Born: May 17, 1906 in Zagreb
Dead: May 30, 1989 in New York
Genre: Opera, Choral Music
With her stately stage deportment and unflappable sense of her own greatness, Milanov was one of the last great divas, quick to tell the story of admirers who came to see her in La Gioconda just to hear her float her famous pianissimo B flat at the end of the first act. She was and remains one of opera's cult figures.
She was born Zinka Kunc (koontz) and used that name until she married actor Predrag Milanov in 1937. In Croatia, she studied with Milka Ternina and later with Fernando Carpi in Prague. Her opera debut was as Leonora in Il trovatore in Ljubljana in 1927, and became a lead soprano with the Zagreb Opera, often traveling to sing in other parts of Europe. In 1936, Milanov had her big break when she sang Aida under Bruno Walter in Vienna. Walter was immediately taken by her voice and recommended her to Toscanini for his Salzburg performance of the Verdi Requiem. (According to one story, Toscanini became irritated with her phrasing and told her, in Italian, "If you had musicianship to equal your voice, you would be the greatest singer in the world." Milanov's Italian not being fluent at that point, and already with a healthy ego, she heard just the "greatest singer in the world," and bowed, responding with a heartfelt "Thank you, maestro," much to the orchestra's bewilderment.) She made her Met debut in 1937 as Leonora in Il trovatore, and was soon one of the house's most beloved sopranos, singing 298 performances there. Her Chicago debut was in 1940 as Aida. Her La Scala debut was not until 1950 as Tosca, and her Covent Garden debut even later, again as Tosca, in 1956. She gave her farewell performance in 1966 as Maddalena di Coigny in Andrea Chenier at the Met. In 1977, she began her career as a teacher at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
She was famous off stage for her bon mots. When a fan told her after a performance that her voice was "pure silver," she immediately responded, "Gold. It was pure gold." Another soprano who sang Tosca and mildly injured herself in the last-act leap from the battlements was told, "Darling, I knew that role was too high for you." Her sense of humor did not, however, extend to tolerating lese-majeste. When Lily Tomlin, the comedian, was asked by a reporter who her understudy was, and answered, "Uhhh...Zinka Milanov!," instead of taking it as a tribute to her wit, Milanov sued for "damage to her professional reputation."
Among her recordings, the RCA Il trovatore (GD 86643) displays her voice at its formidable best. While the coloratura is imprecise, and her phrasing sometimes unincisive, the power and lushness she possessed at her peak are well captured here.
-Ann Feeney (All Music Guide)