Retoring a Legend-From the Ground Up Jarmila Novotna Festival: A Little History, a Little Irony, an Artistic Legacy, and a Dash of Hollywood-That's the Story of the Czech-Born Metropolitan Opera Star Jarmila Novotna

By Matz, Mary | Czech Music, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Retoring a Legend-From the Ground Up Jarmila Novotna Festival: A Little History, a Little Irony, an Artistic Legacy, and a Dash of Hollywood-That's the Story of the Czech-Born Metropolitan Opera Star Jarmila Novotna


Matz, Mary, Czech Music


Ironically, what you know about Jarmila Novotna (1907-1994) depends on not only your age, but your location.

That's because Jarmila Novotna's name is revered by her American contemporaries (now the older generation of opera fans) who remember her unique, expressive soprano voice from performances in US films, on television, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But due to restrictions and property confiscations by the Nazis and, later, the communists, Novotna left her mother country known as Czechoslovakia in 1939, and settled in New York. Today Czechoslovakia is known by the name The Czech Republic. But in her native country, Mrs Novotna's own name is virtually unknown. Now her family, and some complete strangers, are working to change that.

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Not-Quite-Buried Treasure in the Tiny Town of Liten

"My husband and I were looking for a quiet, countryside property," says the young Czech woman with twinkly blue eyes. And when Petr and Ivana Leidl took a look at the crumbling old estate outside the west Bohemia village of Liten, yes, they were attracted by the artistic challenge of restoring its former beauty, but even more so by the quiet, somehow spiritual atmosphere of the old buildings.

Their desire to renovate with historical accuracy the barn, the brewery, the sala terrena, the three-floor mansion, and other buildings led the Leidls to investigate the property's history. "We began to uncover its past only from hints, scant and scattered evidence in archives, and some old-timers' stories," Mrs Leidl recalls. Eventually the trail led to the Leidls jumping on a plane for New York to meet one of the property's original-family former owners--Jarmila Novotna's son, George Daubek, a retired businessman. The more they chatted with him, the more intrigued the Leidls became. They realized that in their search for the right property, they had stumbled on to an artistic, now almost-buried, treasure. Mrs Novotna's home, originally her husband's family-owned brewery, had in its inter-war years heyday been a gathering point for musicians, artists, writers, painters, and sculptors. "At that point, we knew we had to acquire this property, not only for our home, but to restore its name, history, and--most importantly--the artistic legacy of Mrs Novotna," Mrs Leidl recalls.

No Beds, No Bathrooms, Just Beautiful Music

They started--what else would you expect from arts lovers?--not only by plunging into repairing roofs, but also by throwing a kind of house-warming party. They inaugurated the Jarmila Novotna Music Festival, Sept 7-9, 2012. Even though the mansion, called "the Castle," was mostly just a shell. Even though there was little lighting and no working plumbing. (Portable toilets were trucked in for the thousand guests.) But no matter. For the first time in decades, that first-festival weekend, children from the village came to play on the wide lawn and on the new swing and trampoline. In addition, students from the Prague Conservatory performed brass selections in the graffiti-tagged sala terrena. Rising young mezzo-soprano Alzbeta Vomackova sang selections from the Czech repertoire in the beautifully restored library. There, decades before, house guest Svatopluk tech had sequestered himself to write some of his poems and novels. (Janacek later adapted one for his opera about Mr Broucek's excursions.)

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But befitting any festival, there had to be a Gala concert, too, of course. And this one, held on Saturday and Sunday evening, starred Jarmila Novotna's own grand-daughter, Baroque violinist Tatiana Daubek, a Julliard graduate from New York. Gonzalo Ruiz, an oboist and Julliard professor, performed a selection by Bach; young soprano Martina Sehylova offered Mozart; and the Czech Republic's Musica Florea Baroque Ensemble accompanied. They performed under portable spotlights and traces of the remaining delicate flower garlands stencilled on the ceiling of the Castle's ballroom, to an overflow audience settled comfortably on folding chairs.

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