28 June 2007

Jarmila Novotná

When I was working at the Weill Foundation, Lys Symonette asked my help in organizing some papers she’d inherited from a classmate of hers at the Curtis Institute, the tenor William Horne. There were only a couple of boxes, filled mainly with newspaper clippings and old theater programs; we piled them on the long conference table in the reading room, and sorted through them.

Each scrap was a cue to a memory, and among the anecdotes Lys told me that day, many concerned Bill Horne’s debut on Broadway, in an adaptation of Offenbach called Helen Goes to Troy. (Impossible to imagine an adaptation of Offenbach on Broadway today, when Aida is produced without Verdi’s score, but no matter.) Bill Horne’s costar was a wonderful Czech soprano named Jarmila Novotná. Lys told me how beautiful Novotná was, what a fine musician and actress, in several languages, how Novotná made movies, because she was (again) so beautiful and (also again) such a fine actress, including Montgomery Clift’s first picture, which wasn’t even a musical, and an adaptation of The Bartered Bride by Max Ophüls — “You know who he was?” — alongside the comedian Karl Valentin, one of Lys’ heroes — “You know who he was?”

“Yes, yes,” I said, but I wasn’t really paying attention, because all the while Lys was talking, I was staring at the pictures in Life Magazine, a whole article about Helen Goes to Troy. Many of the pictures showed Bill Horne (whom I recognized already from all the other pictures in the boxes) with a glamorous chorus girl, improbably prominent because she was in most of the pictures. She was tall, blonde, with long legs and high cheekbones, sultry eyes in an aristocratic face. Lys must have sensed my distraction, because she leaned over to see what I was looking at.

“That’s her. That’s Novotná.” She tapped one of the pictures with her finger, leaving no doubt.

That was no chorus girl. That was an opera singer.

I went out and tracked down the only album I could find. The voice was superb, cool and supple, surprisingly dark — though she started as a lyric coloratura, she played lyric mezzo roles on occasion, too, notably including Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. A song I knew from Beverly Sills’ album of Viennese operetta, “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss,” turned out to be written for Novotná, by Lehár himself, in a piece called Giuditta. For a long time, until she fled the Nazis, the orchestra in any restaurant in Vienna would play that song whenever she walked in. I found an interview with her in a book by Lanfranco Rasponi, illustrated with a photograph of her as Manon, easily one of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen, of anyone.

Brother, I was smitten. I wrote her a fan letter, addressed (as I recall) to the stage door of the Metropolitan, because I knew that the staff there are heroic when it comes to getting mail to the right people, even people who haven’t sung with the company in thirty years. And a short time later, there was a reply in my mailbox. Novotná was delighted to hear from a new young admirer, but she moved quickly to other topics, what she’d been up to lately, how thrilled she was that Czechoslovakia was free again at last. With her wild handwriting and newsy, intimate tone, her letter reminded me of those I used to get from my great-great aunt, though Tisha never had the pleasure of reporting that Czech astronomers had just named a star after her.

Within a matter of weeks, my friend Catherine Karnow was engaged to provide the photographs for a guide to New York. She wanted to show something to indicate the cultural richness of the city and the stature of the artists who live there. From me, specifically, she wanted Teresa Stratas.

“There’s no chance of that,” I said. “She’s more reclusive than Garbo. There’s no way she’ll have her picture taken for a tourist guide.”

Nothing daunts Cathy. “Who else can we get, then? I want an opera singer.”

And I suggested Novotná. Cathy thought it was worth a shot, and I wrote to Novotná again, explaining the project. A few days later, I came home to find the great lady’s voice on my answering machine. I called back, and we set up an appointment.

I wanted to come bearing a gift. I wanted to come bearing something with lips on it, like an echo of the restaurant orchestras that used to play “Meine Lippen” for her, but the only items I could find were hopelessly tacky. I settled on a rose — just one — and prepared to apologize for the fact that it wasn’t silver, like Octavian’s.

I didn’t need to apologize, because Novotná got the reference the second she opened the door and saw me. “Ach!” she cried, “you are der Rrrrrrrrrosenkavalier!” With her Czech accent, she rolled the R until it became an elaborate confection, a delicious pastry: you could see that the word tasted good in her mouth.

She was wearing a suit, robin’s egg blue, that I later recognized as the one she’d worn in a photo session for a cover story in Opera News a few years before. She wanted to know whether Cathy’s family was Czech — “It’s sometimes a Czech name, you know, Karrrrrnow” — and fretted that my studies of language hadn’t yet extended to her native tongue. I explained that I’d flunked Russian at Brown. “Ach, Czech is much easier than Russian,” she assured me.

