The Roles Birgit Nilsson & Zinka Milanov Shared & Fought Over

By David Salazar

Zinka Milanov was born on May 17, 1906. Exactly 12 years later, on May 17, 1918, Birgit Nilsson was born. The two women would go on to markedly different careers, though they both performed at the greatest houses in the world and would perform with many of the same artists, albeit in different operas.

Both women were dramatic sopranos, and while their repertoire diverged greatly, there were many points of convergence.


Nilsson is a fame Wagnerian but, Milanov also took on some of the composers famed roles including Elsa (“Lohengrin”), Elisabetta (“Tannhäuser”) and Sieglinde (“Die Walküre”) in Croatia and Slovenia, She also studied with Wagnerian soprano Milka Ternina in Croatia.


The greatest point of convergence between the two came in the form of Verdi. Milanov was a famed Verdi interpreter, singing all of the major dramatic roles and recording them.

And while Nilsson was not a famed Verdi soprano, she did sing many of the roles that made Milanov a star. Among them were “Aida,” “Un Ballo in Maschera,” and the famed “Requiem.”

“Aida” was actually a point of contention between the two women, as it had been Milanov’s territory at the Met since 1938. By the time Nilsson started singing the role at the Met in 1961, Milanov was no longer performing it with the company, though she had showcased her talents in the opera a whopping 75 times to that point. Regardless, she was upset that Nilsson had taken a role that was previously her territory. So after one of Nilsson’s performances of the famed role, Milanov decided to take off in the Rolls Royce the Scandinavian soprano had hired after the performance. She was later quoted as saying, “If Madame Nilsson takes my roles, I must take her Rolls.”

Other Roles

The two also shared one Puccini role, “Tosca,” and Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni.” Nilsson recorded the latter with Dietrich Fischer-Diseskau, Ezio Flagello, Martina Arroyo, and Reri Grist among others. Milanov performed the role 20 times at the Met throughout her career.

As for “Tosca,” Nilsson has a famous recording with Fisher-Dieskau and Franco Corelli while Milanov worked with Jussi Bjoerling and Leonard Warren on her recording. She also has a recording with Corelli and Gian Giacomo Guelfi.

Other roles the two shared included the title role of Turandot, Leonore in “Fidelio,” the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” and Tchaikovsky’s Liza from “The Queen of Spades.”


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