Roger Gross, one of the world's memorable connoisseurs of opera and singing, died peacefully at his home on January 4 after an illness of two years. Close friends of soprano Zinka Milanov, Roger and his mother Dorothy Mannes Gross (d. 1994) entertained singers, composers and conductors in their Manhattan home and during summers in Europe, especially in Venice where they were domiciled with the eminent decorator Ruben de Saavedra (d. 1990), with whom he owned and operated an interior design business and related antiques shop in New York. In recent years he dedicated himself to Roger Gross Ltd., a highly respected antiquarian musical manuscript and opera memorabilia business. Working alone with the manuscripts, autographs, and photographs, he supplied material to institutions and important collectors as well as impecunious fans of musicians and composers of the past and present. Known for his informative and witty conversation, the same qualities were always to be found in the descriptions in his sales lists. In his letter of condolence, Roger's friend and colleague, Dr. Otto Biba, head of Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, wrote that Roger, was a unique person and a unique personality with his unmatched historical knowledge and love for opera, was the greatest expert of operatic voices that he knew. A memorial service will be announced at a later date. He will be greatly missed by all of those that knew and loved him.
We have now only her recordings, both studio and live, a handful of video and radio interviews, a "Vissi d'arte" from a television varity show, silent clips from backstage at the Met and the memories of those who heard and knew her.
This webpage is in memory of Roger Gross. There are two examples of Milanov's singing followed by Mr. Gross' obituary, The New York Times. Following that, I have begun to compile anecdotes, memories and observations about Mme. Milanov and would welcome anyone's account of her, apocryphal or not. I don't seek descriptions of her singing, how beautiful it was, etc. but it's those delicious stories that we all enjoy hearing, a guilty pleasure that I'm sure we all share. The link is:
Please email me privately with your contribution(s). Your name will not be included on the webpage. If your contribution is similar to another version already here, it will still be published, along with the other version(s) of the same story. The recollections begin with the most recent contribution(s).
I remember a memorial remembrance talk Bruce Burroughs gave during a Met intermission after Milanov died. He told a funny story about having dinner with the lady. Milanov called him up and invited him to dinner that evening, saying, "Ve vill haff ze Feesh." Burroughs was pleased that Zinka was serving fish because he was concerned for her health and wanted her to lose weight. When he arrived, Zinka was in the kitchen cooking up a storm. She was sauteeing some large prawns that were coated in flour, egg and buttered bread crumbs, which were to be served on a bed of buttered rice pilaf and covered with a rich cream sauce. Burroughs said, "Now what's all this?" Zinka replied, 'Vhat do you mean, my dear, 'vhat's all zis"? Zis ees our Feesh."
I was at the Met when Callas made her debut- (after waiting all night). During intermission i saw Milanov with a crowd around her. I wanted her autograph desperately. I had my Norma program and opened it to the centerfold. I managed to 'break thru" and said to her, "Mme. Milanov" would you sign my program please?" She took my pen, looked down at the program that said, "Maria Meneghini Callas (debut) and sort of touched Callas' name. Then she looked up at me and said, "My dear boy, are you sure you have the right person?"
With a twinkle in her eye and a grin on her face she asked me this. She then signed the program. I thought she was very sweet with a good sense of humor.
As i turned away after thanking her i heard a loud queen ask her (from fifteen feet away), "Miss Milanov, Miss Milanov, What do you think of Callas". Milanov looked at him and said, "She'll Never Last".
We were going to a Carnegie performance, and by the entrance in the lobby, there were Roger, Ruben and Milanov. Ruben presented Rita Shane, "i'd like to introduce the greatest Queen of the night in the world." zinka: "really. let's hear it."
New production of "trovatore" in 1959, and Warren is preening in his new costume, with headdress, capped with feathers...."So, zinka,
what do you think?" zinka: "Leonard, you look just like a rooster."
In some productions, Zinka would not return to the dressing room, but sit on a small stool, just offstage. One night, a friend of mine stood beside her while a newcomer was bawling onstage, to which she muttered, "dees new tenoooor, dees vahts-hees-name, whose idea eet vas ve should hire heem?"
A Met gala, perhaps 1961, Zinka sharing a dressing room with Lily Pons. Pons chirps, "What an evening, a little of the old, a little of the new." Zinka mutters uncharitably, "and dey're making deir choices..."
A post-Boheme dinner on the grand tier in 1975, the first Met pairing of Carreras and Ricciarelli, and the Gaffemeister Schuyler Chapin boorishly thanks the stars, Carreras and Ricciarelli. Period, end of praise. Applause, silence and Bill Walker, sitting with fellow Americans Rita Shane and Giorgio Tozzi, mutters, "What're we? Chopped liver?" Just then, a trio of enthusiastic ladies arrive to congratulate the three seated there. They are respectively, Brazilian and Italian, led by a croatian ... names, Sayao, Albanese and Mme. Zinka Milanov.
