Author’s Note: This excerpt covers events that occurred during the 1942–43 opera season. It is understood that some names may be unfamiliar to the reader because their introduction takes place at an earlier point in the biographical text—those of certain singers and music critics, for instance; that of Predrag Milanov, Zinka’s husband; that of Milan Herzog, her childhood playmate who also emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, and so forth. However, for the most part, the excerpt stands very well on its own. Caveat: the program available for this document did not include the possibility of putting certain diacritical marks in place on names of Yugoslav origin. There should be an acute accent on the final ‘c’ of the name Mestrovic [Meh-straw-veech]. There should be a hacek on the second ‘s’ in the term Ustase (the Croatian Nazi/fascist movement) [Oo-stah-sheh]. Neither of these diacriticals is possible with the currently operative program.
Desperately necessary wartime fundraising efforts continued to occupy a great deal of Zinka’s time and emotional energy. On 10 December 1942, the eminent American sculptor Malvina Hoffman hosted a late afternoon tea at the headquarters of the United Yugoslav Relief Fund, 11 West Fifty-seventh Street, and designated the soprano honorary chairman as well as guest of honor. Hoffman, now both friend and admirer, first met and heard Zinka sing while living and studying—with the distinguished Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic—in Zagreb in the late1920s. The tea was in conjunction with the Yugoslav Christmas Bazaar, given under the auspices of the New York chapter of the American Friends of Yugoslavia, one of Zinka’s many memberships that was not cited in the FBI’s laundry list of her “questionable associations.” (Hoffman chaired the New York chapter.) Proceeds from the bazaar, at which Zinka was able to make several surprise “in person” appearances because the event went on through Christmas, were given to the Fund. Publicity ran high, with the recently widowed Edith (Mrs. Wendell) Willkie, Hoffman, and Zinka photographed for all the borough’s newspapers assembling packages together that would be sent by the Relief Fund to Yugoslav prisoners of war.
For Mmes Milanov and Hoffman, the concern and activism were by no means academic. Anti-Axis sculptor Mestrovic, being opposed to Italy’s territorial designs on Dalmatia and having snubbed an invitation from Hitler to come to Berlin in the 1930s, was briefly imprisoned by the Ustase, a matter of personal concern to his American former pupil. Only Vatican intervention made his release possible, his prominence prompting actions that led to his survival. Zinka, of course, was worried to death about her family, particularly her father, and had no way of knowing who or how many among her old friends and relations might now fit the designation P.O.W. She had to live with the logical concern that not all could have escaped the ordeal. Trading on her reputation and that of Mestrovic to spur contributions, the Fund sought two million dollars for medical supplies and packages for invalids to be sent through the International Red Cross to the 165,000 Yugoslav prisoners in Germany and Italy.
An unpublicized event of profoundest personal significance also transpired on 10 December 1942: in the late morning of that exceptionally busy day, Zinka and Predrag took out their “First Citizen” papers and gave sworn declarations before a Manhattan district court judge of their intentions to become American citizens. (1) “This was very difficult step in that time. I loved my country very much, but I also loved United States. We could not know what will happen with the war, will we ever be able to go home, will Nazis conquer Yugoslavia or be conquered, could it happen that we could be forced to leave America because we were not citizens. Some good American friends were very worried for my situation, that I was not, as they said, fish or chicken [neither fish nor fowl] in New York, that in many ways to be not a citizen was becoming more and more a disadvantage for me. And so we decided.” This at least put the possibility of citizenship in the pipeline, creating an intention that could be referenced at any time lack of the official status became a barrier in daily life. However, acquiring citizenship was not a process that moved with any kind of alacrity during wartime, in particular where those from “problem” nations were concerned.
Despite taking this major step together, “Things were not going well with Predrag and me. He was a very sick man. He had trouble with his tonsils as a young man. But he didn’t want an operation. Sometimes the speaking voice changes after such an operation. You are well protected when you have tonsils. But this recurred, again and again. It happened when we were in South America and in the Caribbean. He could not recover. He was miserable and angry. His throat hurt so much, it was painful to swallow, no matter if solid or liquid. The real trouble began when a doctor looked at Predrag’s throat, pressing it with a mirror. So much pus shot out that it covered the doctor’s glasses. Predrag’s blood pressure became very high. The pus had gone into the blood, causing an infection. He couldn’t control his temper because of this condition. He was nagging me in a way that bothered my singing.” There were other problems, too. “Predrag had become quite fat, quite heavy,” recalled Milan Herzog, “and he was drinking, that is drinking much more than the normal cocktail or two in the afternoon and glass of wine or two for dinner—much more.…”
The unpredictable Edward Johnson, having hurried to get Zinka back before the public thrice in the season’s first eleven days, then kept her under wraps for more than five weeks. While this may in a certain way have enabled her fundraising activities to proceed unimpeded and given her needed time to deal with Predrag’s deterioration, such assistance was hardly deliberate on the part of Johnson, who showed scant respect for the Metropolitan’s public by declining to schedule her even once during such a long period when she was in town and available. Still, something special was in the offing.
