"I suppose you want to know about the pianissimo. We might as well get that out of the way at first. I was born with it. I always had it.
"Something like that you can't learn."
Zinka Milanov is speaking, with that marvelously thick Slavic accent, in her spacious apartment overlooking Central Park. The fabled pianissimo was only one element in a formidable vocal arsenal of the leading dramatic soprano of her time. This species is almost extinct these barren days.
Milanov's was a large voice capable of the sweetest piano top notes in such a specialty as the "Aida" Nile Scene. Yet in the same opera during the concertato of the second act, she could unleash a sound of thrilling power riding a large chorus and orchestra with ease. And she did not cheat.
Today, if you can get "Aida" on the boards at all, many Aidas mouth the words, figuring they aren't going to be heard above the din anyway, so why overexert oneself? Milanov could always be heard, and in all parts of the range at whatever volume and color was called for, the sound was beautiful. On Dec. 17, she celebrated the 50th anniversary of her American debut at the Metropolitan as Leonora in what she has publicly referred to as "my opera," "Il Trovatore."
Not that she claims a favorite. One suspects Milanov thinks of all the parts she did as being "hers."
"It's like asking a mother to choose which of her children is her favorite."
No matter what she did, one always marveled at the sensitivity and sheer power of her work.
"Do you really think my voice was so big? I think it was more the quality, the timbre that made it distinctive."
She is partly right. The quality was there, but it also was big.
Milanov began as Zinka Kunc in her birthplace, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 81 years ago last May. She is a Taurus, a sign that seems to produce a lot of great singers, Lillian Nordica, Bidu Sayao, Jarmila Novotna and Birgit Nilsson among them. She first began to study with her compatriot, Milka Ternina, who created Tosca at both the Metropolitan and Covent Garden and was also one of the greatest Isoldes and Brunnhildes.
All her original parts were sung in Serbo-Croatian. "In those days, I actually did a few Elsas and Elisabeths at the beginning and one Sieglinde. The conductor wanted me to push, which I refused to do. It was at that time I realized that though my voice was ample for the parts, Wagner was not for me.
"The greatest influence on my career was my dear brother, Bozidar. It was he who told me to leave Wagner and Strauss alone. I had sung a Marschallin when I was 21. He worked with me constantly and I always followed his advice."
When Milanov branched out to the Deutsche Oper in Prague, she had to relearn her entire repertory in German. Little known outside Yugoslavia and Central Europe, her big breakthrough came with a Verdi Requiem in Salzburg under Arturo Toscanini. She sang for Met manager Edward Johnson and his chief conductor, Artur Bodanzky, and was promptly engaged. She was admonished to lose some weight and once again had to relearn her repertory, this time in the proper Italian. This constant switching linguistic gears may have slowed her progress when she arrived in New York.
To this day, she cannot understand why the Met management did not consider Kunc to be an acceptable name for an American operatic career. By this time she had been married, and somehow her husband's name, Milanov, was thought more suitable.
"I was so green in those days and knew so little," she said.
"Do you know what I was paid in my first contract? Seventy-five dollars a week! I didn't know about agents, about negotiations. I would have signed anything to come to the Metropolitan. The fee was soon raised to $125. But to be paid even that for the repertory I was doing, can you imagine? It was only when (Sir Rudolf) Bing came (as general manager) that I began to be paid properly and finally on a per-performance basis. And I got little encouragement in the press."
This latter was not quite true. From the very beginning, everyone recognized that this voice was one of the major ones of its time. Its size, beauty and impact were unquestioned. But there were some difficulties in control. Often she would sing sharp. Virgil Thomson in the Herald-Tribune was cruel enough to say that he wished she would practice more at home. He called her "overconfident and underexercised."
Yet Milanov was gaining a public and, while she probably didn't realize it, she was becoming a figure of legend. The wonderful stories began to go into everyone's memory bank. She supposedly told Jennie Tourel during their "Norma" duets, "Don't come too close."
At a Verdi Requiem performance once, Milanov wore the traditional black with no jewelry. Her mezzo-soprano colleague, Bruna Castagna, also wore black, but added some diamonds. Irritated, Milanov confided to a friend when she exited the stage, "Very bad light for diamonds."
Her relationship with the tenor Kurt Baum was not always smooth or pleasant. According to Milanov, the origins could be traced to a performance in Newark, when Baum appropriated the best dressing room. Milanov would not get into costume and announced she was going home if she didn't have a decent place to change.
She got the dressing room. Baum announced when he returned to New York that he didn't care to sing again, according to the soprano, whom he insulted with an expletive. As it happened, they were often in the same cast thereafter.
In the late '50s for a few seasons, Bing banned solo curtain calls when Baum was booed, supposedly by Milanov fans. Asked today if this were true, Milanov replies with a poker face: "I don't think you could necessarily blame my fans. After all, he was booed a lot."
The ban was only rescinded on the occasion of Birgit Nilsson's debut as Isolde in 1959 when, after the first act, the performance obviously was not going to continue until the Swedish diva came out alone.
After the war, Milanov returned to Yugoslavia and married once again. While singing "Turandot" in Brazil, she had met Gen. Ljubo Ilich, not only a partisan comrade of Marshal Tito, but also an anti-Nazi fighter with the French Maquis. They have been married 40 years. He visits here a few weeks a year, and she joins him in Yugoslavia during the summer.
When Bing arrived in 1950, he was unfamiliar with Milanov's work and went up to Hartford to hear her in a provincial performance. During the few years away from the States, Milanov had worked furiously on her voice, as always with her brother. When she returned to the Metropolitan as Santuzza in a new "Cavalleria," everything had come together vocally for her. The critics who had once nitpicked were unanimous in their praise.
