A visit with Mr. & Mrs. Jan Rubes

Soap opera and real opera harmonize happily in the lives of these talented Czechs. Success has brought them a five-level house, a swimming pool, a country cottage. But, says Jan, “I stay a nationalistic schizophrenic”

John Gray January 2 1960

A visit with Mr. & Mrs. Jan Rubes

Soap opera and real opera harmonize happily in the lives of these talented Czechs. Success has brought them a five-level house, a swimming pool, a country cottage. But, says Jan, “I stay a nationalistic schizophrenic”

John Gray January 2 1960

Eleven years ago a twenty-eight-year-old Czech political refugee emigrated to Canada for the first time, from Switzerland. He arrived on New Year’s Eve in a summer suit, complete with his worldly goods: a toothbrush, a razor and a violin case full of music. He entered the country as a tailor, an occupation acceptable to the immigration authorities, bound for the Toronto tailoring shop of his uncle, George Deymel.

In fact, Jan Rubes (pronounced Yan Rubesh) was a singer. “I was a singing tailor,” he recalls, "or perhaps, a tailor who sang.”

Early in 1959, when he emigrated to Canada tor the second time, from the United States, his assets had increased. In addition to the toothbrush, razor and violin case, he now had a cottage on Georgian Bay, a substantial equity in thirty thousand dollars' worth of house in Toronto’s suburban Willowdale, a wife, the actress Susan Douglas, and three sons — Christopher, five; Jonathan, three; and Tony, fifteen months. Jan Rubes had also acquired a reputation as one of the stars of Canada’s only professional opera company and as the host of the CBC’s popular radio show, Songs of My People. His seven-year stint on this program, which each week takes the native songs of a country or region for its material, has made him one of the better-known new residents of Canada, among Old and New Canadians alike.

When I went to spend the day with the Rubeses one Saturday last November I found them in a state of relative crisis. A skunk was caught in the garbage pail. The screen that had been delivered for the open fireplace in the living room didn't fit. Susan had had a minor accident with the car. Jonathan was just home from the hospital where he’d had his tonsils out and was suffering from a change of voice. "It used to be deep and low ," Susan said, imitating what it used to be. Jonathan refused to open his mouth to show what it now was. There had been two guests coming for drinks the next day, but the number was increasing: it was now at eight.

Jan remained unruffled. He hadn't had much sleep, having taken the last plane after doing a broadcast of Songs of My People from Montreal the night before. He had an afternoon rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company's production of The Barber of Seville, about to resume a national tour begun last fall. They were opening two days later in Kirkland Lake, Ont.

"It’s a funny thing: the role of Don Basilio that I sing in The Barber, that's the first opera role I ever learned, in Prague."

Both Jan and his wife were born in Czechoslovakia. His father was a teacher in a small village; her father an army officer.

Like his brother, now a Prague psychiatrist. Jan had intended to enter medicine. But in 1938, soon after they occupied the country, the Germans closed Charles University in Prague, following demonstrations by the students. Jan, with nothing to do. started training to be an opera singer. He soon went to a Czech provincial opera company to get a wider choice of singing roles. Later the Germans sent him to one of the municipal opera houses in Germany rather than to a labor camp. That ended, however, when they sent him to jail for trying to aid escaping French prisoners of war. He escaped from jail and spent the rest of the war hiding near his home. When the war ended he became one of Prague s leading basses, but after the communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 he decided to leave and refused to return from a Swiss music festival to which he had been sent.

"It must be hard for Canadians to understood how so many of us grew up.” Jan said to me. "Switzerland was the first country where I saw that you could just go into a store and buy anything you wanted." Soon after he arrived at his uncle's home in Toronto. Jan was taken to a party. “It was incredible. There was all this food on the table, and just free. But nobody was really eating. As a matter of fact, the ladies were standing there talking about how not to eat."

The irony was not lost on Jan, who stands six foot two and weighs, now that he's well fed, about a hundred and eighty-five pounds. The contrast Jan makes with Susan is a little startling at first sight. Where he is big, methodical, placid, she is small (five feet tall), restless, and volatile: "I like jet travel,” she announced during a discussion of walking. Susan's family were also Czech political refugees, but much earlier, from the Germans. She was brought up in New York and is thoroughly American.