She may have had her hands full at home, but no amount of personal tsoris could stanch the yearning for the release inherent in catapulting her top B-flat out into the huge space of the Metropolitan and enjoying the ardent feedback of the public. That opportunity presented itself at last on 9 January, when she made what amounted to a “second return” in the first staging of Verdi’s Forza del destino in New York since 1935 (when Rethberg was the Leonora). No small part of Zinka’s joy in this development was the fact that she would finally get to sing Verdi again with Maestro Walter. Prior to the commencement of the official rehearsal period (still very short at the Metropolitan, even for a grand revival) and private sessions with the great German conductor, she worked on the score assiduously with a fortyish, Italian-born, Philadelphia-raised repertory coach named Ettore Verna, who had been strongly recommended by no less than Maestro Toscanini. Verna’s studio at 130 West Fifty-sixth Street was frequented both by established professionals like Zinka—Grace Moore was another—and an unusual number of talented younger singers, many of whom were beginning to make careers and reputations right around this time. Though an expert on voice and vocal repertory, Verna was hardly a pianist. Someone else always had to accompany his sessions with singers, leaving the charismatic instructor (including his hands) free to interact with his charges in an immediately physical way and to coax by whatever means possible the ultimate in artistic expression from them.
Forza was an exceptionally important revival, but it was not, as Walter’s biographers state, a “new production.”(2) The 1918 investiture in which the opera received its Metropolitan premiere was still in service. Johnson clearly felt the performance itself would suffice to maintain interest, considering the ensemble of notable singers he was able to assemble in addition to the presence of Walter in the pit. The Metropolitan was operating on the slenderest of shoestrings during the War. The budget allowed for but a single splurge where productions were concerned this season, and that took the form of a new Lucia for Lily Pons. Several other operas were still being seen in their original Met sets and costumes: Boris Godunov and Der Rosenkavalier, both of which were given their U. S. premieres by the company in 1913, appeared this season in exactly the same guises in which they were introduced that first year. Hoariest of all was beloved and indispensable La bohème. Though it had gone through several painterly touchups and any number of stage furniture and costume replacements, the opera was still being put forward in the remnants of its 1900 Met premiere settings. (3)
Bruno Walter had conducted Verdi all his life—Zinka’s debut under his baton in Vienna had been in Verdi—but the Forza constituted his first time leading one of the composer’s works in New York. It may also have been the first time he was ever in charge of the opera itself anywhere: “It is impossible to know with absolute certainty whether Walter conducted this work earlier in his career, where documentation is still spotty; but in all likelihood this was indeed his first performance of Forza.” (4) It is possible “to know with absolute certainty” that this was Zinka’s first performance of Leonora di Vargas, the role she had so coveted seven years before in Zagreb. Unquestionably, “la forza del destino” itself had both caused her to miss singing it then and to have Walter for her conductor when she finally got the opportunity to perform it. The maestro used the common German emendation (attributed to Franz Werfel) of placing the overture, one of Verdi’s most rousing, between the opening scene in the Calatrava palace and that of the inn at Hornachuelos. He conducted as if he had lived and breathed Forza for years, and that is exactly how his prima donna sang it as well.
“Her delivery of ‘Pace, pace’ was tonally transparent and vibrantly warm, and in the closing trio, one of the finest things in all of Verdi, her voice floated forth with those exquisite pianissimi which only Mme Milanov commands. The soprano sang the entire closing scene ravishingly,” went Bohm’s appraisal in the Herald Tribune. (5) Douglas Watt summed up for the Daily News, “Zinka Milanov in the role of Leonora distinguished herself by the most beautiful singing we have ever heard at the Met. In her third-act ‘Pace, pace’ aria, the Jugoslavian soprano simply left the weary opera completely behind and created a world of pure and lovely sound. Her performance throughout transcended anything else that took place on the stage.” (6)
One of the most famous of all Milanov-in-character photographs is this one taken by DeBellis at the time of her first-ever assumption of the role of Leonora in Forza del destino, at the Met in 1943.
