Zinka Milanov, 83, Dies; Considered One of Century’s Greatest Sopranos

Times Staff Writer

Zinka Milanov, the Yugoslavian-born soprano whose voice was considered one of the most consequentially glorious of this century, died Tuesday at Lenox Hills Hospital in New York City.

Her biographer, Bruce Burroughs, also a Los Angeles Times contributor, who was in New York attending to details of that book, said she had suffered a stroke Saturday at her apartment overlooking Central Park. She was taken to the hospital where she died at the age of 83.

Miss Milanov, who signed her first Metropolitan Opera contract for $75 a week in 1937, became for the next 28 years that company’s most prolific “Aida.”

She brought lustrous timbre and concomitant pianissimo to that role 86 times--49 in performance at the Met and 37 on tour.


Leonora in “Il Trovatore” was another Milanov favorite with 50 performances. She also was Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana” 57 times in the United States.

At her prime she was considered the most significant dramatic soprano of her day, a singer who possessed an instrument capable of pristine top tones and thundering lower ones that soared over choruses and orchestras.

Tall and imposing with sultry eyes and chestnut hair, she last performed at the Met on April 16, 1966, in a gala farewell in which she sang a duet from “Andrea Chenier” with tenor Richard Tucker.

It marked the end of a 453-performance career with that organization.


Since then, said Burroughs, she had been retired while teaching for a time at the University of Indiana and then at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at New York University.

Born Zinka Kunc in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, she performed under her maiden name until 1937 when she married Pedrag Milanov, a Yugoslav actor. They divorced in 1946 and she married Ljubo Ilic the following year. He survives her.

She studied at the Zagreb Academy and with Milka Ternmina before making her operatic debut as Leonora in 1927. From 1928 to 1935 she was the leading soprano at the Zagreb Opera where all her roles were sung in Serbo-Croatian.

In a 1988 interview with The Times she recalled how the conductor tried to press her into Wagnerian roles but she declined despite the abundance of voice.


‘Wagner Was Not for Me’

“Wagner,” she said without explaining, “was not for me.”

She moved to the Deutsche Oper in Prague, where she relearned her roles in German. Her fame spread in 1937 when she was engaged by Arturo Toscanini for “Verdi’s Requiem” at that year’s Salzburg Festival.

Edward Johnson, the Metropolitan manager, was in Europe at that time and she auditioned for him. He hired her with the advice that she lose some weight and learn Italian. She also was told that Kunc was not a name suited to American marquees. She took her new husband’s name.


Her $75 contract soon was raised to $125 (and beyond when Rudolf Bing succeeded Johnson).

The raises were ordained by the widespread acceptance she found in America with both press and public. She also began to be known for her eccentricities--minor quarrels with her co-stars over dressing rooms and dress. Her differences with tenor Kurt Baum became so pronounced that word of their differences spread and he once was booed publicly by her fans. Asked last year if that story was true, Miss Milanov replied with a straight face: “I don’t think you could necessarily blame my fans. After all, he was booed a lot.”

With the advent of the Bing years in the early 1950s, Miss Milanov became a favored dramatic soprano and was given two of her four opening nights in the second year of his administration. Metropolitan archives show that only four prima donnas in the entire history of the company have ever had more--Emma Eames, Emmy Destinn, Rosa Ponselle and Elisabeth Rethberg.

Bing forced Miss Milanov into some dramatic situations. She once replaced an ailing Renata Tebaldi and then found that a scheduled “Aida” had been exchanged for a “Tosca,” all at the last moment. Miss Milanov told him she had not been Floria Tosca for some time but found the score at home, re-studied it and went on to give a performance that found the New York Times scolding those who had asked for a refund.


“Aida,” with its wide-ranging nuances and full-throated dramatics, became a public if not a personal favorite. Selecting the one opera she preferred, she said “is like asking a mother to choose which of her children is her favorite. . . .”

After learning of her death, Martin Bernheimer, The Times music critic, offered this appraisal:

“Zinka Milanov possessed what probably was the most beautiful soprano voice I ever heard. Period.

“It was perfect for Verdi’s spinto heroines. No one floated pianissimo tones as she did, most notably in the Nile Scene of ‘Aida’ and the last act of ‘Il Trovatore.’ Nor, for that matter, could anyone rival the way she arched that haunting, whispering declaration of love, ‘Ah, come t’amo’ in Ponchielli’s ‘La Gioconda.’


“Her soft singing was especially impressive because she commanded a big, warm, luscious instrument that could hold its own handsomely against other principals, full chorus and orchestra in grandiose ensembles. Although she was not particularly comfortable in coloratura challenges, her voice was wide in range and broad in scope. She could give her colleagues lessons in legato phrasing, and probably did.

“Histrionically, she resembled the old-fashioned prima donnas traditionally favored by cartoonists. But her singing, on a good night, made any dramatic limitations seem irrelevant.”

Last year her “Trovatore” and “Tosca” were released on compact discs, making her talent available to new generations. Always the pragmatist, Miss Milanov said she hoped that RCA would “spend some money on advertising, otherwise the royalties suffer.”

She remembered in her thick Slavic accent how she loved working with tenors Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce and especially Jussi Bjorling, but was less enamored of Giuseppe di Stefano, with whom she recorded “Gioconda” and “Forza del Destino.”


Sharp of tongue to her final days, she regaled her 1988 interviewer with countless tales of the old Met, ending that session by recalling her final duet with Tucker in “Andrea Chenier.”

The audience wouldn’t let them go and Bing, fearful of overtime, grew furious.

“I looked him squarely in the eye and said: ‘Why don’t you go out, Mr. Bing? That will stop the applause.’ ”