Zinka Milanov (and me)
BY CHARLIE HANDELMAN
A few weeks ago, I was doing some house-cleaning, and ran across some of my old textbooks. I thumbed through a particular tome, and there, staring me in the face, was the "autograph" of my all-time favorite singer, Zinka Milanov. This "autograph" was really one of my day-dreaming doodles, as I sat in the classroom at Queens College (why does that school name seem most appropriate?) centuries ago, awaiting the end of class, so I could run madly to the Met and stand for yet another Zinka Milanov performance, one of 87 that I attended during the "last Golden Age" at that beloved old theater where my opera life began.
I attended my first opera, Aida, on the afternoon of November 11, 1951, in an orchestra seat that cost a fortune, an amazing seven dollars! Now, who, I wondered, could fat lady with the frizzy hair be? Why was she wearing a purple queen-sized bed sheet? And why did she keep hugging the scenery? She reminded me of the silent film actresses. . . maybe someone who would have appeared opposite Valentino or John Gilbert? I have no specific recollection of her voice, only the visual element; little did I dream that only a few months later I would be wearing out the grooves of a recording of an aria called something that sounded like "Damor Sally Rosie." As I look back and listen to "D'amor sull'ali rosee" and all the other treasurable moments in the career of my great Zinka, I shed a tear or two, remembering what is was like to spend all those many freezing hours on the line, waiting for the moment when my first favorite diva would make her entrance in Gioconda or Aida or Forza or whatever it was that evening. I see an actual bloodstain on the jacket of the old RCA "Milanov Sings" album...next to her REAL autograph. I have been really excited that night-or maybe one of those high ppp's caused it!
Yes, that was the era of my very misspent youth, a time I would not trade for all the millions I might have made had I spent my time on Wall Street instead of on that line. Ah! The line! Now, that was the only place to become a diva-lover! All those endless conversations that often evolved into fist-fights as we extolled the praises of our beloved favorite divas! What a child I was then! I did make a terrible error, I must admit, in admitting the existence of a person named Renata Tebaldi, who appeared to be a tremendous threat to some of the members of the Milanov clan. How, they wondered, could I POSSIBLY like Tebaldi -- or ANYONE else who DARED to sing Zinka's roles, except possibly Herva Nelli ("Helluva Nervi"), who did not matter anyway. It irked them no end that Renata called me by name and treated me (and everyone else) like her adopted family. They even brought TEABALLS to the Met and screamed, "TEA-BALL-DEE!!!!" Somehow I managed to survive all this horror (I even lived through admitting that I liked Antonietta Stella's Aida MORE than Zinka's) and I was proud to be a member of Zinka's fan club.
So, you very young prospective opera-lovers, I tell you -- go out and find yourself a diva you can adore and worship and worry about and fawn over and defend-a diva whose every hiccup you collect on live recordings -- a diva whose entire repertory you can rattle off, role by role, year by year. A diva whose voice one day, when you are in your twilight years, you will hear -- and the tears will well up within you, and you will remember what it was like to be young and foolish and happy . Well, I am a bit older, but I am still foolish and eternally happy that I loved Zinka and Renata and Regina and Virginia and Diana.
And for all of it I give thanks to thanks to Zinka Milanov, the greatest singer I ever heard. Zinka adorata! Ah, come t'amo!