Most of her colleagues came in for praise as well (if not quite as purple), principally Pinza. The only member of the cast to have sung his role previously with the company, his “noble portrayal of the serene but consoling abbot” was admired anew. (7) The irresistible Irra Petina as the camp follower Preziosilla fit ably into what Kolodin called Walter’s “ensemble of the first order,” and Baccaloni “did one of his characteristic feats in transforming Melitone from a small part to merely a short big one.” (8) The tenor on this occasion was “that dreadful Baum,” the man Zinka thought she’d never have to sing with again when she came to America. “Czech by birth, German by training, an Italian tenor by inclination,” (9) Baum had followed her to the States in 1939, another Jewish musician escaping inevitably unspeakable circumstances where he was living. Still a leading artist in Prague at the time of the Munich Pact in September 1938, he got out before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, then made his way in stages to southern Europe, ending up in Monte Carlo. Heard there and offered an engagement by Paul Longone, director of the Chicago City Opera Company (operative title of the organization then performing opera in Chicago), Baum made his American debut in the Windy City on 2 November 1939 as Radamès opposite the Aida of Rose Bampton. (10) He was almost forty. (11) The Metropolitan didn’t welcome him until the season of 1941–42, the one preceding that of the Forza revival.
Baum made his Met debut on 27 November 1941 as the Italian Tenor in Rosenkavalier, at the end of whose showpiece aria (which constitutes the entire role) he interpolated a long-sustained high D-flat, instead of ending on the written note an octave lower. This caused something of a sensation. His eight performances during that introductory season included three repetitions of the Tenor and four appearances on the Sunday Night Concert series. Don Alvaro therefore marked his New York “debut” as a tenor singing a leading role. Noel Straus of the Times “was unstinting in his praise of Baum’s ‘voice of beautiful timbre,’ clear quality, and warmth,” virtues seldom thereafter attributed to it. (12) Zinka found him just as he had been in Prague: “Nervous, pompous, and difficult.” On the other hand, Pinza behaved himself for a change. “In Don Giovanni he would have his hands all over me every time he could. Here, no. After all, he was playing the father superior, so he had no choice, he had to be chaste!” Tibbett, for so long the Metropolitan’s go-to baritone for Verdi, was by this time, vocally, a shadow of his former self, particularly in the matter of volume. Moreover, the hollow, wooden sound he now made was deployed only through a labored and strained emission that made it impossible to disguise the degree of stress he was under to produce it. Without the back-up of the full, vibrant tone he once poured forth profligately, Tibbett’s dramatic involvement was exposed as being more stagy than apt. (13) Still, “The opera attracted a huge audience, which was roused to unusual enthusiasm by the general excellence of the interpretation.” (14)
Though he had acceded to Maestro Walter’s preference for Milanov as Leonora, Johnson was determined to punish her obstinacy over the contract negotiations that brought her back to the fold. Accordingly, he scheduled Stella Roman to sing her first American Forza on the broadcast matinee of 23 January (only the opera’s second performance of the season) exactly two weeks after the premiere, giving Zinka the evening Aida on that date instead. He was nothing if not shrewd. Doubtless to avoid the appearance of a specific bias, he pulled the leading man, too. Like a dolphin ensnared in a tuna fisher’s net, Baum was swept on deck alongside Zinka for evening chores as Radamès—his first at the Met—with no rehearsal of any kind. (15) In a case of insult added to injury, Kolodin dismissed the tenor’s effort as “unimpressive.” (16) The stalwart, always reliably musical and expressively involved Jagel ventured Alvaro (which he had last sung in 1928) for the radio audience, which also heard Pinza, Baccaloni, and Petina in their proper places and in fine fettle. Walter’s biographers, putting it gracefully, confirm that “neither [Jagel nor Roman] quite lived up to the praise lavished on their predecessors.” (17) Kolodin eschewed circumspection: “The ensemble was hardly what it had been [at the premiere].” (18)
The one artist who should have been replaced for the airwaves was of course the very one who could not be. Tibbett’s relationship with Johnson, with whom he had sung in many a historically important Met performance, was too close and extended too far back. Having accepted the erroneous premise that his old colleague could add Don Carlo to his repertory at this point in his life and sing it acceptably, Johnson could not deny Tibbett the broadcast any more than he could have given the premiere to someone else. But Warren, who sang the role for the first time in his career in the third Forza, on 11 February (when Milanov and Baum were back in their original places, Johnson’s revenge having been exacted), was now very much Tibbett’s superior as a vocalist.