My first Otello with McCracken ... and Zinka a not too young Desdemona, laboring all night until a magical Salce, salce and Ave maria .... but the spell was broken when she had to be helped up from her kneeling posture.
I wanted her to sign a gorgeous photo,of Mme. Milanov and Tucker singing the Chenier final duet at the Gala Farewell to the Old Met. She angrily said to me, "I vill not sign thees! Eet is messed up." She only signed posed studio portraits.
RCA threw a huge birthday party for David Sarnoff. Seated next to him on the dais was one of their most successful artists, Zinka Milanov. At one point, everyone in the room sang "Happy Birthday" to him. When the song was over, Mme. Milanov leaned over to Sarnoff and whispered "How does eet feel to have Happy Birthday sung to you by ze most beautiful voice in ze vorld?"
During a voice lesson for Anna Moffo, Mme. Milanov demonstrates to Moffo the proper position of the tongue. Moffo sees a tiny snake of a tongue peeking from Milanov's mouth. "Anna darling, let me see your tongue.". Moffo complies. "Anna, your tongue is too big." Moffo mutters to her accompanist, "What does she want me to do, cut it off?"
In the late 1970s, I was walking west on the north side of West 72nd Street between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue. All of a sudden in the distance, I saw Mme. Milanov and whom I assume to have been her brother walking east. I said to myself, well, it's probably now or never
When we encountered each other, I politely stopped them and asked for an autograph. Mme. Milanov quipped, "Vell I usually don't do zees on ze street!". As I fumbled for a piece of paper and a pen, she must have said "I usually don't do zees on ze street!" two more times, retaining her typical upper hand.
Concerning the famous Milanov sustained high b flat in Gioconda (Ah, come t'amo...), Margaret Harshaw said, "Do you know where that note was? IN MY WRIST!" Apparently, Milanov's Gioconda would lead Harshaw's Cieca in a wide circle around the stage then exit, all the time tightly squeezing Harshaw's wrist with her thumb and index finger.
Ettore Verna was a well-respected musician during the 1950s, with a reputation in coaching as well as couching. One of his students was Zinka Milanov. There was some obvious hanky-panky going on one afternoon, when, all of a sudden, the studio door flung open revealing - his wife? his current main squeeze? - in a rage. She stormped over to Milanov and socked her, giving her a black eye. She then cancelled her Leonora on December 6, 1944.
On November 8, 1967, a friend of mine was on the phone with mezzo soprano Teresa Berganza. It was the day before the "legendary" (for all the wrong reasons) Carnegie Hall Norma in a concert version with Elena Suliotis. The subject came up in the telephone conversation and Berganza said she wasn't attending.
"The next evening, I met Zika for an early dinner and then accompanied her to Carnegie Hall. We walked into the lobby just in time to hear applause for Maria Callas, as she took her seat in a first tier box . Just as the applause ended, that was the cue for Mme Milanov to enter, receiving her own round of applause.
The next morning at 9am, my phone rang: It was Berganza. She said she ended up going to the Norma, sitting with Callas and her guests. She said when Mme Milanov entered the hall, Callas quipped with disdain, "Ah! Mme Milanov. She ruined ALL my Normas."
From her teaching days at Indiana University: A sweet, first year graduate student from the South, a soprano, reportedly swept into the studio and gushed "Oh Mme. Milanov, you simply must teach me how to produce those beautiful pianissimo high notes," after which Milanov thought for a moment (but only just), frowned and replied, "No, daahling, then there will be TWO of us."
After she died in 1989, someone was looking for confirmation of a long-heard rumor that she had been engaged as an agent (spying for which side, I do not know) during World War II. He sought someone who reportedly knew her well (perhaps Roger Gross?), and asked about the possibility. "Oh no, she could never keep a secret," was the immediate reply.
It's another birthday party for another musical bigwig (Rudolf Bing, as I recall). On the guest list is Met newcomer, Mirella Freni. "Happy Birthday" is sung to the big man. Milanov catches an earful of Freni, gasps, clutches at her throat, enraptured. "Listen," she whispers; closing her eyes, transported. "She sounds like a young me!"
Having retired, Zinka was visiting professor of voice at (Indiana) university. It was the end of the semester and all the voice teachers were seated behind a table hearing juries. Some girl got up and croaked her way through Caro mio ben. Milanov started to write an F on the grading sheet. One of the full time professors leaned over and whispered "Oh, Mme Milanov, don't be so hard on her - she's just a vocal education major. Milanov exploded, "You meen she is SHPREADING ZHEES DISEASE?!?"
At the old house, the rear wall had a large door that opened up onto Seventh Avenue and scenery was loaded in and out of the house through it. During August and September, the door was left open during daytime rehearsals. Zinka was rehearsing the opening of the second act of Ballo and a fire truck went by, sirens blaring. Zinka stopped and asked "That vas not me, vas it?" , cracking everyone up.