She loved her homeland, though she’d spent most of her life in exile. First the Nazis forced her out, then the Soviets. Her late husband, George Daubek, was a baron, and the patriotic martyr Tomas Masaryk had accompanied her on some recordings, and she’d done radio broadcasts and fundraising concerts in support of freedom in Czechoslovakia and in protest of massacres and repression. There was simply no way that a hostile occupying force, whether German or Russian, would ever let her go home. Then, almost without warning, the Velvet Revolution rose up, and Czechoslovakia — and Jarmila Novotná — were free. “And do you know, Vaclav Havel knows my work. Yes, he’s a fan!” She had been received with extravagant honors when she returned. But it was only a visit — not the last, surely the first. Home was now New York, near her daughter, Jarmelina.

As Cathy prepared her photo equipment, Novotná told us stories, all of which I recognized not only from the Rasponi book but also from that Opera News story. That might have been a clue to me. What made her so compelling to Lys Symonette (no pushover) and to me, decades later? She wasn’t going to say. Novotná had a repertoire of anecdotes, things that she would share with strangers. Any deeper insight into her artistry would not be permitted.

Perhaps, a friend later suggested, she simply isn’t very deep. He was a rehearsal pianist at the opera, and he wearily informed me of his opinion that quite a lot of singers aren’t smart; even the great artists, who use language brilliantly and who understand the human soul, are seldom intellectual or articulate, and sometimes they’re rather stupid. So he said. Finding somebody like Stratas, who could open up and talk to you (provided she knew you well enough) about life and art, was uncommon in the extreme, he told me.

This is not to say that Novotná’s anecdotes weren’t charming. There was the story of her debut, as the Queen of the Night, at the age of seventeen. Since the woman playing her daughter was in reality twice or three times her age, Novotná tried to look older; she padded her bosom, and was alarmed to discover, during “Der Hölle rache,” that the padding had slipped and was falling to her waist.

There was the story of a performance of Die Fledermaus, when a real bat started to fly around the stage. “It was in all the newspapers, very funny.” (Later, I learned that Novotná had played Orlovsky opposite Jack Gilford’s Frosch a few times at the Met. This is only natural, because while there may be six degrees of separation, there’s only one degree of Madeline Gilford. Did she have any insight into Novotná? “No,” said Madeline. “We never got to know her very well.”)

There was the story of the restaurant orchestras playing “Meine Lippen.” There was the story of her fleeing the Nazis — she was already in New York, singing with Toscanini, so she never had to face the Storm Troopers. There were stories about the glory days at the Met during the War, when all the greatest singers were like one big family and making such beautiful music. There were dozens of these stories. Maybe I did know them already, but it was not so great a disappointment to hear them now, in her own voice.

As Cathy began to take the pictures, Novotná snapped into action. She moved heavy furniture around the room, to give us more space. I expressed astonishment — she was, by my calculations, past eighty already. “Ach, it’s easy,” she said gaily. “When I was a girl, I was in the Sokol — you know, the Czech gymnastic society.”

Cathy said that it would be nice to get a few pictures of Novotná holding some sheet music. She trotted off to another room and emerged with “Voices of Springtime,” standing in the natural light of the window and glowing, with a natural light of her own, as she read the familiar notes.

And then she started to sing.

You couldn’t say the voice was lustrous or seamlessly produced, but it was pitch-perfect and it was lovely, unforced and flexible, faint but sweet and recognizably the voice I’d fallen in love with, on records made forty years before.

She sang the song twice over before we left, Cathy armed with a series of striking photographs that her editors opted never to use. Cathy did give me a couple of slides: Novotná before the window, mouth open, eyes sparkling, one hand holding the score outstretched, the other raised to heaven. Yes, we’d brought a camera, but we didn’t bring a tape recorder, so those pictures are the only record we have of Novotná’s song.

“Voices of Springtime”: a poignant choice of repertoire, though surely accidental. Little old men sometimes manage to find songs or roles to sing — Triquet in Eugene Onegin, for instance — but for little old ladies, there are no parts at all. It’s difficult to project, and likely we couldn’t hear them if they did sing in a concert hall or opera house. But we don’t hear them at all if they don’t sing, and as a result we miss the extra dimension that time and experience bring even to an instrument that’s cracked and stained with time; we can’t receive the messages they might convey.

Maybe it’s foolish of me to suggest that other elderly sopranos attempt such a thing, or greedy of me to want to recapture, in any form, the performance Novotná gave for Cathy and me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime recital, a unique glimpse of a great artist at work, and maybe I should leave it at that.