The Book: Trials, Tribulations, and Delays or Are you a Complete Incompetent?

                                               Adapted from the Preface to Zinka: The Life of Zinka Milanov

After the obsequies and the tears and the return to the West Coast (as Zinka’s ashes went in the opposite direction, back to the Balkans with Ljubo), work had to begin in earnest. It has been neither easy (not remotely so) nor has it gone anything like quickly. The years of our friendship produced countless lengthy, interesting conversations (I wanted to know everything and Zinka enjoyed talking about herself), usually recorded right away and in detail in my journal. To this real treasure trove upon which I could draw for her biography could now be added the many hours of more specifically organized taped exchanges from the last month of her life. These elements provided a foundation for a much more intensive and seemingly endless amount of research around the world and for the gathering of the vital memories and commentary of others.

Outrageous delays and adversities have loomed again and again over the project, threatening to swamp it, as though it exists in the middle of some eternal literary hurricane season. These obstacles have taken many forms, including the reluctance of our government (as represented by a few of its legion of highly specialized bureaucrats) to abide by its own Freedom of Information Act in a timely fashion and without betraying the Congress’s instruction that it could not redact data simply because promulgation of same might cause embarrassment to one of its agencies; the author’s inability to get many of his subject’s fellow countrymen to distinguish between demonstrable, indisputable truth and fact and their long-established, sharply honed, contradictory “Zinka mythology”; the devastation wrought by the Second World War upon archives and libraries in Europe, often necessitating elaborate and circuitous routes to indispensable information that was no longer physically extant in the venues from which it would most logically be retrieved, something I came to call “data bypass surgery”; the political and ethnic chaos that shortly after her death turned Zinka’s native land into “the former Yugoslavia” (that is, dissolved the amalgamated nation and allowed its distinct parts to revert to their historic individuality), portions of which, as anyone who read a newspaper or watched a newscast during most of the 1990s knows, went on for years as war-torn, dangerous (and definitely inhospitable-to-researchers) territories; and the constant hindrance to progress created by the author’s incurable ill health and permanent inability to travel. Thus has a work that might have taken three to five years, were the subject American, grown into a more than two-decade-long undertaking.…

The dedicated biographer has many difficult choices to make, few of which are legitimately called to the attention of his readers. These generally have to do with what to include and what to leave out of his work, a fairly straightforward matter. Yet sometimes the dilemma is startlingly moral in nature. Should mention be made of the celebrated American pianist, equally noted for his distinguished artistry and personal flamboyance, who brags of a relationship with Zinka as well as the considerable career accomplishment of having performed with her, when there is no evidence to support either claim? His reference to many delicious Milanov anecdotes “of a personal nature,” implying a bonanza of previously unknown material, ups the ante considerably. A discreet inquiry regarding the pianist’s willingness to share even a few details of the relationship, the performance(s), and the intimate stories alleged—so that a proper judgment might be made about whether such data could possibly be authenticated and thus merit a place “on the record” in Mme Milanov’s authorized biography, no other sources having been found to corroborate any involvement at all between the two artists—produced the response, conveyed by the elderly man’s caretaker/amanuensis when refusing an interview request on his behalf, that all such matters are reserved exclusively for the pianist’s own memoirs: “We wouldn’t want [him] to be scooped, now would we?” The bemused observer is left to wonder aloud if there isn’t just more Milanov apocrypha on the way, and to state with complete confidence that any relationship not referred to in this biography where the soprano’s American years are concerned (I would not be entirely comfortable making the same claim regarding the three decades of her life before she came to the United States) cannot have been of consequence.

Every performer, no matter how great, receives—perhaps it would be less prejudicial to say earns—bad reviews during a lengthy career. These are among the least salubrious aspects of life before the public with which all musicians must cope. The author, to be evenhanded, must include the most important examples of such notices right alongside the positive ones, to give a balanced view of the ongoing evaluation of an artist’s abilities and stature. But what about those reviews published by a critic with fine credentials who obsessively loathed this biography’s artist-subject and wrote accordingly? Because some of his writings have passed into operatic mythology, their omission would cast serious doubts upon the biographer’s credibility, and so they must appear. But—yes, another “but”—what if the biographer is aware that the critic (a gentleman just as elderly and infirm as the famous pianist noted above at the time of this writing), in his prime, enjoyed going to parties in drag, obscenely padded, as an obese dramatic soprano he christened “Stinka” and whom he held up to ridicule, sometimes in the same week that he was writing devastating appraisals in the press of the singing of her real-life counterpart? Is the critic’s own objectivity not then called very much into question? The answer is that it is, absolutely, but that his reviews must still be included. In this particular situation, Zinka will have to take her lumps.

