The article below was written by Raymond Beegle who served as an accompanist for Zinka Milanov (1906-89) during the years after she retired from performing and devoted herself to teaching. He was also her friend. His moving appreciation of the great soprano was originally published in the Spring 1990 issue of Opera Quarterly to mark her (then) recent death. It is reproduced here with his kind permission.
If Tolstoy is right in saying that “art is not a handicraft, but a sincere transmission of feelings the artist has experienced,” there is no need to write about who a particular artist might essentially be, for it is revealed in his work. If we want to know what an artist isn’t, we may turn to the anecdote, a usually inaccurate cartoon that distorts and trivializes the character of the artist, and often his achievements as well.
Between the two poles of art and anecdote lies the private life of the artist, the not so spectacular everyday working and living, of which the world generally knows little. I would like to share what I have personally observed about this aspect of Zinka Milanov with those who have been moved and forever changed by her matchless and sublime singing.
Milanov always spoke with authority, and I believed what she said, for I saw in every part of her life that the truth was very important to her. Although I think she was quite frank with interviewers, the following comments made privately to me in friendship might underscore more strongly her profound love of music.
“I gave up everything for my music. It always came first.”
“I didn’t let anything stand in the way of doing my best for the music.”
“I would never accept so many engagements that my voice would become tired.”
“I would never sing roles that weren’t good for my voice.”
“When I went onstage to sing something very dramatic and I needed all my control, I would say, ‘Zinka, you must do your best for your public.'”
Once, to my surprise, she told me that Beethoven was her favorite composer. She sometimes mentioned her great love for Chopin, as well.
She would frequently ask me to play for various singers who were working with her on the roles she had sung, and I saw firsthand how she approached music. It was with simplicity and absolute, complete, relentless dedication.
“What is the mark at the beginning of that phrase?”
“It says ‘piano,'” the student would answer.
And she did know. She knew absolutely every mark on the page. She did not know just a few. She knew every mark on every page, and I never found her to be wrong.
She saw herself as a servant of music, and was not vain, but humble. She had one of the greatest voices, and knew it, but it was to her an Amati, an instrument to which she felt adjunct, using it, being humbled by it, and giving it – and God – the credit. It was loved and cared for until the last week of her life, for she vocalized every day, and although at the end she did not venture above the staff, I heard that golden, sunny, magnificent sound, still pure, lustrous, and unwavering, a few days before she was taken ill. Perhaps this steadfast love of music explains why she remained, while other artists singing the same repertoire came and went throughout her career, dropping by the wayside because of technical or emotional difficulties they could not overcome. Zinka Milanov served music with all her heart, and in return, music was kind to her.
For the past several years Zinka and I were neighbors. She lived across the street on the twenty-seventh floor, commanding a magnificent view of Central Park, and I, living on the twenty-fourth, could see when her lights were on and observe her various comings and goings. I took her flowers every week, but I was not the only one. Her apartment was always full of these warm tokens of devotion and gratitude. She was a spiritual person. I remember asking her at Easter dinner, “Zinka, are you religious?” “Yes.” “Did you go to church today?” “No.” After a moment she added, “I believe in kindness and love.” She often said that she did things with love. Once she told me, “I baked these cookies with love,” and another time, when she came to my apartment for dinner, she said. “I haven’t eaten much today, and I’ve come here with love.” (She probably left with indigestion, because my bad cooking is notorious and I had outdone myself that evening!)
When we walked together in her last two or three years, I could feel her inner vulnerability, and the constant high pitch of all her senses as she held my arm, concentrating greatly with the strong, upright outer projection of stature that appeared to those who might have seen her then. These elements are not incompatible. In fact, they symbolize her musical success. Strength allowed her to show us the depths of the vulnerable and trembling human heart. She lived by the fact that music demands modest, consistent, humble work – every day – slowly, so that art like a plant, is nourished and grows, cell by cell, often underground, out of sight, to produce a flower or two of great beauty and short duration.
In this time of fast – and usually short – careers, festooned with too many champagne bottles, to many publicity ventures, too many pop cross-overs, and the relentless packaging, which is often more creative and thought-out than the product itself, it is often difficult to hear the voice for the “image” shrieking in one’s ears. Art, however, is indeed long, though life is short. History bears out the greatness of art’s heroes, and although a rock group may be able to fill Madison Square Garden for a season or two, more people over the expanse of years, have heard Beethoven and Verdi. It is wonderful to consider saying “Truth is not on the side of power, but on the side of time,” and it is even more wonderful to think that through electricity through plastic through a diamond stylus or a beam of light touching a disc , the career of Zinka Milanov has just begun.
In case you don’t know what all the fuss over Zinka was about here’s her astounding recording of D’amor sull’ali rosee . NK