Zinka Milanov was one of the most renowned and beloved operatic sopranos of the mid-twentieth century. A specialist in the spinto repertoire (Verdi's Aida, both Leonoras, Amelia, and Desdemona; Ponchielli's Gioconda), she also excelled as Norma and in verismo roles such as Tosca and Santuzza. In an era in which opera audiences were particularly absorbed by the mystique of the prima donna, Milanov ruled as one of the brightest lights. She was sometimes justly criticized for deficiencies in her technique resulting in poor intonation and imprecise coloratura, but the sheer luster and power of her voice secured for her the adoration of throngs of admirers.
Born in Zagreb, she began vocal studies at the age of 14 with Milka Ternina, and made her professional debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1927. She spent most of her early career performing in Ljubljana, Zagreb, where she was the leading soprano specializing in dramatic soprano roles such as Sieglinde and the Marschallin. Bruno Walter heard her in Prague and recommended her to Toscanini, who brought her to international attention performing the Verdi Requiem at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. That same year she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Il Trovatore. It was her Met debut that prompted her to give up her maiden name, Kunc, and adopt her second husband's more exotic name, Milanov. The Met became her favored house, and she performed there all but four seasons until her retirement in 1966. She made few European appearances after 1939, but sang Tosca at La Scala in 1950, and in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden in the 1956-1957 season.
Milanov's voice was at its peak during the 1950s and it was during this time that she attracted the adulation of opera fans. She was poorly served by record companies and made relatively few studio recordings of complete operas while she was in her prime; many of her best performances were captured from radio broadcasts. Among the recordings that do justice to her voice are Aida, with an all-star cast including Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, and Fedora Barbieri; Il Trovatore; and Cavalleria rusticana, all made for RCA. Her farewell performance at the Met, marking the end of a remarkable career spanning nearly 40 years, was as Maddalena in Andrea Chénier in 1966. Although she did not particularly enjoy teaching, she taught at the Curtis Institute of Music after her retirement from the stage out of a sense of duty to pass on her knowledge. She died of a stroke in New York in 1989.