What Others Say about Zinka in this book

Zinka Milanov on the cover of a 1943 artist's brochure

                                                                           Cover of 1943 artist’s brochure

These quotations, citations, and paraphrases are often representative of longer statements or event descriptions that have been edited for presentation here. All will be found complete in the biographical text, where, of course, they occur within a relevant context. These remarks also constitute what is commonly referred to as “a drop in the bucket.” Much more material exists where they came from. It shouldn’t be imagined that what’s reported here is either the only thing a given person had to say about Zinka (in several cases, they are actually amalgamations of remarks spoken or written at different times by one of the quoted individuals), or even the most significant thing. The results of more than three hundred interviews conducted in the course of research, added to the material garnered from already published or public sources, yielded countless fascinating observations, most of which surrender their full meaning and implications only in that “relevant context.” Yet what appears below does not offer the true height of fascination—what Zinka herself thought of each of these and many other associates, revered or otherwise. Those remarkable evaluations await discovery in her biography. Enjoy the samples:

FDR told Zinka that the aria she sang at the White House Correspondents dinner was not only too short, but so beautiful he wished she had sung it twice.

Harry S Truman said to her, “Miss [Helen] Traubel said you had a ‘fine’ voice. After hearing you sing, it seems to me she understated it a good bit. ‘Magnificent’ is more like it!”

Josip Broz (Marshal Tito) declared her “A National Treasure” and “The greatest of all my ambassadors.”

Artur Bodanzky: “Most wonderful voice, phantastic [sic] in expression and range.”

Arturo Toscanini: “Our Verdi would have loved this voice.…I have rarely heard such a soprano for Verdi.…If I would conduct again the complete Rigoletto, she would be my Gilda.”

Bruno Walter, signing himself “Your true old friend,” wrote to her concerning her “rendition of Verdi’s Requiem, which I have always considered an ideal fulfillment of the demands of this part.”

Fiorello H. LaGuardia, after her first Metropolitan Opera Aida, rushed backstage to proffer his ardent declaration of admiration for her “utterly magnificent singing” and a promise that he would be back as often as he could when she appeared—a promise he faithfully kept.

Amelita Galli-Curci wrote to her, “I am just through hearing you in Tosca via radio, and I must tell you that you thrilled me to the bones! Such a beautiful, healthy, warm voice, plus a magnificent artistic temperament, which also shows in your superb recitatives—all so very spontaneous! The mark of a real artist! I thank you for it all and God bless you!”

Lotte Lehmann: “I was one of so many musicians who went with great excitement to hear Toscanini conduct Verdi’s Requiem in Carnegie Hall.…The young woman [he] told about, of course, this was Milanov, and she sang that part, you could say, “to take your breath away.” This is especially a difficult part. To sing it you must have such a control, such a big artistic confidence. Bruno Walter always said, for years, that she was the one person he felt knew how to make this music as it should be. This I, too, believe, not just because he said it but because I also heard it with my own ears.”

Rosa Ponselle: “I will say emphatically that her Leonora in Trovatore, among other roles she sang splendidly, was the peer of any soprano's in my experience. (Yes, my own included.) .…Milanov's was an amazingly beautiful voice.…In the end, she earned a place in operatic history and it was an Olympian one.”

Giovanni Martinelli: “She came like a bolt out of heaven—the voice and the young woman, both so vibrant and exciting. We knew something great had come into [the Met’s] the Italian wing. What was not obvious at the beginning was that she would have such a staying power, for she gave so much in her singing.…I was present years later on her great anniversaries and she sang at mine [the fiftieth anniversary of his Met debut, 1963]. She was incomparable. She was like a vocal sorceress singing the Otello arias that night. Such a roar went up from the public, I can never forget it.”

Eva Turner (embracing her after the Martinelli fiftieth anniversary gala): “Yours is the greatest singing I have heard for many and many a year!”

Alexander Kipnis: “In the dramatic Italian roles, the greatest soprano I ever sang with was Zinka Milanov.…Milanov had one of the greatest voices of this century…she had such power, such dramatic drive in her voice—and she had such pure top tones, including a pianissimo even on the high C, if she wanted.”

Lily Pons (on a card sent with roses): “Chérie! Ce soir, vous chanterez comme un ange!!”