The biased reviewer does not constitute the only instance in which lump-taking becomes inevitable. One of the wonders of the Internet age is a massive venture known as Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia project that, in its ultimate form, will apparently seek to make accessible virtually all of mankind’s cumulative knowledge. The rub here is that anyone, whether or not truly qualified and whether or not possessed of correct information, may contribute an entry, or call up an already extant one and “edit” it, no questions asked, no credentials demanded, no requirement of proof of proper research in place, and no need to attach a name to the handiwork left on the site. If no responsibility is taken for the most outré insertions, no one can be called on the carpet for leaving deliberately false or libelous data. Thus, no recourse to redress any terrible wrong exists. When an interested browser seeks out the Zinka Milanov entry in Wikipedia, he or she finds, following a relatively accurate, bland summation of the lady’s career, a separate section entitled “Relationship with Tito,” which beggars description as an example of false “facts” and incorrect information. All that’s necessary to pass muster, evidently, is to couch defamations of character in adverbial ambiguity (“Zinka reportedly…”) or invoke hearsay “evidence” (“There are anecdotes of…”). The antidote to this individual example of a scurrilous practice—the perpetuation of the “Zinka mythology” alluded to above—will be found in this biography.

Like all effective antidotes, this one comes from a completely outfitted (if not exactly state-of-the art) “laboratory.” With the advantages of being well known in the profession to which Zinka dedicated her existence and of being accepted in the various circles of associates closest to her, I have been able to assure for her biography the complete (and exclusive) cooperation of her surviving colleagues, family members, and friends (some of whose relationships with her dated back to the period of World War I); the legal department of RCA Victor (her record company); the surviving archives of opera companies on three continents; the civic fathers and cultural historians of her native city of Zagreb, Croatia; the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University; government documents acquired through the decade-and-a-half long, teeth-pulling process required for the acquisition of data through the FOIA, already referred to; and other important sources too numerous to name here. Of one of the most obvious of these, it is important to note that not only is friendship no barrier to a truthful biography, the association of subject and writer, the long exposure of the latter to the former, actually honed my understanding and grasp of the difficult, intriguing, deceptively “simple” yet utterly complex nature about which I am writing, which is therefore not misrepresented. The legally binding contract into which she and I entered, and which is now binding between her estate and me, was not arranged without good reason, good faith, and due and proper consideration on both parts.…

Unfortunately, received wisdom, or anyway, received pessimism, now states that because Zinka’s book is still unfinished and we are already three years beyond her centennial and twenty since her death, it will simply be too late when it is done. Everyone who loved and admired her will be dead, no one will care, its “commercial appeal time” has elapsed, it is an outcome that will be dead in the water. Perhaps. But what if that isn’t the case? What if, like the authorized Björling and Warren biographies, which appeared, respectively, thirty-six and forty years after their subjects’ deaths, Zinka’s is just as welcome? In its own way, it is certainly just as important.

She has never stopped being talked about on Internet opera chat lines, during the Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermission features, or in reviews of new recordings and live performances. Her place in operatic history is secure and not diminished by any of the changes that have occurred since her retirement. The Met’s exciting policy, instituted during its 2006-07 season, of airing historic broadcast performances on a daily basis over the Sirius network, has brought her voice in its vibrant, “live, onstage” state to countless new admirers. Moreover, her legacy of commercial recordings, the last of which was released fifty years ago, still boasts a legion of admiring adherents. The date of Saturday, 18 February 2006, marked the final day of Los Angeles classical music radio station KUSC’s annual fundraising drive. The station’s special gift for those who made the $180.00 annual membership pledge was, in the words of redoubtable announcer Jim Sweda, “the greatest Aida recording ever made,” the fifty-one-year-old RCA Victor performance with Milanov in the title role. Sweda subsequently went even farther, calling the album “one of the six greatest recordings of any opera ever made—easily—and in fact one of the three greatest recordings of an Italian opera ever made.”(1) He also guaranteed that anyone receiving this Aida who did not agree could keep it but return his or her pledge card and that he, personally, would refund the full amount of the pledge, so confident was he of the profound impact it would have on the uninitiated. (No one ever called upon him to make good on his vow.)

