Czech Prima Donnas at the Met Opera in New York

A new exhibition opens on Wednesday evening at the Czech Center New York presenting Czech female opera singers whose careers brought them onto the stage of one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses – the Metropolitan Opera in New York. From opera great Emmy Destinn right up until contemporary star Magdalena Kožená, these Czech prima donnas performed under the batons of world-famous conductors and alongside other renowned singers, sometimes starring in the Met’s first productions of major Czech operas. I spoke to the exhibition’s curator, the head of the Antonín Dvořák Museum in Prague Dr. Veronika Vejvodová, in advance of the exhibition opening.

Photo: National Museum

What's the concept behind the exhibition - why female opera singers and why now?

"The exhibition aims to present Czech prima donnas who had the opportunity to perform in one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world - the New York Metropolitan Opera. The exhibition is actually a continuation of our collaboration between the National Museum and the Czech Centre New York. In particular the music exhibitions that the Czech National Museum prepared in the past few years for the Czech Centre were a big success in New York. We started with Dvořák because I work at the Dvořák museum, and the first exhibition was in 2014 with The New World Symphony. We brought the original manuscript from our collections to the Czech Centre New York for one week - it was something really special.

Eva Urbanová,  Rusalka | Photo: South Bohemian Theatre

"Then we continued with Rusalka - again, we brough the original Dvořák manuscript of the opera to the Czech Centre New York and then we did the same with Dvořák's cello concerto in 2018. Last year we had our exhibition about famous Czech composers in the Czech Centre NY again, and because we collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera we had the idea of doing a bigger collaboration with them.

"We already had costumes from the Rusalka exhibition, Mařenka's costumes from the Bartered Bride by Smetana, and Kostelnička from Leoš Janáček's opera Jenůfa at the Czech Centre last year, so the collaboration seemed like something natural."

How will the singers be presented - you mentioned costumes, but will there be video or audio recordings of their performances?

Emmy Destinn | Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress,  public domain

"Yes, the singers will be presented mostly through photographs. We have some photographs at the Czech National Museum, mostly photographs of Emmy Destinn, but we don't have much material from the other singers, so for those we used photographs from the Metropolitan Opera archives.

"Also, we will have the costumes - that is a big highlight. We will have six costumes from the Metropolitan Opera archives worn by Maria Jeritza and Jarmila Novotná. Maria Jeritza sang in the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s at the Met, and Jarmila Novotná in the 1940s.

"We will also have three costumes worn by Emmy Destinn, which were brought from Prague from the National Museum's collections to New York this weekend. The three costumes are from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, and Aida and Falstaff by Verdi.

Magdalena Kožená | Photo: Oleg Rostowtsew,  archive of Magdalena Kožená

"Regarding the audio and video, we will have archival footage from the Czech National Film Archive, mostly of Jarmila Novotná, because she was active in the 1930s and 40s when the film industry was more developed. She even sings in the video.

"Something really special that we did is that we also interviewed four current female opera singers who sang at the Met - Eva Randová, Eva Urbanová, Gabriela Beňačková, and the most recent, a big star of Czech opera, Magdalena Kožená."

Do you have any expectations about what kind of audience you'll draw with this exhibition - do you expect that the public in New York who come to see it will already be familiar with the singers, or is the idea to introduce them to something a bit new and different?

"We would definitely like to attract a New York audience who already knows something about opera and who is interested in this topic. But because we are also exhibiting the costumes, that is something really popular and really nice to see, so we hope that we will attract different kinds of people as well - people who visit museums and galleries, not only people from the Czech community but also New Yorkers and maybe even tourists who come to New York."

What are some of the highlights of the exhibition, in your opinion?

Jarmila Novotná as Violetta in La Traviata | Photo: Wide World Studio

"The highlights are definitely the costumes. We have a special costume worn by Jarmila Novotná, which she had made for her here in Prague at a famous Czech fashion salon by the designer Hana Podolská. During Jarmila Novotná’s time, costumes were the property of the singer, so they used to use their costumes again and again in different productions at different opera houses. So Novotná sang in this costume in Prague and then she brought it to New York and also used it at the Met.

"Another really nice costume is the costume of Turandot worn by Maria Jeritza - the American premiere of this opera was in 1926 and the costume is really big and really beautiful. The other costume from this production is exhibited in Italy in the city of Lucca, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini."

Will there be any other special events accompanying the exhibition - concerts, for example?

"There will be a recital by the Czech mezzo-soprano Eliška Weissová at the exhibition opening. She is already known for her performances in Janáček's operas in Austria and Germany, and she will sing Libuše, the aria from Smetana's opera, at the opening of the exhibition, and the aria of Kostelnička, from Janáček's opera Jenůfa.

Veronika Vejvodová | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

"There will also be another recital, a song recital on June 18th by Ada Bílková and Lucie Laubová, who will perform a program which we put together. I will also accompany this recital with a commentary. They will sing The songs of Lidice, which Jarmila Novotná performed with Jan Masaryk as the pianist in the 1940s during the Second World War, and it was broadcast to the whole world. They will also sing part of a song cycle composed by Emmy Destinn, Garden of the Heart, which is quite unique.

"And I will be giving two guided tours of the exhibition on the 15th and 19th of June."

The exhibition takes place from 23 MAY 2024 – 23 JUN 2024 at the Czech Center Gallery in New York (opening hours Monday – Thursday 10 am – 5 pm).

The exhibition opening will take place on May 22, 2024, at 7 PM, in the Bohemian National Hall Ballroom.

Free registration for the exhibition opening here.

Author: Anna Fodor
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