Bidú Sayão: “I am her very, very great admirator.…She had a so great voice that you could be thrilled every moment she is singing. She was my dear colleague and friend, a joyful person, and every time we go together somewhere, all the sopranos from my time, and she is not there, this is very sad for me. I miss her very much.”

Virgil Thomson: “[She] is now singing with a beauty unmatched among the sopranos of this country.…with Miss Milanov’s truly wondrous vocal beauty to embellish the whole, [the performance of Don Giovanni] became…a humane communication of unusual power.”

Rudolf Bing: “There are some words which retain their meaning only when used sparingly. ‘Great’ is such a word. But tonight I feel on safe ground. I know everybody will agree that Zinka Milanov is a great—a supremely great—singer.”

Francis Robinson (referring to the early years of the Bing administration): "Zinka Milanov kept the doors of the Metropolitan Opera open!"

Dimitri Mitropoulos: “Prima donna del mondo!”

Dino Yannopoulos: “[Her] movement was all from emotion, never from thought. If you could get into her frame of mind, she could actually be quite moving. If not, you found it more of the silent film variety of acting, in which pantomime had to make up for the lack of sound. But of course Milanov had the advantage of the sound to go with the pantomime, and her acting and her singing were of a piece. She always knew what the character’s situation was emotionally, and she could convey it so rightly in the sound, the inflection—she had the greatest dynamic range, from soft to loud, of any singer perhaps there has ever been. She was nonetheless difficult to work with because if you told her something that went against how she felt a certain moment, there was resistance, often, I might say, terminal resistance.…About the time you were so exasperated that you couldn’t go on, she would sing something so magnificently that it didn’t matter at all what she did at the same time. I am the director, and I state that heresy. So very often people who moved more fluidly, more realistically, did not have in the sound, in the voice, the real meaning. They were no less lacking than the singer who was not a first-rate actor.”

José Quintero: “I would make any concession for a voice such as hers, absolutely any.”

Maria Callas: “I was afraid she could see straight through me. If you have any false part, as an artist or a person, she will see it. She cannot be fooled. She was gracious, but still I was quite intimidated.”

Renata Tebaldi said that if Zinka had made her debut in Milano as the Forza Leonora, “La Scala would never have allowed her to leave the theater.”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf called her “a genius.”

Mario Del Monaco addressed her respectfully on many occasions as “Maestra di canta,” especially as they came offstage together after singing the tomb scene of Aida. During rehearsals for that scene and for the final scene of Ernani, to name but two examples, he was observed frequently requesting her assistance in learning how to sing certain passages softly.

Licia Albanese: “Ah, Milanov, the great Milanov. You must know that for me it was the queen of voices.”

Risë Stevens (on hearing her Aida in Prague): “It was the Nile scene that did it. Never in my life have I heard a pianissimo like that, or the pure vocal control she had. Harriet [Henders, American soprano] and I used to sit up in the balcony for every one of Zinka's performances and just marvel at her singing. When we came to Prague, we didn't expect to hear anything like that. Of course, I had heard wonderful Aidas in New York—Rethberg, for instance—as a Juilliard student who went to [performances at] the Met. But Zinka's voice made such a direct connection with you. I would say the way that sound came out into the opera house and just pulsated all around you, that was electrifying.”

Regina Resnik: “That great voice would resound around the Metropolitan Opera House long after she halted the note. Forte or piano, it didn’t matter—either one. I don’t have to put on a record to hear her voice when I want to, either. I can call that sound to mind any time I want just in my head. That’s what being unforgettable means.”

Richard Tucker (from an interview): “The ebullient…tenor…took the occasion of his 20th [Met] anniversary this month to pay ardent tribute to Zinka Milanov because ‘her impetus made every performance exciting and wonderful.…It’s a matter of temperament,’ he added. ‘You need someone to bring it out in you.’”

Robert Merrill: “The most glorious dramatic soprano I ever sang with!”

Giuseppe Di Stefano: “There was not a greater soprano or singer. To say there was, I tell you it is not correct. She had rivals, not superiors. If she was trouble, it is because she wanted everything to be beautiful, that she is afraid someone betrays [doesn’t sing on] her level.…I can say that I am very happy that I have two beautiful recordings with Zinka, this has always given me great pleasure. Also, she is a model of the style in each opera [Forza and Gioconda]. She is not Italian, but she understands everything. Everything!”