Though they had moved into their new house only three weeks before I visited them, it seemed remarkably complete. “It's our first house,” Susan said. “I want to be well settled so that we can feel, if we have to move again soon, that we’ve lived somewhere.”

Unimpressed by modern suburbia's ubiquitous single-storied home, Jan and Susan have built a five-level house that spills down the side of a steep ravine. The levels are knitted together by stairways: there's even a back stairs from the kitchen to the top level, where the bedrooms for the children and the maid are.

The house is thoroughly modern and thoroughly equipped. The kitchen, the main entrance and the dining room are on the level below the children's bedrooms; the living room and main bedroom on the next lower level; a storeroom-workroom on the next; and at the bottom is a recreation room, Jan's study, the patio and an outdoor swimming pool.

"We didn't intend to have a pool.” Susan said. "But the building inspector came around and said that our carport, at the side of the house, would eventually wash away into the ravine, so we'd have to build a retaining wall to hold it. That was going to cost a lot of money — about two thousand dollars — and everyone wanted cash!"

She explained how they then hit on the idea of having a pool built instead. It would do the same job. and they could pay for it in installments. Besides, she added, "We may as well enjoy ourselves. Who knows how long we'll have to enjoy a real house? And anyway, who wants to die with sixty thousand dollars in the bank?”

Jan met Susan soon after he came to Canada, when he was given a part in Forbidden Journey, a film being made in Montreal. The first time he played a scene with Miss Douglas they had to kiss thirty times. They were married when the film had its première.

She was already a well-known young American actress, with several Broadway plays, Hollywood movies, and extensive radio and television experience behind her. She played parts in almost all the radio soap operas and when one of them. The Guiding Light, went on TV she was chosen to play Kathy, one of the major characters. For six years Susan played Kathy. Twice she was briefly written out of the script, when Christopher was born in 1954, and when Jonathan was born in 1956. But with her third pregnancy in 1958 the author wrote Kathy out permanently by killing her off. “I think they’d had enough,” Susan said.

With all the rush of moving to Toronto from New York last spring, the summer at the Stratford Festival (where Jan sang Pluto in a production of Offenbach's Orpheus in The Underworld), a holiday at their Georgian Bay cottage and the problems of finishing and moving into their new house, Susan has been too busy to worry much about working. But it's on her mind again.

"I like to work a lot,” she said. "It doesn't have to be the most artistic sort of thing, but if I don't work I go rusty. Something not so good almost every day is better than something very good once every four months." So far she has done little television work in Canada.

"I think the CBC should do a TV soap opera," Susan said. “I think the soap opera is the most underrated piece of work in the business. Some absolutely wonderful scripts turn up.”

Susan admits that most soap operas are not “wonderful” but she insists that they are well written, and because of their concentration on character often produce moving programs. Acting for the TV soap opera is fairly strenuous, because a new fifteen-minute show must be memorized each day. "The first six months I did it were pretty rough,” she sad. "but memorizing is just a matter of training, after all, and you get on to it. It took me two or three hours a day—on my way to and from work and at home. You learn the lines just for the day— and concentrate instead on the development of the character and the meaning of the lines.”

Recently she was offered another part in a New York soap opera. "I considered it,” Susan said, “but it would have meant commuting, taking the plane down in the morning and back at night.”

“To New York? Every day?” I asked.

“Jan thought it was ludicrous,” Susan replied. “I turned it down. Maybe next year. I'll see how the work goes here . . .”

As Jan pointed out to me at lunch, he has been able to follow his career pretty much as he wanted to because of the support Susan gave him with her work in such things as soap opera. It meant, however, that they had to live in New York, and that is one enthusiasm they do not share. Because they lived there, and because he was making a lot of his income in the States, in 1952 Jan took out American citizenship. "It wasn't a question of belonging to anything,” he says. "I vitally needed papers so I could go on procuring a livelihood on both sides of the border.” But he didn't like living in New York.

For one thing he was away a lot. In 1956 he slept in one hundred and seventy-nine different beds and last year spent two hundred and seventy days in Canada. And living in New York was very expensive: nine hundred and sixty dollars a month just for the apartment and help.

Then there was the effect of New York on the children and himself. “I feel it would be absolutely unfair to my children to bring them up in New York. Susan doesn’t agree with me—she was brought up there. But what if they’re like me? I’m a very soft individual. When I was in jail in Germany I had a mean jailer — perhaps it was because I’m a big man and he was very small. But I just felt sorry for him. It’s like that in New York—if you’re like me—if you’ll stand in line and let people pass you, they’ll take advantage of you. I don’t hate them, I feel sorry for them.”

