“I have the most beautiful voice in the world.” That was Zinka’s appraisal of her own voice. Who am I to argue with such a source? Besides, she did.
A great opera singer does what lesser singers do, only better. I can think of just two exceptions to the rule – Zinka Milanov and Giuseppe Di Stefano. These two when they were at their best did things that nobody else could.This doesn’t necessarily mean they were better than other great singers; rather they had a magical aura that distinguished them from their peers.
I’ve already written about Pippo, so I’ll concentrate on Milanov. The basic facts of her life are readily available. She debuted at the Met in 1937. She appeared there regularly for 10 years. She then returned to Europe and didn’t reemerge at the Met until early in 1951. In the interim something wondrous had happened. She had morphed from a very good soprano to a vocal marvel. She had been singing for more than 20 years and was in her mid forties when this transformation occurred.
If you listen to the recordings that she made in the 1940s you’ll hear a beautiful voice that sometimes is unsteady. There are pianissimos in alt that are not always fully supported. Her pitch is sometimes uncertain. But by 1951 her voice was under masterful control. Its tone was molten gold. Her pianissimo high notes were ethereal. They seemed to have a life of their own. They levitated through the house like aural sprites. This was a glorious voice like none before or since. Milanov’s voice stayed in this exalted state for about five years whereupon it gradually diminished until her retirement in 1966.
Her voice was ideal for the great heavy Verdi roles including both Leonoras, Aida, the two Amelias, Desdemona, as well as Ponchielli’s Gioconda. She would have been great as Elisabeth in Don Carlo, but she could never be convinced to perform it. Great as she was, she was not perfect. Forte high notes could be shrill. She had off nights. Vocal ferocity was not on her palette. She would have been foolish to attempt Abigaille. Nabucco and its like prompted Rossini to call Verdi a composer in a helmet.
Her performances as Norma show both her strength and weakness. She was on three broadcasts of the opera from the Met – two in 1944 and one in 1954 – the only soprano in Met history to appear three times as Norma on the Saturday broadcasts. The ideal Norma would have Zinka’s beauty of tone and preternatural pianissimos combined with Callas’s dramatic intensity and agility.
Fortunately she recorded her great roles when she was her peak. There are also numerous “live” recordings readily available. Her 1951 rendition of D’amor sull’ali rosee” is arguably the greatest piece of operatic singing since the invention of the phonograph. It has to be heard to be believed. It sets an impossibly high bar for Verdi sopranos. It’s part of the complete recording of Il Trovatore that’s still in print. The recording has a dream cast – Björling, Barbieri, and Warren. Anyone with even a passing interest in opera should own it.
Two other recordings give more proof of her artistry. Pace, pace mio Dio from the last act of La Forza Del Destino features one of Milanov’s famous effects. She starts the first syllable softly, swells it, and then brings it back down again. Another vocal coup was her singing of “Ah, come io t’amo!” in the first act of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. She floated a pianissimo high B flat and held it as she walked off stage. The Met audience typically went mad when she did this.
If Milanov and Di Stefano were in a special category, what happened when they appeared together? Alas, they did so only once – January 13, 1956. Luckily for me, I was there. It was Tito Gobbi’s Met debut in perhaps his most famous role – Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. Di Stefano and Gobbi were brilliant both vocally and dramatically. They sounded as they do on the famous recording, also still in print, with Callas and De Sabata. Milanov was Milanov – glorious voice not much acting. She had a lot of trouble with her train. Every time she changed direction she kicked it out of her way with her heel. No matter.
I’ve heard many great sopranos, but none like Zinka. Hers was a voice for the ages. Thank God for Thomas Edison.