Tito Gobbi pronounced her “The great and beautiful Zinka Milanov” after making his Met debut as Scarpia opposite her Tosca, and then took to sending large baskets of flowers to her dressing room for her future performances, though they never again sang together.

Giulietta Simionato: “…I positively aver that if she had performed with regularity in Italy, she would have been adored by this most discerning and fanatical of publics.…In her presence, certain other sopranos would not have been ranked supreme in the Italian theaters. This I emphatically assure you.”

Franco Corelli: “She was a wonderful singer. I admired her beauty. I also admired her style and technique. She had a voice that was both free and beautiful. I loved to sing with her.”

Dorothy Kirsten: “I always listened very carefully to what Zinka said. She was completely level-headed. When she told me that the part of Lisa in Queen of Spades was always sung by a dramatic soprano in Europe, and that she had sung it in her early days, I knew right away why it had been uncomfortable for me, and I never touched it again. I also knew that I should never touch Elizabeth [sic] in Don Carlo, even though Mr. Bing offered it to me. I said to myself, ‘If there is something about this part that Zinka doesn’t like, I should never go near it!’ She was the shining example of knowing what you should sing, of sticking to what was right for your voice.”

Leonie Rysanek: “…I always admired a beautiful voice, and hers was a beautiful, beautiful voice. I liked to hear her, so I saw quite a lot of her. I saw Chénier, Gioconda, Otello, Tosca, Forza, everything; when I was in town and she sang, I went.…”

Leontyne Price (telegram): “I salute as a fellow traveler the legend of you, the majesty of your career, the greatness of your artistry, and I thank you for the inspiration you have given me. Love and profound admiration, Leontyne”

Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge: (She) "What so impressed us about her Desdemona was how clear the voice was, and how instantly available to the ear at every dynamic level. There was no hesitation [in phonation], no noise or buzz in the tone. The sound would hover in the hall after she had ceased to produce it. And the beauty! She could still make indescribably beautiful tone and sculpt terribly moving phrases. We always went to hear her when we could, and her vocal way in Otello is a bright memory. Yes, I indeed thought of her when I returned to Desdemona myself in late career." (He) “Zinka Milanov was a great influence on both of us. Her luscious, creamy voice is one of the greatest sounds we ever heard, and we count ourselves very lucky to have been able to hear her many times. She is an adorable lady for whom we have the greatest respect and love.”

Miss Alice Tully: “Milanov was supreme. Supreme everywhere. Supreme on the stage, supreme in the recording studio, supreme in the kitchen. I daresay she was supreme in other rooms that only the blessed few would know!”

Alberta Masiello, after working with her on the last-act Otello arias, told Rudolf Bing that no matter how old Zinka got, he should keep engaging her every year to sing them on gala performances so that all the younger sopranos could learn from her and the public could continue to have the music performed so responsibly.

Christa Ludwig: “Zinka Milanov—this voice is really the voice of our century and not surpassed by other wonderful artists. Her recording of ‘Pace, pace’ is my heart’s inspiration.…”

Régine Crespin: “When I came to New York, I knew Zinka was a great singer from her recordings. Some stupid person advised me not to go hear her, that she ‘wasn’t what she used to be.’ I was more stupid than the person, because I accept this advice. Later, Leonie Rysanek told me, ‘No, no, she is wonderful to hear, you must go.’ Somehow it didn’t work out that I heard her until this last night of the old Met, when we both sang. She entered on the stage as a heroine, a queen, and how she sang, my God, I can never forget it. And so I went to study with her. And in the lesson she many times sang better than I did. So much for ‘not to be what you once were.’ How well I understand it now, when it is too late.”

Mirella Freni: “Bravissima Zinka Milanov! Era una meraviglia!”

Betty Allen: “Much of what you learned from her were revelations. One time I was working with Maestro [Leonard] Bernstein on one of his pieces. There was a specially long, hard phrase that went up and you had to have the breath to get to the end and sing softly up there. He was very happy with me, and said, ‘Where did you learn how to do that?’ I said, ‘Mme Milanov.’ And he said, ‘Ah, I’m not surprised.’”

© Bruce Burroughs 2021