Last year Jan finally persuaded Susan to make the move. Jan loves Toronto. Susan is reserving judgment — for the moment.

"I can afford to do things in Toronto I could never afford to do in New York,” Jan said. “I can go and play golf. My cottage is an hour and a half away. I have privacy. I can see my friends without making an appointment. I can even drive the car downtown!”

But the great attraction in Canada for Jan Rubes is his work.

“In the States I just wouldn’t have had the chance to do the things I have been able to do here.” The first chance was that offered him by the CBC. In 1949, a few days after he arrived, he sang in a CBC Wednesday Night production of La Traviata. Many engagements followed; later he became the host on radio’s Songs of My People; last summer he was star of a somewhat similar TV show, Rhapsody. "If anything should happen to the CBC,” Rubes says firmly, “the Canadian public would be the incredible loser, and culturally we might just as well fold up and dissolve the border.”

Rubes' second chance came when he got a part in the first Opera Festival in Toronto in 1950. He has missed only one season since. Trained as he was in the European tradition, where the opera singer works regular hours, with full security, in government-subsidized buildings and under the comfortable mantle of guaranteed budgets, he was amazed by Canadian opera. There were no buildings. There were no companies. There was no money. There wasn’t even, to begin with, much of an audience.

Canadian opera has gradually taken hold, however, and in the fall of 1958 the Toronto Opera Festival (now the Canadian Opera Company) got some Canada Council money and took The Barber of Seville on the road.

Jan had never been through anything like it in his life. He sang the role of Don Basilio nineteen times in three weeks, an almost unheard - of thing in opera.

1 he response to the opera in small towns and cities across Canada was marvelous. "For the first ten minutes,” Jan says, "it's like a man trying out the water with his big toe. But in no lime at all people throw away their inhibitions and they give. Because they have no prefabricated traditions they take it for what it is—entertainment. They laugh! In one performance we did for teenagers, when Rosina (the heroine) came on they whistled. This is the kind of enthusiasm I imagine there must have been when these operas were first performed.”

In a world of witches

While Jan now sings more than fifty operatic roles this doesn't adequately describe his range, for he can sing many of these roles in several versions. He has learned Smetana's The Bartered Bride five times now: in its original Czech, in German and in three English versions. When singing Don Basilio in The Barber of Seville, Jan found he remembered all the roles in Czech—except his own.

But it is opera in English, in small Canadian towns, with no sets and only a piano, that he has found most satisfying. That is probably the major reason he is living in Toronto. As he told me this, his son Christopher was hovering, playing at being a witch. "He lives in a world of his own. that boy,” Jan said, shaking his head. "He’s not yet reconciled to the fact that he's a boy.” Christopher wanted to be made up as a witch, with a funny rubber nose and long black hair. "Later,” his father said gently. “Later. You have to learn one thing in life, Christopher, w'hich is most important — patience.” Christopher went back to being a makebelieve witch. “He’s living in a fairyland,” Jan said, in a voice that did not entirely disapprove.

"It’s a hard thing for a child to learn —patience,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s the one thing I learned through the war. This wasn’t our war. People like me were very lucky ^-we didn’t have to fight—we just waited. Always we were waiting for something to happen, waiting for food, waiting for education, waiting to start our lives. Some did partisan work, but for most, it was waiting. You learned patience. I learned to wait though, without wasting time. Always I have my brief case with me, always some music, some writing, you can always pick up some knowledge.

"One thing I found out about young people in Canada, when I taught a term at a camp in Muskoka my first year

here. It was like that food table when I first came—there were all the facilities, all the equipment, but still about ninety percent of those kids indulged in absolutely useless standing around, incredible wasting of time. You had to coax and charm them to do something. At the moment there are so many jobs you could get a livelihood by using only half your capacity—giving only half of what you have. The mass of people seem satisfied with living only at half speed.

"Today things are so easy. Not everywhere. I noticed in Quebec the way the kids play hockey, as if the only way to escape is to become a big star like Richard. Perhaps this is part of what’s happening in the communist states — perhaps this is one of the reasons they work so hard — to better their existence.”

