Zinka and Bruce or Love at First Hearing

From the Preface to Zinka: The Life of Zinka Milanov

When Rudolf Bing heard Zinka Milanov sing for the first time, two weeks to the day after his forty-eighth birthday in 1950, he was preparing to assume the position of general manager of the Metropolitan Opera within a matter of months. Finding hers "a voice of such beauty I felt I had never heard anything like it before," he brought the soprano back in triumph to the company, which she had left under unusual circumstances three years earlier following a noteworthy but rocky decade-long “first career” there.(1)

Bing's evaluation of Milanov's gift and his candid admission of the effect she had on him was a remarkably common—and very well documented—response among her first-time hearers. Not long after Bing's epiphany, a small boy in Los Angeles, lying in a darkened room with his eyes covered because of a sight-threatening case of measles, allowed only to listen to the radio, heard that same sound and had the same reaction. Though the name of the person producing the sound—“Zinka”—struck the American child as rather funny at the time, he nonetheless felt that the heavens had opened and an angel was singing. The boy was barely eight, not forty-eight, and from the perspective of several years more than half a century later counts himself impossibly lucky to have found the sound and the art at such an early age. The prospect of living a full four decades of life without it, as Bing had, conjures a terrible vision: an existence barren and bereft, deprived of an extraordinary beauty that couldn’t be experienced anywhere else. To the sound and its possessor must be attributed a good deal of the influence that impelled the boy (already at that tender age a gifted pianist and organist) toward the world of opera as a life; his devotion to the art form, despite the disillusionments that can come with adulthood and maturity, remains idealistic.

As the saying goes, “It could never in a million years be predicted” on that Saturday afternoon in January 1953 that the great prima donna singing an opera called La Gioconda on the radio and the measles-pocked boy who was listening in awestruck amazement an entire continent away would one day become dear friends (at which time he, suffering the slings and arrows of the life of an artist in New York City, could bring her to gales of laughter by wagging a finger at her and declaring, "This is all your fault, you know!"), that most of her closest friends would also become his, that he would be one of the few of her associates equally loved by her husband, that they would make music together, giggle around the dinner table together at countless meals, shop at the delicatessen together, and that she would ask him from the bottom of her heart at the lowest possible point in his life and terribly close to the end of her own, please, would he write her book for her.

When serious illness ended the long-since adult man’s career as a performer and teacher, he—that is, of course, I, the author of this biography—needed to withdraw from the strains and stresses of striving for subsistence in Manhattan and return to that place all the way across the continent (not the exact place, but quite close enough within the same hypertrophied pueblo) where the angel’s voice had first been heard. This watershed moment, in 1984, left the great lady in New York without one of her closest friends and without her teaching assistant, for I had for some time been both. In this case absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder. The five years during which we did not see each other were survived with the help of mutual friends, the pen, and the telephone. During this time, after a painful search for those proverbial bootstraps, I began to write on the subject I loved so much and to my surprise found my words unusually welcome everywhere and my understanding very much appreciated. Continuing intermittent inability to be out and about did not compromise this new undertaking in the least, and so began a "second life"—somewhat analogous to Zinka’s “second” Met career—as a writer on the subject of music.

In early 1989, several years after having been asked by Opera News to supply the article that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her American debut, I received from Zinka a call of more than ordinary urgency. The call was follow-up to her written entreaty that I be her biographer, assuring me of her complete faith that if I agreed to do so I would succeed where several others had previously failed. But, she insisted, I absolutely must somehow manage to get back to New York City so that we could spend time together again. This reasonable requirement was accomplished, though not with ease, and ever afterward I’ve known that once again she worked on my behalf in a life-altering way. We spent many extraordinary hours together on a daily basis in the month of May, me "officially" querying, she telling her story. In the course of these sessions I almost forgot my emotions the night of her call, when I paced the floor in my Los Angeles kitchen until dawn, unable to subdue the instinctive but unshakeable knowledge that I was returning to New York so that she could die.

Her massive stroke occurred on Saturday, 27 May 1989, and she left us the following Tuesday. She was ready because she had already celebrated her eightieth birthday, the half-century anniversary of the beginning of her life in America and her association with the Metropolitan Opera, and her fortieth wedding anniversary—and because, at long last, responsibility for her book was in the hands in which she wanted it to rest. She had experienced, celebrated, and attended to everything that was important to her. Grasping the fact that I had somehow acquired the serenity to deal with my own grief as well as the confusion and disorder that can follow the death of so well loved a celebrity, her inconsolable husband Ljubo said to me, "You take care of everything."

On some deep level it was very much the little boy with the damp wash cloth over his imperiled eyes who planned the memorial service for the lady with the most beautiful voice he, and so very many others, had ever heard, and who climbed the stairs to the podium at Frank E. Campbell’s on Madison Avenue and led that service. Looking out upon the sea of sorrowful faces, both famous and not, it was clear to the celebrant that the lamented decedent had meant an immeasurable amount to all those assembled, and that each and every person present had a personal equivalent of the little-boy-with-wash-cloth-over-eyes story. I wanted to hear them all....


1. Rudolf Bing, 5000 Nights at the Opera (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1972), p. 153.



© Bruce Burroughs 2021