Milanov, Mödl & Obraztsova

Milanov, Mödl & Obraztsova

Each generation of young opera singers eventually becomes familiar with some of the great opera singers of the past. We’ve seen this happen, first hand, at least a dozen times. We must admit that we enjoy being the sage and guide to some of these young singers.

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Zinka Milanov, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”

With that in mind, we present three female opera singers that every young opera singer, or opera fan of any age, should know and love. The three we’ve selected were world-famous opera stars in their day.

We’ve not strayed off the path into the woods of mid 20th Century opera singers who were only famous in their own country. These three are simply lost, to new opera fans, in the mists of the past.

The style of some of these singers might come off as sloppy to a contemporary ear. We don’t understand this. We have recordings of singers who personally knew Puccini and for whom Puccini specifically wrote roles for. Shouldn’t their performance style be considered what Puccini wanted?

We make a lot of noise in the opera world about being true to the composer’s intentions, except when it comes to performance style. We even have composers such as Pietro Mascagni conducting their own operas. These recordings should be the gold standard of performance practice for Mascagni. Alas, they are not.

The first signer is Croatian soprano Zinka Milanov. Milanov sang at the Metropolitan Opera from 1937 to 1966. She was best known for her RCA Victor recording from the 1950s. These included Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Aida, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Puccini’s Tosca.

Milanov’s ability to sing with both power and finesse was a requirement in the days of opera past. Nowadays, her abilities sound almost superhuman. The aria “Pace, pace mio Dio” from Forza gives us the full range of Milanov’s voice.

Martha Mödl sings the Liebestod LIVE (1952) “Mild und Leise”

Another soprano from the 1950s is Martha Mödl. Mödl was known for her interpretations of Richard Wagner’s heroines. The 1952 recording of Tristan und Isolde staring Mödl was a revelation the first time we heard it. We remember thinking that we would spend our entire life savings, go into debt, and travel halfway around the world to hear someone sing that role the way Mödl does.

We listened to nothing else for an entire month, marveling at the beauty of her voice paired with the extraordinary power and the consistency of her vocal line. Beyond that, this was a live recording which means she put this perfection into the world without any opportunity for a redo.

Elena Obraztsova, Cavalleria Rusticana, “Voi lo sapete”
Elena Obraztsova, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix”

The final singer is Russian soprano/mezzo-soprano/contralto Elena Obraztsova. Obraztsova had a voice as big as Russia itself. Her signature role, in our opinion, was Santuzza from Cavalleria Rusticana. She appeared in that role opposite Placido Domingo in the 1982 Franco Zeffirelli film of Cavalleria. She also played Carmen opposite Domingo in the 1978 Zeffirelli television production of Carmen.

Her rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from Samson et Dalila defies the physics of the human voice. As most singers approach the bottom of the phrases in this aria, the voice struggles to be audible (Caballe). Obraztsova actually crescendos those notes and they are as present as the top notes.

We’ve also included “Voi lo sapete” from Cavalleria because it is just too good. That she sang both these arias on the same evening defies belief.

Garrett W. Harris
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Garrett Harris


Garrett Harris studied philosophy at university. He has been in over 65 opera productions with San Diego Opera, and has written about 1,000 articles for publication in The San Diego Reader.

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