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Jarmila Novotná: My Life in Song

by Jarmila Novotná edited by William V. Madison foreword by Brian Kellow

Availablecloth$39.95 978-0-8131-7611-6
296 pages  Pubdate: 10/19/2018  6 x 9  60 b&w photos

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A legendary beauty, hailed as one of the greatest singing actors of her time, Jarmila Novotná (1907–1994) was an internationally known opera soprano from the former Czechoslovakia. Best known for her performances in Der Rosenkavalier, The Marriage of Figaro, and La Traviata, she was a celebrated performer at the Metropolitan Opera and other theaters across Europe and the United States. A “natural screen actress,” Novotná also appeared in Hollywood hits such as The Search (1948) with Montgomery Clift (with whom she shared an enduring friendship) and The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza. She was also considered a pioneering “crossover” star who performed on Broadway, and worked in radio and television with Bing Crosby and Abbott and Costello. This gifted artist captivated audiences worldwide, and while she was still a young woman, the Czech government treated her as a national heroine and its cultural ambassador.

In Jarmila Novotná: My Life in Song, editor William V. Madison brings Novotná’s own English-language version of her best-selling memoir to readers for the first time. The memoir details how, following her debut in 1925 at the National Theater in Prague, her fame quickly evolved into a tremendous musical career at a time of unprecedented political upheaval. Novotná provides eyewitness accounts of the Nazi takeovers of Germany and Austria, the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, as well as her extensive travels in the United States during and after World War II.

Throughout the memoir, lavishly illustrated with photos from her personal collection, Novotná shares entertaining stories about her time in Hollywood, an “unending stream of parties”— including those hosted by Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM Studios—alongside such stars as Jimmy Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor. Novotná also offers revealing profiles of many notable artistic figures of the time, including director Max Reinhardt, composer Cole Porter, and conductor Arturo Toscanini, and dignitaries such as Dwight Eisenhower and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. This fascinating self-portrait offers a window on history and the reflections of a captivating and supremely talented figure who left an indelible mark on the performing arts.

Jarmila Novotná (1907–1994), one of the great operatic artists of the twentieth century in Europe and America, was also a performer in theater, radio, on film and television. A fervent patriot who personally witnessed the birth of independent Czechoslovakia, Novotná would be exiled from her homeland by the Nazis and the Communists in succession for fifty years, returning only after the Velvet Revolution to be hailed as a national heroine by President Václav Havel.

William V. Madison
is a former producer at CBS News and a former associate editor of Opera News. He is the author of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life.

Vitally, it is Novotná’s voice that emerges from the pages of My Life in Song. Though Madison’s editorial adroitness is apparent throughout the book, there is no appreciable effort on his part to manage or manipulate the narrative or the subject’s artistic persona. The foreword by late Opera News editor Brian Kellow, both a meaningful tribute to its author and an affectionate prelude to Novotná’s story, launches the book’s trajectory, a course that Madison follows with the unerring instincts of an accomplished storyteller. This is not a chronology that buries the soul of its subject beneath mounds of valuable but tedious statistics: this is a book in which an artistic soul is reincarnated through her own words.

A compelling narrative of how a prominent female artist navigates through major historical events, shaping her life, career, and persona according to shifting circumstances. It is both a remarkable historical document and an enjoyable read. -- Claudio Vellutini, University of British Columbia

Glamorous yet sensitive, Novotná believed and proved that any kind of music, any kind of art, can bring people together for the common good: to resist tyranny, to celebrate freedom, to heal and to nurture. We’ve seen it proven over and over throughout history, but not all artists have been as bold and as brave as she was to actually put into action her belief that music could transform. As I’ve made my way in opera, I’ve heard so much about this spectacular artist. Now, in her own words, she confirms the legends—with plenty of wonders and surprises along the way. Through her story, I—as well as countless other artists who are paying attention—can learn from her bravery and boldly carry on fighting through our art to transform the human experience! -- Joyce DiDonato, Grammy Award winning mezzo-soprano

Even though I’m not a soprano, I’ve sung many of the roles that Jarmila Novotná made her own. I know just how challenging they can be, but she made them look easy: no wonder I admire her. One of the all-time greats, Novotná was a model of taste and artistry—and what a life she led, always at the center of the action, alongside the leading figures in the arts and politics of her time. I’m so pleased that her memoir is finally available in English—there’s something for everybody in this book! -- Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano

A gracious and brilliant talent tells the captivating story of her life in the arts, set against the political upheaval of war and revolution, glamorous friendships with royalty, Hollywood icons and the titans of the music world. This fascinating book has it all. -- Wendy Lawless, author the New York Times best-selling memoirs Chanel Bonfire and Heart of Glass

A charming and informative memoir from a major opera singer. Novotnà's happy nature shines through even when she is describing how she lost her native country Czechoslovakia twice—first to the Nazis and then to the Communists. Stories about such varied figures as Gabriele D'Annunzio, Arturo Toscanini, and Montgomery Clift adorn this tale of a woman who never let anything stop her from pursuing her ideal of musical excellence. -- Dan Callahan, author of Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave

Reading Novotna’s memoirs of her momentous life evoked in my inner ear tributes Liza Elliott fantasized about in the “Glamour Dream” of Lady in the Dark. I found myself paraphrasing Ira Gershwin and singing some of Novotna’s real-life events to Kurt Weill’s tune:

You were already the Lark of the fifth-grade class,
Now the Duke of Windsor wants to play for you,
Cole Porter’s writing Kate for you, and Lehar, his Giudetta..
The Baron asks to marry you; Toscanini has gone gaga for you,
While Montgomery Clift begs to kiss you warmly.
Czech astronomers have named a planet after you.
Crosby implores you to sing on his radio show,
Abbott & Costello for theirs on TV, and MGM has sent a contract.
Someone stole your garment bag design,
But it seems to matter to neither princes nor presidents.
Publishers want you to write the Saga of Novotna,
Who knows, it might outsell Callas if not Sinatra.

Indeed, Novotna’s larger-than-life memoir has all the makings of a play or movie in Madison’s elegantly readable compilation and edition. The first-person account is almost a who’s who of 20th-century politics and international culture as encountered by an extraordinary performer, personality, and patriot. As Ogden Nash quipped in a lyric entitled “Very, Very, Very,” finally we can “huddle with her memoirs, and boy! what memoirs them was!" -- Kim Kowalke, President, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

What a treasure to have the life of the great Czech soprano Jarmila Novotnà, in her own words. Her rare combination of physical and vocal beauty, supported by initial training as an actress, gave her a dazzling versatility. It is difficult to imagine today that one soprano would sing the Queen of the Night, Pamina, Violetta, Butterfly, Octavian, and Cherubino in one lifetime, let alone in the space of a few years, as Novotná did to acclaim. It is perhaps even more astonishing that the same performer, a reigning diva at the Metropolitan Opera for more than 15 years, acted in films opposite Mario Lanza and Montgomery Clift. Reading her detailed, candid remembrances of such legendary creative geniuses as Max Ophuls, Arturo Toscanini and Max Reinhardt, you enter an era when the classical arts were in full flower, when barriers between the opera house, popular music, the concert stage, Broadway, and Hollywood had yet to be erected. -- Renée Fleming, soprano