That same day, quite independently (she was not listening to the radio at all), Shirley Windward, not the first great American poet to be so inspired, called to read aloud her latest opus:

“Mourning Zinka on a Spring Evening, 2006.”

“-- and who remembers Zinka?” says a musical friend
with wry and wrinkled brow.
“Who remembers her these days?
Certainly, no one in this grim morass where we wallow now.”
Wrong. Wrong. I remember. I contemplate the spirit
that haunts this narrow room with warm-breath perfume.
I sink into the moist afterglow of her Croatian kiss
on my cheek when she was pleased with
a keyboard rendition of Schumann Lieder;
I recall that throaty Slavic twist on every language
she touched with her tongue, and beyond all, in my
inner ear, I remember as if blood-linked
the stab, the soaring, the milk-silver glissando
of her incomparable voice.

Still a part of the consciousness even of television drama series writers, she was cited with pride by a fictional operatic maestro, “Philip Reinhardt,” on the 9 April 2006 first-run episode of NBC’s “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” The maestro, accused (but innocent) of murder, responds to a medical examiner’s statement that a performance of Aida he conducted five years earlier had been one of the great nights of her life by rattling off his credentials as a representative of that opera. One particularly important qualification is that he has led Milanov in it. The distinguished British actor Julian Sands (born 1958) played a character impossibly young to make such a claim, but that fantasy element of the script would escape the notice of all but the most knowledgeable of opera lovers—and who’s to complain about a bit of fantasy when it is so respectful? (2) Any maestro actively leading the operas of Verdi in the current generation might well long to have a Milanov onstage in front of him instead of the soprano he’s got.

In 2006, 2007, and 2008 Milanov recordings were reissued on the Preiser and Nimbus labels (the latter presenting her in two solo albums in its “Prima Voce” series), while the BBC and Royal Opera have re-upped in new editions several historic performances in which she participated in London. On 15 March 2009, at the Metropolitan Opera gala performance celebrating the 125th anniversary of the company’s existence, in one segment of the evening’s proceedings huge photographs of just eighteen prima donnas in the Met’s history—out of the scores of divas possible—hung onstage as backdrop to the contemporary singers holding forth live on the occasion. There was Zinka, as well she should have been, on the first row, stage right, justly part of an illustrious, exclusive group that reached back as far as Melba (top row, second from stage left).

True, not everyone shares in the enthusiasm for honoring this giant of operatic history. As recently as 8 August 2009, an unhappy gentleman indulged himself in a one-line hissy fit on a much-traveled Internet opera chat line: “Zinka Milanov was not the reason why this list was created!” (3) Though he was responding to no particular post or thread (she had not recently been a subject), the disgruntled fellow is of course correct, meaning he has the righteousness factor on his side. Still, he sidesteps an equally important truth entirely (as those prone to such outbursts invariably do): she’s still as good a reason—one might perhaps better say, starting point—as any other. (Next day, another poster asked, “She….uh….wasn’t?” and several others took up the matter, chastising the original writer tongue-in-cheek.) The more important verity is that the list was also not created to denigrate, belittle, or otherwise dismiss her or others of previous vocal generations, options occasionally exercised by those frustrated at the degree of affection with which a Milanov is remembered and missed. If no soprano of today in the heaviest operas of the Italian repertory is capable of living up to, let alone eradicating Zinka’s memory, just how exactly does that become the fault of the deceased?

So I am pressing on in spite of being on the downside of the invisible but still somehow palpable “viability curve,” in spite of the pessimism, in spite of the nay-saying, in spite of the two lost publication contracts (Northeastern University Press went belly up, and its successor—in the read-between-the-lines words of the demoted chief editor, “We’ve come under new direction”—lost interest, despite the fact that our contract included an amount of author subvention that would defray nearly all costs and the fact that I was building such a fund), and most of all in spite of my own severe physical limitations, because with the end actually in sight, when all is said and done, in my heart of hearts I believe Zinka will still have something to say and offer and that her book will be one of the most truly interesting ones ever written about an opera singer. (November, 2009).

 

Notes

1. The 1953 de Sabata Tosca (EMI) and the 1956 Beecham Bohème (originally on RCA) were the others cited.
2. Coincidentally, the year of Sands’ birth is that of Milanov’s last public appearance as Aida.
3. The Internet listserv in question goes by the title Opera-L.

 

 

© Bruce Burroughs 2017