Zinka Milanov was now Bing's favored dramatic soprano, and her performances became the standard by which all others were judged. Most of the appropriate new productions and a number of opening nights were hers.
With good money, prestige and raves from the critics, there was a new confidence in the lady. One writer noted that in addition to singing beautifully throughout, Milanov moved during the great ensembles, like ". . .a dreadnought among the sloops."
"Aida" was the opera she performed most, 78 times, followed closely by the "Trovatore" Leonora and "Gioconda." She did most of the great Verdi parts then in the Met repertory, except Violetta and Gilda. Her only Mozart was a majestic Donna Anna and, although she had her detractors in the role, she managed the coloratura of Norma quite respectably.
If she was not a subtle or inspired actress, Milanov was statuesque and, though on the heavy side, had unquestioned presence. She was secure enough musically to break her concentration with personal asides. During the difficult "Trovatore" duet with the baritone, she could mutter to Leonard Warren: "Are you coming to the Yugoslav Embassy tonight? The food is very good." Or to George London, during "Ma tu, o re" in "Aida": "I hear your new baby is beautiful."
She did give her listeners moments of glory that were throwbacks to the days of "voice, voice and more voice." If any moment is representative of her art and vocal mastery, it would have to be that in the first act of "Gioconda" when she addressed her mother and lover with the phrase, "Madre, Enzo adorato, ah come t'amo," ending on a high B-flat that floated like a feather throughout the house. Then she kicked her velvet train behind her like a whip, and left the stage.
One of her greatest successes came on a February night in 1955, and it was not planned. Renata Tebaldi had made her debut the previous January and was an instant audience sensation. When her first exposure to the New York winter forced her to cancel a sold-out "Aida," Bing shrewdly gambled with that special flair of his on giving his audience something new and potentially exciting.
The day of the performance, he canceled the "Aida" and, instead, asked Milanov to sing her first Tosca at the Met. The soprano had been to a sumptuous dinner the night before and had not looked at the role for some time. She told Bing she would vocalize, get out the score and call him back.
She did, she agreed and walked off with a triumph. The New York Times reported that the few who asked for a ticket exchange would never know the excitement they missed.
There were favorite colleagues during the nearly 30 years Milanov sang at the Met. She speaks fondly of Richard Tucker, Mario del Monaco (although she was furious with him when he cancelled her only rehearsal for her first Met Desdemona), Jan Peerce and especially Jussi Bjorling, whose voice she describes as "the most gorgeous" of the tenors she worked with.
Among the baritones, she says Warren was the one with whom there was no comparison. Castagna was the mezzo whose voice she found the most beautiful, although she thinks that career was curtailed when she overused the chest register.
"You never heard Milanov going down like that without covering." One only has to remember her "Suicidio" in "Gioconda," which lies mostly at the rock bottom of the soprano range, to see what she means.
As to rivals, Milanov claims she never thought of Tebaldi and Callas in that sense. "I didn't have to fight anyone for parts. All my life I sang what I wanted, everyone today wants the repertory I had. When the curtain goes up you have to give what you have. You should always let the audience think you have something in reserve."
She is pleased that her "Trovatore" and "Tosca" recordings are being rereleased on CD, with probably more to come. "I just hope they (RCA) spend some money on advertising, otherwise the royalties suffer." Though she claims to have no particular favorites among her discs, she says she was less than happy with "Gioconda" and "Forza" because of problems with Giuseppe di Stefano.
Milanov is very much aware of who she is and what she represents. Woe betide anyone who doesn't show the proper respect, as Lily Tomlin found to her great regret. In her first one-woman show on Broadway, the following whimsical credit was listed in the program:
"Standby for Miss Tomlin: Zinka Milanov."
Milanov was not amused.
To begin with, the singer had never heard of the comedian. "She sent flowers, you know, but my lawyer still was in contact with her people." Was there on out-of-court settlement? Milanov merely smiles.
These days she is very much the grande dame. She attends many performances and the old-timers always look for her reactions, especially in "her" operas. But she is loath to go on record when talking about other sopranos.
Joan Sutherland in the universally panned new "Trovatore?" "Well, she has the notes for the part and, after all, the voice is larger than Lily Pons'."
Ghena Dimitrova in "Gioconda?" "It's certainly an important voice, but why did she have to drink all that water in the last act during the concert version?"
Aprile Millo? "In general, I think she needs a little more work, but I thought she was superb in the last act of 'Don Carlo.' She's at a disadvantage, really, being forced to cover all those performances and going on at the last minute with little rehearsal. Even at $75 a week, I was never a cover. I never did that.
"I liked (Renata) Scotto when she stuck to her best repertory. I thought (Mirella) Freni had some lovely moments in the TV 'Aida.' " Because there was scarcely a pianissimo to be heard during that performance, the interviewer begins to feel his leg is being pulled and that the conversation is drawing to a close.
Milanov is used to having the last word, as Bing found out only too well at closing night of the old Met in 1966, her last performance in the house. She and Tucker sang the final duet from "Andrea Chenier," and the audience wouldn't let them go. Furious, Bing squirmed at the thought of overtime.
"I looked him squarely in the eye, and said: 'Why don't you go out, Mr. Bing? That will stop the applause.' "
One thought of this when she admonished a photographer, "Try not to get my double chin." This was followed by a characteristic second thought.
"Oh, never mind, it's covering something precious."