EMMY DESTINN MUSIC FESTIVAL
ČESKÉ BUDĚJOVICE

EMMY DESTINN

Emmy Destinn - in Czech Ema Destinnová - is a pen-name of the famous singer whose real name was Emílie Pavlína Kittlová. She was born at midnight between 26th and 27th February 1878 in Prague, No 5 Catherine Street. Emily was born into an extraordinary family. Her grandfather was a poor country boy when he came to Prague but when he died his only son Emanuel inherited from him twenty-three houses, several real estates, a distillery, two breweries and antimony and silver mines. By his character he was more an artist than a businessman. He supported several poets and painters and helped financially a few newspapers. And it was from her father that Emmy had restless, adventurous and a bit eccentric character. Emmy's mother was a gifted singer who after a short time left her opera career at the Opera Comique in Paris as they had a big family and a rich social life. And it was, of course, from her that Emmy got the talent for music. First she was sent to be taught violin and really at the age of eight she performed a good concert at a family picnic. When she was only fourteen they discovered her voice. Mrs. Mary Loewe-Destinn and her husband became Emmy's teachers of singing. She was a previous significant member of the Court Opera in Vienna, he was a former singing coach with a lat of experience. At the beginning Emmy rather disliked singing and the teaching bored her. It changed only later owing to Mrs Loewe's patience. Emmy was musical and she mastered quickly an extensive repertoire. In addition she started attending dramatic school at the National Theatre in Prague, lessons of Mrs. Otylie Sklenářová - Malá, the former outstanding member of the company. She was quite astonished to meet such a talented pupil, she said. At the age of nineteen she tried an audition for the National Theatre in Prague, for the Opera in Dresden and Theater des Westens in Berlin - but without any success. She succeeded only in the audition for the Staatsoper in Berlin, where she was finally recognized as an exceptional talent and as such she started her singing career. Thus her first appearance on the stage was in the building of the New Royal Opera House, on 19th July 1898, when she was twenty. She sang Santuzza in Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana, a part which, in fact, she never liked. But she won at once. Since that time she performed as Emmy Destinne to show her gratitude to her first teacher. A new superstar was born.

She gained popularity rapidly and she learned new parts very fast. After Santuzza she excelled in Carmen. Musical and acting interpretation of Bizeťs gipsy surprised Berlin to such an extent that all performances were sold out in advance. Then she appeared as Valentina in Meyerbeer's Huguenots and was here a real lady and perfect again. It happens in all theatres that somebody falls ill and a proxy is looked after ... it gave the young singer a chance. She dared to take over without a rehearsal Thomas' Mignon, Wagner's Elizabeth, and, two hours before the beginning of the performance, Margaret in Gounoďs Faust. She never sang in those roles before and went on the stage being aware of all possible risks - but she succeeded always. Only few singers possess such qualities in opera acting. Destinn went into such encounters independently, i. e. without normal theatrical preparation. She was able to prepare all herself: to learn the literary and musical part, to become acquainted with and accustomed to the character of her role. Thus, in a short time, Destinn became a sensation. William II. signed her decree immediately after Santuzza. She also was often invited to the Imperial household to sing there. Later she received an honorary title of the Prussian Court Chamber Singer. She appeared in Prague too - once as Carmen, twice as Mignon - in spite of her success in Berlin, at home the audience accepted her Carmen skeptically, they quite liked Mignon. That was in 1901. In 1902 she was invited to Bayreuth to sing Senta. It was one of her greatest performances. Critics admired the conception of the character, they praised her voice. But the greatest success of her whole career was the Strauss's first night of Salome in 1906. At about the same time her fame started to develop in London, in 1904 she sang there with Caruso at Covent Garden in Comedians. Butterfly brought her a world success in 1905. The summit of this artistic and social career was the coronation of George V. in 1911, for which Destinn was invited as an honorary guest. In Prague she gave a series of guest performances in 1908 at which she had shown the variety of her repertoire and her art - as Aida, Senta, Milada in Smetana's Dalibor among others. Prague National Theatre awarded her with the title of an honorary member and asked her to sing Mařenka in the 500th night of Smetana's Bride. That happened in 1909, when she parted with the Berlin Court Opera. Why she left the scene where she became so famous and grew into a world opera star and where she felt at first so happy, is not quite clear. Already in 1903 she criticized in a Czech newspaper the dilettantish performance of Smetana's Dalibor in the Berlin Theatre des Westens - then she did not get the permission to accept an invitation for guest performances in Prague National Theatre. Another reason was perhaps, too, that the Metropolitan Opera in New York showed an interest in her but, of course, in Berlin these propositions were not accepted with enthusiasm. It cannot be forgotten that she never kept in secret her Czech origin. She always stressed her nationality and had her native country in her heart. Thus the situation was disgusting and when the role of Butterfly for the first night was given to another singer and not to her, she decided to leave. She left Berlin on 27th October 1909, she sang Madame Butterfly and gave a concert with arias by Slavonic composers only. She clearly expressed who she is and where she belongs.
Immediately in her first New York season she experienced a great event with the night of Puccini's opera Fanciulla del West which was produced on 10th December 1910. The main female role Minnie was sang by Emmy Destinn, Dick Johnson by Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini conducted. The audience manifested its approbation with an endless, excited and vigorous applause. The couple Enrico Caruso - Emmy Destinn was their real favorite. Operagoers loved them and there were not enough opportunities for the theatre directors to invite them to sing at their houses. In the Metropolitan Opera Emmy Destinn sang the same repertoire she mastered in Berlin and she added a number of other roles, such as Leonora from Trovatore, Amelia from Ballo in Maschera, Alice Ford from Verdi's Falstaff, Martha from ď Albert's Flat Land, and others. She had concerts and performances in Hamburg, Stockholm, Budapest, Brussels, London, Wien. During her Metropolitan engagement the name of Emmy Destinn was the first among the greatest stars together with her partner’s name Enrico Caruso. The fame, however, did not change her. She kept her Czech roots both in her heart and in her mind. She, together with Gustav Mahler, succeeded in putting Smetana's Bartered Bride on the stage of the American opera - G. Mahler conducted it on 19th February 1909. It was a sensation and she made Smetana famous. In October 1910 she performed in Prague - but in Puccini's Tosca four times while in Bartered Bridge only once! She got into press polemics with the influential Prague critic and musical scientist Zdeněk Nejedlý. She left Prague angry and offended - it was she who brought Czech opera music onto world stages! In the time of the raging European conflict, before the United States declared war on Germany, she got very homesick, she could not overcome it. She wanted to be at home and help on the spot. The beauty of Prague and the idyllic countryside of South Bohemia haunted her constantly. Shortly before the war she bought a castle in the south of Bohemia, in Stráž nad Nežárkou, which she adapted with great expenses. All this caused that she decided to leave and return home in 1916. The parting performance was on 21st April, when she sang her beloved Madame Butterfly in the Metropolitan Opera for the last time.

