“The young eagle, when he tries to fly for the first time, does not fly around the nest like a sparrow, but rises immediately into the clouds.” – historian Franjo Kuhač of Milka Trnina
“Her beautiful singing in this role (Elizabeth in” Tannhauser “) was once described as the miracle of restraint and discretion – without a single forced or poorly set tone, without sacrifice of quality or true color only to achieve effective sonority.” – Herman Klein in his book “Great Women Singers of My Time”
Catherine Milka Trnina is the greatest Croatian opera singer and one of the greatest in the world.
She was born in Vezišće near Ivanić Grad on 19 December 1863. After her father died of pneumonia, she goes to the Sisters of Mercy nursery, after which her uncle takes care of her. Since the uncle was a good friend with Ida Wimberger Brkić, head of the private singing school, Milka’s talent was revealed already in her childhood years. This school Milka attends from 1876 to 1879.
On November 10th 1879, she made her first public performance at the National Theater in Zagreb. One of the greatest Croatian writers, August Šenoa, was so enthusiastic about the sixteen-year-old singer that he advised to send her to the Vienna Conservatoire and, at that time, the best music pedagogue Joseph Gansbacher. On April 11th 1882, she performed the first opera role in the same theater in Zagreb as Amelia in Verdi’s opera “Masked dance” and thus begins her striking rise in the world of music.
Apart from the seldom seen talent, Milka’s greatest gift was high intelligence, broad general knowledge, and great diligence and dedication.
Although she was the first singer of Tosca in London’s Covent Garden and Metropolitan in New York, Milka remained remembered as the best singer of Wagner’s heroines. Giacomo Puccini, the composer of “Tosca”, claimed that no one else could measure with Milka in the interpretation of his work. Her dress in which she played Tosca can be seen in Museum of the City of Zagreb. Other critics were unanimous in the constantation that only Milka interpreted Wagner’s heroines just as the author himself imagined. Despite this, it is interesting to note that she only played in Bayreuth once.
Bayreuth is a festival in Germany where only Richard Wagner’s works are performed, and he himself founded this festival to achieve financial independence and independently promote his work.
At the first performance of Milka in Bayreuth, Wagner’s widow Cosima Wagner was not happy with her performance so she never called her again.
Neither noblemen nor factory owners
Recognized in the opera world as a top and passionate performer, Milka gets all the highest honors. She became a member of the State Opera in Munich and received the honorary title of the Bavarian Court Chamber Singer.
In addition to the courts, Swiss businessman, Carl Russ Suchard did not remain immune of her voice. He was also a great fan of Wagner’s works so he, charmed with her singing, named his most famous product, chocolate Milka, after her.
In June 1896, she was invited to perform at the ceremony of crowning of Russian Emperor Nikolaus II. There, in front of the royal couple, she performed “Izolda’s love death” from, of course, Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Izolda”. For the perfection of performance, the car Nikolaj himself rewarded her with a diamond brooch with rubies. This brooch can still be seen at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb.
Milka’s performances have been proclaimed “electrified”, and critics have described her dramatic soprano as perfect either by singing Italian or German works. They compared her with the greatest actresses and singers in history like Eleonore Duse or Sarah Bernhard.
Return to Zagreb and death
At the Institute of Musical Art in New York, Milka teaches singing lessons in 1906 and 1907. Unfortunately, due to serious problems and unsuccessful facial nerve surgery, she had to end her career suddenly. The facial nerve is the one that controls the gestures of the face, which is a very important for the professional opera singer. Her last performance was as Sieglinda in the opera “Walkire” from the Wagner’s cycle “The Ring of Nibelungs” in the Prinzregententheater in 1906.
Since she never recorded commercial music, the fragments of Milka’s voice were preserved only on Mapleson cylinders during a performance in Metropolitan.
From New York, she returns to Zagreb where, in 1923, becomes an honorary member of the Music Academy and teacher of solo singing. One of her students was Zinka Kunc who would later also become a great opera singer.
Just like her father, Milka died of pneumonia on May 18th 1941 in Zagreb. Her last wish was that the funeral should be modest, without speaches, to be held before noon and that all the money reserved for wreaths and flowers should be donated to charity. Her love for her country in which she lived so little, she expressed in the desire that Croatian anthem “Our Beautiful” should be played over her open grave.
In her honor a plaque is posted in Croatia’s most beautiful national park, Plitvice Lakes, and one of the waterfalls there is named after her.
In 24 years of professional career, Milka played 65 different roles and made over 1200 appearances, which means she has performed on average more than once a week.