NEW YORK — "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."