the old-style glamour. I once saw her waiting for a bus on Madison Avenue in a Chanel suit, looking like she could sing Tosca within five minutes.

There was a long and happy marriage to a Czech baron. Lest we think it was all luxury, she makes clear that during the second World War she was the sole breadwinner. She had to keep singing and touring and earning money. 

Full book cover
Credit The University Press of Kentucky / kentuckypress.com

Eventually, her husband became the European representative for IBM and the pressure lessened. She raised two children, on the road.

Novotna remained a Czech patriot all of her life. Her country was closed to her during the Nazi occupation in World War II, and later during the Cold War. Family homes and properties were looted.

She made her best-known recordings during the war – a collection of Czech folk songs called Songs of Lidice, named for the Czech village liquidated by the Nazis, children and all. Her pianist was Jan Masaryk, son of the first president of the Czech Republic.

In 1948, Novotna played a mother in Zinnemann's The Search. Her character went looking for her lost children in the camps. That’s very different from operetta in Vienna or The Marriage of Figaro in New York. Novotna lived comfortably in all of these worlds.

I met her when she was 80. I told her I admired her recordings.

“My dear, when I made those, you weren’t even thought of,” she said.

She then gave me a signed photo that's on my office wall as I type these words.

I’m delighted to have this memoir by Jarmila Novotna. It records a time when artists were important, even when the world was not hospitable.