Jan pointed out that he had been brought up in a less frantic, more stable atmosphere. Probably the young people in Europe, he thought, are as confused as everyone else. But still: the spirit in Canada is not what he was trained to, and he is affected. For instance, he was trained in the tradition of the European artist who, with security and a regular salary, works for his art. to perfect it, to bring it to its highest development. "Well, sometimes, here,” Jan went on, "I feel 1 do take some engagements just because 1 want the money.”

Yet it is not the material success North America has given him that is Jan’s primary goal. He is seeking an atmosphere for his family not unlike that he had as a boy — a home, stability, space in which to breathe and play.

He is wonderful with his children.

In the recreation room there is a puppet theatre, placed, symbolically I felt, right above the built-in TV set, so that the lop of the TV is the floor of the puppet stage.

Jan’s mother has sent him from Czechoslovakia all the puppets and scenery he used as a boy. With these he gives performances in which the characters and plots are drawn from the enchanting, violent repertory of fairy tales. One needs only to see the enthusiastic response of his children to one of these performances, and the dead blank grey eye of the TV set beneath it, to understand how some of those whose youth predates such wonders as television are anxious to preserve the immediacy and the spontaneity of amusements and pleasures in which there is active participation.

"I was luckily born in an era,” Jan said, “when if we wanted music, we did it ourselves. My mother played the piano, my father the fiddle. We had an amateur theatre that did six or seven productions a year. We were much better off.”

It is not simply his memories that draw from Jan nostalgic comments about his childhood. Most men remember their youth with affection, but Jan Rubes is an exile who can never correct that memory by visiting its scenes, or even by talking to his closest relatives—like his mother, whom he has not seen since he fled Czechoslovakia eleven years ago.

To such men the countries they settle in remain alien in one very real sense. This was pointed up recently when an Ontario judge asked a young Italian immigrant applying for citizenship if he would fight his brothers in a war between Canada and Italy. The man said he would not, and he didn’t get his citizenship.

Jan put it differently, but his point was the same. "I was born in a free republic. All my roots are there. 1 think it’s greatly exaggerated to think I could feel the same kind of national chauvin-

isms toward Canada. I am a person who is dreading, and abhors and hates these over-nationalist feelings, because they've brought on so much misery, especially in Europe. But from that point of view I am always a Czech. On the other hand, I can make a good Canadian, keep the laws, make a contribution. But always I stay a nationalist schizophrenic. I saw the Queen at Stratford and while I was impressed I just can't feel the same soil of warmth for her as I felt for President Masaryk.

“So often we encounter this kind of nationalism on Songs of My People. Often I sing a folk song gathered from a person or a book or one I have known, and then get indignant letters from other nationalities saying how dare we claim this song — it belongs to such-and-such a

people. Suddenly in such a letter you feel the old European hatred between the countries, it's understandable, with the small areas, and everyone trying to get the upper hand. What we answer is: this is one land where we could shed off these feelings and share one common thing. Ultimately our children will accept the song, as a song, on its merits.”

Jonathan had taken the lens cover from the photographer's camera.

“Give it to me back,” Jan said.

"Give it back to me," Susan corrected him.

"I have a lot of trouble learning a language,” he pointed out. "When I first came people would ask me, How do you do?’ and I felt they were genuinely interested, so I'd tell them: ‘Thank you, I'm not well.’

“You soon pass that. But I still notice a feeling here, a tentativeness about Canadians. People would ask how you like it here and expect you to say a few complimentary phrases. It was as if they wanted you to confirm that what they did was acceptable and the right way. I can't do that.

"I remember the way my village was liberated — it was the sixth of May — by Patton and the Third Army. The whole village had assembled in the square. When the first tank rolled down the square I saw there was a white man standing in the turret. A colored man stood in the turret of the second tank. There were cheers, tears; the emotional impact of that moment was incredible — it was a moment you were really alive. A lot of people go through life without

ever experiencing a moment like this. You can go on drawing on that kind of experience for years, and because of it I can possibly give more than some Canadians who live more sheltered lives."

"You’re going to be late for your rehearsal," Susan said.

“I’ll vocalize for five minutes and then we'll go.”

A few minutes later Jan folded himself into my small car, and we started out for downtown, and his rehearsal, which would last until ten o'clock at night.

"You must be tired,” 1 said.

Jan shrugged his shoulders slightly. "It’s all right," he said. "It's better than when we were in New York. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to come home to your family.” if