Books: Cultural Amnesia — Zinka Milanov |
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Zinka Milanov was born Mira Teresa Zinka in Zagreb in 1906, and died in New York City in 1989, after a long career as one of the Metropolitan Opera’s most beloved sopranos. When she retired from the stage in 1968 she had sung a full twenty-nine seasons in New York, to which she had migrated from Europe at the end of what she later called her “lucky year” of 1937. After a preparatory decade of hard work in the Yugoslav and Czechoslovak opera houses, her lucky year had included her debut in Vienna, starring in Aida for Bruno Walter. Walter’s recommendation got her an audition with Toscanini for the Verdi Requiem in Salzburg, but her American career was already under way, because she had a contract with the Met in her pocket. She made her New York debut in December 1937, three months before the Anschluß. A whole political study can be made about what happened to European musicians and singers in the Nazi era, but we should not ignore that America had its attractions even before the event: a striking instance of the power of American cultural imperialism, which, even in the high arts, already shaped, from the angle of consumption, the world of classical music as it shaped the world of painting. (That the angle of consumption would eventually determine the angle of production was not yet evident.) All of them made for American labels, Milanov’s recordings date from the second part of her career—she was already forty before she stepped into a studio—but they can be recommended as dazzling events for anyone making a start on grand opera. A born mezzo who added her top notes later, she had a voice as rich as blackberry juice in the middle, with champagne sparkling in the upper register. Beginning listeners should avoid boxed sets of entire operas, in my opinion: it is too easy to nod off before the fireworks start. The thing to go for is what used to be called “highlights” records. Milanov singing the showstoppers from Tosca (with Jussi Bjoerling) or Il Trovatore (with Jan Peerce) should be enough to get anyone addicted to opera straight away. Because singers lead very physical lives, what they have to say about the art they practise tends to be refreshingly down-to-earth. Zinka Milanov said something which, if quoted at the right moment, can come in handy for interrupting the momentum of anybody who is dragging too much technical information into the discussion.

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Dollink, either you got the voice or you don’t got the voice: and I got the voice.

THE VOLCANIC SOPRANO had grown stroppy with an interviewer who badgered her too long on abstruse questions of vocal technique. In her moment of impatience, Milanov produced a nice variation on Duke Ellington’s “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I have never been able to find out when she actually said it, or to whom: a standard item of operatic folklore, it had gone from mouth to ear a million times before it got to me. Perhaps every word was wrong. But the idea had clearly remained unaltered, because any artist will say roughly the same thing if bored too long. At the National Film Theatre in London in the early 1960s I heard Jean Renoir say something similar to a questioner who had burdened him with a long analysis of one of the crane shots in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. Renoir said that he made a point of forgetting about technical problems once he had solved them.

In a later generation, film directors became less inclined to forget anything. When a pyramid of explanatory journalism builds up around an art-form it is easy for a practitioner to become so impressed by his own entombment that he starts breathing the rarefied air and relishing the dust. It would happen to trail-bike champions if the media cared. It happens to film directors because the media care about almost nothing but the movies. The movies are as fascinating as a war, and the directors are the generals. There are very few people with the logistic ability to organize a battle between a bunch of averagely talented actors and a computer-generated army of trolls: when such a man is told that he is Michelangelo reborn, he finds little evidence to help him disagree. He soon forgets that he has almost no detectable talent beyond getting other people to combine their talents in accordance with his wishes. Singers, on the other hand, have the advantage of being kept fundamentally humble by the personal, individual and directly physical nature of their gift. Zinka Milanov had a gold-rush chest-voice that practically brought her body along with it when it soared into the grand circle. Quite a lot of that she could do when she was fifteen.

Apart from the very rare exception like Rosa Ponselle, singers must have their voices trained if they are ever to sustain a career beyond the first week. But there is still such a thing as talent, and finally, as initially, it is what matters. There were plenty of singers in Callas’s generation who could do what she couldn’t: make a transition from the upper register to the middle register without showing the join. But even in the later part of her life, when her upper register was in tatters, she could come powering back into the middle register with a hot roar that boiled the wax in your ears. She made a drama of it, and that was her talent. In her master classes she would try to show how it was done, but her pupils could never learn her unique trick of turning up the voice’s darkness like a light as she plunged like a returning space shuttle into the stave.

Nijinsky got all his master classes over in a single line of explanation. When he was asked about the technical secret of his jump, he said: “I merely leap and pause.” (Either you got the pause or you don’t got the pause.) With all this said and insisted on, however, it should be remembered that the idea that there can be an unstudied, perfectly spontaneous art is an idle dream. Zinka Milanov was merely seeing off a pest when she made her most famous statement. It was true that she had been born with a beautiful voice. But her voice had been trained from the moment its quality was detected. At the Zagreb Academy of Music she spent an entire year on nothing but exercises. For her first Trovatore Leonora, sung in Croatian, she prepared for two years, working on each page a hundred times, note by note. This hard curatorial work went on all her life, even after her retirement from the stage: as a teacher, she stayed in training. She was right to say that she “got the voice,” but the essential counter-statement was given in an interview she granted to the magazine étude in 1940, when she said, about singing well, that “the attainment of this goal is a full life’s labour”: a dull truth, but true for all the arts. (Prodigies like Rimbaud merely have their full lives early.) It’s more fun to talk about amazing talents, and indeed they exist. But the real miracle is the work that goes into fostering them. In movies about artists, that aspect is usually dealt with in a montage sequence two minutes long, because even a hint of the real labour that goes into improvement would take an hour of screen time at the very least. For that one reason, there will never be a credible movie about the making of an artist. Interior concentration doesn’t translate to the screen. Exterior impact does. For just a moment, Zinka Milanov was a Central European actress delivering a line in a Hollywood movie, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. The line played well but it was only half true. The true version, however, wouldn’t play at all. “Artistic talent is indeed a gift from God, which the artist is obliged to match with the gift of his life.”