When Johnson appeared in her dressing room prior to the consolation-prize Saturday night Aida, he discovered Zinka in no mood to make him the welcome visitor he imagined he ought to be. The reception on the part of the evening's prima donna was polite but decidedly chilly. "Aren't you happy?" he demanded. Yes, she said, she was happy as far as having yet another Aida performance was concerned, but she would be much happier if she had been able to sing the Forza broadcast that afternoon with Maestro Walter. This was not at all the desired response and, as always, her candor infuriated Johnson. "If you don't like it, you can go back to Czechoslovakia!" he snapped. She thanked him for coming to wish her well, took him by the arm, and all but threw him out of the dressing room, slamming the door behind him. For the rest of her life she told the story of this insult, whenever Johnson’s name was mentioned. "Imagine, to say such a thing to an artist!" was her eternal comment on an occurrence over which her indignation never left her. The matter might have ended there, to remain forever one of Zinka’s career anecdotes—but an innocent bystander happened upon the exchange, which therefore became an “incident.”
Anna Kaskas—summoned to the house because Mme Castagna was feeling under the weather and uncertain of her ability to go on as Amneris—arrived to extend greetings just in time to overhear Johnson’s remark clearly and to witness his expulsion from the dressing room. Kaskas knocked at the closed door, but when Zinka admitted her, she was too nonplussed to let on that she had seen and heard what happened. Zinka, she said, was "flustered, but glad to see me and went back right away to the business of getting in the mood to sing Aida. We didn't talk about what had just occurred at all. But I’ll never forget it." (19) As she recalled it a full half-century later, Kaskas's indignation almost matched Zinka's own, for she had misunderstood the general manager's reference. When later repeating the story to others, she conveyed her astonishment over the fact that Johnson did not know the difference between a Czech and a Yugoslav. Zinka's background, she thought, was really quite well known: “You know, the whole Ternina connection and both of them being Yugoslavian and all that.” (20) Max Rudolf, who joined the Met musical staff several seasons after the Forza revival and does not officially enter this narrative as a participant for a few years yet, said, “This is just like Johnson to do and say something like this, to pull a temper tantrum with a nervous artist backstage before a performance. I personally saw it a number of times with different singers.” (21)
Particularly stunned by Johnson's apparent stupidity was Jarmila Novotna, who of course was Czech. It negatively colored her relationship with him ever after she heard about it. At a dinner party at Licia Albanese's forty years later (27 May 1983), Jarmila and I were seated next to each other. She, sharing various reminiscences, related the story of Edward Johnson's unforgivable gaffe in telling Zinka where she could go if she wasn't content at the Metropolitan. Great was her surprise, to put it mildly, when I told her that Johnson's reference had not been to Zinka's own nationality but to the fact that he first heard her and signed her to a contract in Prague!
The Forza of 12 March 1943 featured a cast that covered several generations of operatic greatness: Martinelli (debut 1910) as Alvaro, Pinza (1914) as Guardiano, Baccaloni (1922) as Melitone, Milanov (1927) as Leonora, and Warren (1938) as Carlo. Much of Alvaro’s music put a considerable strain upon Martinelli’s worn resources, but Warren nonetheless reported ever after that it was one of the “greatest thrills” of his life to see the “grand old tenor lie flat and immobile as they sang their battle scene duet. Martinelli’s feeling and intensity remained in Warren’s mind even years later.” (22) Withal, Martinelli’s distress was not as great as that of Tibbett—Johnson was careful not to schedule the two together in this opera—nor did he leave as negative an impression with the audience, for he still retained an ineffable nobility of voice in his arsenal of artistic virtues. Tibbett had lost even that. (23) Martin Mayer’s summation, though harsh, is not unreasonable: “Affection kept Tibbett on stage for a decade after liquor had cost him his voice.” (24)
For the time being, Johnson remained the perspicacious businessman. Whatever his private thoughts about Mme Milanov—and they cannot have been pleasant—he wasn't going to put the Met in the position of trying to get along without her as it had been necessary to do the previous season, or of trying to persuade Maestro Walter that the available alternates for her roles (no longer including the departed Rethberg) were of equal ability. He did enjoy one final, none-too-subtle bit of vengeance for having been manhandled in her dressing room, however. He simply separated Zinka and Forza permanently, for he returned the opera to the repertory the following season (its last during his administration) and assigned every performance of it, including another broadcast, to Roman.
Quotations from Zinka Milanov herself are not individually cited because (as explained at the beginning of the Notes section in the complete biography) unless otherwise indicated, all of them date from many hours of taped conversations between author and subject that took place during the last month of her life, May 1989, in New York City.
Copyright © 2013 Bruce Burroughs
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