At the frontier station the police were already informed about her arrival. She was suspected of antimonarchic activity, and arrested. After the intervention of the Emperor William II. they let her go to her place. But the police departments in Prague and Vienna watched her and even took away her passport so that the way out of the country was no more possible. At first she did not mind enjoying her quiet home. Later, however, when she realized that not only she would not be allowed to leave for America to sing again, and cam money -there was a contract for seventy performances with Metropolitan -but also she could not get money anywhere to par her expenses... she found herself in a trap. Of course she could perform in the theatre and at concerts but the home fees were too low for her needs. There was one consolation - she lived in the danger of war among her people, she could influence them from the stage giving the public a comfort and pouring faith into their hearts. She performed with a tricolor on her breast. The culmination of her artistic career in that time was the performance of Smetana's Libuše at the National Theatre in spring 1918. The evening passed in a highly excited atmosphere and when Libuše raised from her throne to proclaim her prophecy, at the words "the Czech nation will not die" the whole house rose up. She put the genius of the nation into the role and the people understood.

The end of the war found Emmy at her old castle. She changed physically but her voice remained fresh. The postwar time, however, was different. The name of Emmy Destinn was known and still famous but it belonged to the past. Metropolitan Opera did not offer a new contract to her former star - its ensemble was complete and the new stars on the horizon. Emmy got only the possibility of a tour in different cities of the United States. Though they were quite exhausting, she did three tours. She was then only forty-three years old and her international career seemed to be at the end. She still performed at Prague National Theatre but there, too, she finished in 1924, when she was forty-six. She tried to renew her contacts with foreign opera houses and she really sang on the foremost European stages, but these were isolated events only. Her attempts to teach did not succeed either. Home did not show special interest in the former diva and rushed after new idols. Though she got married when she was forty-five to a much younger man, completely unknown and of no importance, interest and wealth (she refused many excellent offers from men of world fame, such as Toscanini, Caruso, Puccini - among others - before), she spent her last days alone, depressed and poor. The husband, Joe Halsband, did not feel love for her, he was more impressed by her fame and possessions and so when they started disappearing he did the same. In January 1930 she was brought to the hospital in České Budějovice and she died there on 28th January. The funeral in Prague was, of course, magnificent, she was buried at the old Vyšehrad cemetery where outstanding representatives of Czech culture and science Test in peace.

It is not generally known that she except singing was creative also in literature and dramatic art though she never reached similar level in these branches as in singing. She wrote some short stories, verses and dramatic attempts. Some verses were written in German and published as a collection under the name Sturm und Ruhe in Berlin already in 1902. There is an important piece of literature in an autobiographic novel Doctor Casanova telling about the beginnings of her singing career (in the novel she used the name Eva König), and also a novel about the region of Stráž in four volumes named In the Shade of the Blue Rose. The first volume was published in Třeboň in 1924. She was always attracted by romantic vision of love which she often reflected in her prose, poetry and plays. She found in it glimpses of her own private life. Therefore she not only tells the story of the aristocratic family but also parts of her own life experience and she sets the stories in the midst of the romantic nature beauty surrounding her castle that she loved so much.

She lived a rich life, wondrous existence of ascent and descent, and she was not spared the pain by which she paid for her boundless glory of her career. But we still keep her in our minds and hearts and remember her glorious voice through her colleagues of the present time.

 

 

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