Ema Destinnová - the divine Ema

Ema Destinnová

Ema Destinnová - or Emmy Destinn, as she became known abroad - was one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century and one of the most sought-after singers before WWI, thanks to her voice of exceptional richness, power, and control. She sang with the legendary Enrico Caruso and many other stars in the most prestigious opera houses in Europe and the United States, such as Bayreuth, Berlin's Hofoper, London's Covent Garden and New York's Metropolitan.

Ema Destinnová was born in Prague in 1878 as Emilie Pavlína Kittlová to a wealthy patriotic family. She was a very gifted child, encouraged in her early interest in music by her parents who were enthusiastic supporters of the arts. Ema first studied the violin with Ferdinand Lachner and acting with the famous Prague actress Otylie Sklenářová-Malá. From 1892 to 1897 she studied voice with Marie Loewe-Destinn, whose name Ema later adopted as a tribute to her beloved teacher.

Young Ema was first rejected by three opera houses (Prague's National Theatre, Dresden´s Semper Opera and Berlin´s Theater des Westens) before she finally appeared in Berlin's Hofoper in June 1898 as Santuzza in Masagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Her performance was an instant success. But before we start the account of Ema Destinnová's successes in the world of opera, we should mention that, before her first appearance onstage, Ema had made her artistic debut as a writer. František Furbach is a historian and chairman of the Ema Destinnová Club, which was founded in 1992 in the town of Jindřichův Hradec.

"Few people know that Ema Destinnová was not only a diva but also an accomplished writer. Writing was not a mere pastime for her. In her passport she stated both 'singer' and 'author' as her occupation. She started writing when she was very young. At the age of 14 she wrote some fine poetry and at the age of 18, in 1896, three of her dramas were premiered in Prague. So she made her first artistic appearance as a playwright, not a singer."

For the next decade after her singing debut in Berlin, Ema enjoyed success after success. She sang in more than forty roles and made over 700 stage appearances at the Berlin Hofoper. The triumph of her Berlin engagement was her spectacular performance of Richard Strauss' "Salome," first performed in December 1906 with Strauss conducting the orchestra. For the 1901-1902 season, Ema was a guest performer at the opera in the German city of Bayreuth and her artistic achievements there opened doors for her to famous European opera houses, including London's Covent Garden.

For twelve spring seasons between 1904 and 1919 Ema performed in London, making 225 appearances in 18 operas on Covent Garden's stage. One of her most acclaimed performances at Covent Garden was the London premiere of Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" in 1905, where she sang with "the greatest tenor of all times" - Enrico Caruso. Ema Destinnová and Enrico Caruso sang together on 47 occasions in London, in a succession of operas including "Cavalleria Rusticana," "Aida," "Don Giovanni," "Madame Butterfly" and "Tosca."

The peak of Ema Destinnová's career were her years at the most prestigious opera in the world, the New York Metropolitan Opera. She sang eight full seasons at the Met, where she made 250 stage appearances in 21 roles. Her most acclaimed role at the Metropolitan was Minnie, with Caruso and Toscanini, in the world premiere of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West." In America Ema experienced triumphant success and earned a fortune. However, her impressive career was interrupted by the First World War.

Ema's return from New York to war-torn Europe in 1916 had fateful consequences for her career. Her links with the patriotic resistance movement at home resulted in her passport being confiscated and she was confined to her summer residence, a manor house at Stráž nad Nežárkou in south Bohemia. Her two-year absence from the Met had meanwhile opened doors for a new generation of singers.

As the war drew to its end, Ema Destinnová was allowed to sing at Prague´s National Theatre. She made 82 appearances on its stage. She also performed in theatres in Pilsen, Brno, and several other venues. The audiences everywhere greeted her with enthusiastic manifestations of support for her patriotism which was central to Ema's character. That is also why she promoted Czech opera during her entire career.

Two and a half decades after her début, in the 1922/1923 season, she bid farewell to regular artistic activity with her concert tour around Scandinavia and a number of guest appearances on home stages in the cities of Pilsen, Bratislava, Ostrava, Brno and Prague. Ema Destinnová spent her last years at her manor in Stráž nad Nežárkou, walking in the woods and fishing in the river. But a lot of the time was occupied with her manor house, the management of its woods and ponds and the mill, brewery and distillery which Ema later bought. These took up all her time and drained substantially her large fortune. On January 28, 1930, at the age of only 52, Ema Destinnová died unexpectedly, while visiting her doctor in České Budějovice.

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the diva's birth, the Ema Destinnová Club has just published the fourth edition of her novel "In the Shade of a Blue Rose". Historian František Furbach again.

"She wrote a number of short stories. A series of poems remained in manuscript as well as her German novel 'Herr Doktor Casanova' describing her beginnings in Berlin. Its Czech translation was published as late as 1988. In 1902 Ema published her collection of poems 'Sturm und Ruhe' written in German and its Czech translation was published in 1995. Her three-part novel 'In the Shade of a Blue Rose' was first published in 1924. The last tome was printed shortly after Ema's death."

Anyone who is interested in the life and work of Ema Destinnová should travel to the town of Jindřichův Hradec in south Bohemia to see the permanent exhibition dedicated to the artist in the local museum. But to see a portrait of the diva you don't have to travel so far. Her image decorates the Czech 2000-crown banknote - as Mr Furbach from the Ema Destinnová Club says, the most beautiful banknote in the world.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 8, 2003.