Born Zinka Kunç in Zagreb, Milanov began her vocal training with the Wagnerian soprano Milka Ternina (the first Tosca at Covent Garden and the Met). Of this early training, Milanov says, “She was a most demanding teacher — scales, scales, and then again more scales until I could cry. But my instinct — even then when I was so ignorant of this art — told me she was right.”
Milanov made her debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore in 1927 in Zagreb. Thereafter she performed in Zagreb and Liubiana, singing all her roles in Croatian. A bit later, she also sang in Dresden and Prague. She substituted for an ailing soprano in a performance of Aida in Vienna conducted by Bruno Walter. He recommended her to Toscanini for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in Salzburg. And so she kept on, singing here and there, making contacts, gaining experience, and eventually she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1937, at which time she adopted the name Milanov (Edward Johnson of the Met didn’t think Kunç was “glamorous” enough, according to Milanov). She arrived at a propitious moment at the Met: Ponselle had just retired, and Elizabeth Rethberg was in decline.
Milanov filled the bill (just barely). She had a tendency to sing sharp and lacked stage sophistication. But she continued to perform and ripen as an artist; and her reputation began to grow. She left the Met in 1947 because “I had married General Lubomir Ilic (Tito’s ambassador to various countries),” and “Edward Johnson and I simply did not get on.” (She felt she was underpaid.) She made her debut at La Scala in 1950 as Tosca.
That same year, Rudolf Bing took the helm of the Met, and Milanov returned, this time as a star. She was an “infinitely better artist and a far more precise singer,” and the Milanov legend began at this time. She continued to sing at the Met, and gave her final performance in 1966.
Milanov had a magnificent voice, especially in the upper registers. Her pianissimo high B or B-flat was astonishing. Clear, ethereal; something seldom (if ever) heard among the “modern” sopranos. And as astonishing was her longevity as a singer. She did not come into her own vocally until she was in her forties (an age at which many singers of later generations started to fail vocally), and gave her final Met performance when she was 60.
In addition to being a great singing artist, Milanov was a fine teacher, looking not only to train young voices and help “mend” older voices, but committed also to a rebirth of the singing art.