Zinka Milanov (real name Kunc) sprang from a musical family: her father was the bandmaster Rudolf Kunc, her brother Bozidar a pianist and composer who often accompanied her in recitals, while an uncle also composed songs for her. Having begun singing as a child, she gave her first recital in Zagreb at the age of fifteen and studied initially at the Zagreb Music Academy with the distinguished Wagnerian soprano Milka Ternina and later with Maria Kostrenčić in Zagreb, Fernando Carpi in Milan and Jacques Stückgold in Berlin.
In 1927 Milanov made her operatic stage debut, as Leonora / Il trovatore at the Ljubljana Opera; five weeks later she sang for the first time at the Zagreb National Theatre as Marguerite / Faust. Although she appeared with the Dresden Opera in 1928 as Leonora and later sang also in Hamburg and Prague, she continued to perfect her technique with Ternina and sang almost exclusively at Ljubljana and Zagreb for the next seven years in roles such as Sieglinde / Die Walküre, the Marschallin / Der Rosenkavalier, Rachel / La Juive and Minnie / La fanciulla del West. Her key opportunity came in 1936 when she sang the title role in Aida with Bruno Walter conducting at the Vienna State Opera. Walter, impressed by her voice, recommended her to Toscanini for his performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. Here she was heard by Edward Johnson, then general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York: he immediately recognised her potential and offered her a contract.
At the Met Milanov made her debut in December 1937, taking the name of her second husband, the Yugoslav actor and director Predrag Milanov, who served as her dramatic coach for many years. After a short settling-down period her superb vocal gifts were fully recognised and she became an especially admired and well-loved member of the Met’s ensemble for the rest of her career, giving 319 performances of fourteen roles over twenty-five seasons, as well as a further 127 performances with the company on tour. Although Milanov became an American citizen in 1946, the following year she left the company for a short while to live in Yugoslavia upon marrying for the third time. She returned however in 1951, invited by Rudolf Bing in his first year as general manager. Her key roles included Aida, the title roles in La Gioconda, Norma and Tosca, Amelia / Un ballo in maschera, Donna Anna / Don Giovanni, Santuzza / Cavalleria rusticana, Leonora / La forza del destino, Maddalena / Andrea Chénier, Elvira / Ernani, Desdemona / Otello and Amelia / Simon Boccanegra. Milanov gave her farewell performance at the Met in 1966, as Maddalena, immediately prior to the closure of the old Met, saying: ‘It is better to go away on two legs rather than on one.’
When at the height of her powers she made her debut at La Scala, Milan in 1950 as Tosca. Milanov also appeared at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires between 1940 and 1942, at Rio de Janeiro in 1940, 1941 and 1946, at San Francisco and Chicago, debuts in 1943 and 1940 respectively. At the Royal Opera House, London she appeared as Tosca in 1956, returning as both Leonora and Tosca in 1957.
Having worked as a voice teacher while still active as a performer, Milanov devoted herself to teaching after her retirement. Among her pupils were Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Regina Resnik, Régine Crespin and Anna Moffo. Famous off-stage for her wit, when a fan told her after a performance that her voice was ‘pure silver,’ she immediately responded, ‘Gold. It was pure gold.’
Certainly it was a voice of great beauty as well as power with which Milanov was able to spin out pianissimo phrases of extraordinary beauty. On stage she looked back to an earlier time of dramatic simplicity, but was still able to dominate the action through her majestic deportment.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).