Zinka Milanov, one of the last great prima donnas of the operatic stage, was born Zinka Kunc in Zagreb, Croatia on 17 May 1906. She began studying at the age of fourteen, with Milka Termina, who created the role of Tosca at Covent Garden (London) and later at the Metropolitan Opera (New York).
Milanov began her training as a mezzo-soprano, but Madame Termina foresaw that Milanov was more suited to the soprano repertoire. With more training in that direction, Milanov developed the lower and upper registers necessary to a soprano. Their relationship ended one day when Madame Termina became angry at the young Milanov and slapped her. Being somewhat headstrong even at that age, Milanov left, never to return.
She made her professional début as Leonora in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Zagreb, 1927. Milanov’s chance came in Dresden, Germany, when she was called to appear in Verdi’s Aida, in the title role. From there, engagements in Vienna, Salzburg, and Prague enhanced her reputation in Europe. While in Prague, she caught the attention of Edward Johnson, then director of the Metropolitan Opera. Though Johnson had completed his audition series, he agreed to hear Milanov at a special sitting. Milanov sang some selections from Aida, and was immediately offered a contract.
Now using the name “Milanov” professionally instead of her birth name, she débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 17 December 1937 with the same role as in Zagreb – Leonora, Il Trovatore. She was a success and hailed as a worthy successor to the great Rosa Ponselle. Before Milanov left the Met in 1947, she sang many roles – among them Tosca (Giacomo Puccini, Tosca); Maddalena (Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chenier); Santuzza (Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana), and Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, Norma). Her speciality, though, was the Verdi repertoire, and she sang Aida most often, a total of seventy-eight performances.
Milanov had a solid technique, but early on she was often criticized for pitch problems and a certain sharpness of tone. The Met historian Irving Kolodin once described her as producing “alternate sensations of pleasure and pain”. However, she persevered, studying further and receiving assistance from her accompanist brother Bojdar Kunc. It has been said of Milanov that she did her best singing in her later years; as opposed to the usual situation of a soprano diminishing with age.
By 1950, she had resolved her vocal problems, married Yugoslav general Lubomar Ilić, and was ready to start anew. Still, her singing was a mixture of delicate soft tones and a delicate, ravishing pianissimo, yet marred by a certain lack of ‘edginess’ or flavor. Listening to Milanov can be quite relaxing, but after a while one misses the fire usually associated with a great soprano. She was possessed of a strong personality and was never quite able to ‘lose herself’ in the various roles she sang. Yet, for most audiences, she dominated those roles nonetheless by her majestic presence.
After Milanov moved on from the Met, she made her La Scala début in 1950, again as Tosca. She appeared at Covent Garden, also as Tosca; and began to make recordings of her most famous roles, with colleagues such as Jussi Bjoerling and Leonard Warren.
When Sir Rudolf Bing took over from Johnson at the Met, he invited Milanov back to sing Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in Hartford, Connecticut. She returned to her Verdi roles and the “Milanov legend” began in earnest. Milanov continued at the Met until her farewell performance on 13 April 1966, with a final Maddalena.
After leaving the stage, Milanov devoted herself to teaching, to training new singers and “mending” existing voices. She didn’t particularly enjoy teaching; when asked why she bothered, Milanov replied, “Because the hope that some of my knowledge can survive is stronger than me.”
Zinka Milanov died of a stroke, in New York on 30 May 1989.
DISCOGRAPHY (selected recordings)
, Opera D’Oro 1349, 2002
, Grand Tier 4192, 2002 (An opera in which Milanov was not a success.
Zinka Milanov: Portrait
, Minerva 15, 2001 (A good variety of roles and some Croatian songs.
various web sites
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History
. Middlesex, England
: Penguin Books
Rasponi, Lanfranco. The Last Prima Donnas
. New York: Alfred A. Knopf