Croatian by birth (1906), Zinka Milanov made her initial debut in Solvenia in 1927, at the tender age of 21. She sang in local opera houses, slowly and carefully learning her craft (one of the benefits of the European system) over the course of the next several years, finally reaching the upper echelon of European houses and being catapulted, via Berlin, to her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1937 as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore.
Once having burst onto the international opera scene, there was no looking back. Hailed from the very beginning for her extraordinary voice, she soon claimed many roles in the dramatic soprano category for herself. Like Caruso, she had that rarest combination of qualities in her voice: beauty and power. She was from the beginning possessed of a voice that was velvety-dark in color, with a brilliant upper register and—especially—capable of the most ravishing pianissimi, extolled by virtually all critics. In some ways, she makes a very interesting contrast with Maria Callas. Where Callas was extraordinary in her acting, her musicality and her style, Milanov was not so strong. Her musicality was certainly acceptable, but her style was grandiose (she was a diva, make no mistake!) in a more conventional and melodramatic way. She is once reported to have said, in response to questions being raised about her acting, that it didn't matter much if one were a great actor if they couldn't sing. Fair enough, in a general way. Certainly, if one could sing like Milanov, that may have tended to be the case—Callas always being excepted.
Whatever one's feeling on that subject, the fact remains that Milanov's was one of the greatest soprano voices ever. First, Leonora, the role which served her so well as a debut piece in her early years. I call your attention especially to the piano high notes:
Isn't that just absolutely beautiful! The color of her voice is hard to describe in anything resembling dry or objective language. Adjectives like "ravishing," "velvety," "luscious," "dark" and so forth give a fairly good idea, but it is almost impossible not to slip into hyperbole. Such sounds elicit an entirely affective response from the listener, and that always leads to a struggle with mere words. Her control is incredible, and most praiseworthy. This is where those 10 years or so of singing in small European houses and working endlessly on her technique really pays off. The different registers of her voice blend seamlessly together in a glorious golden thread of sound. It sometimes happens today that young singers, especially the high voices, are rushed into premature appearances in major houses, doing big roles, as soon as they show extraordinary promise. That can become a problem for them. As the great comedian George Burns once observed, lamenting the disappearance of the vaudeville theaters, young entertainers "need some place where they can fail."
Here is the great soprano in another signature role, Tosca, where she also displayed her voice to great advantage. It also affords another chance to see where and how she differed from Callas. Milanov was very much of the "stand there and sing it" school, which is fine. For the truly great voices, it is enough:
This is great singing...there is no other way to describe it. Nothing else matters when Milanov sings. She was 50 years old when this film was made, and her voice is still in fine form. Her technique is rock-solid, and never lets her down. For those who might like to hear her talk about her career, there is a video on the sidebar entitled "Zinka Milanov on Tosca."
She remained at the Met until she was sixty, and was greatly missed when she retired. She was one of the most popular sopranos in Met history, and her audience simply adored her. People often talk about the "Golden Age of Opera," usually referring to an approximate period centered somewhere toward the end of the 19th century. There probably was a golden age of great operatic singing, but in my judgment, it would be more nearly mid-20th century, perhaps from the end of WWII to about 1975. If one runs down the Met roster for those years, the great voices just leap off the page. And certainly one of them was Zinka Milanov, one of the most outstanding dramatic soprano voices ever.