Born in Zagreb, Croatia as Zinka Kunc, she studied with the Wagnerian soprano Milka Ternina and her assistant Marija Kostrenčić. She also studied in Milan with Campi and in Vienna with Stickgolt. On October 29, 1927, she made her operatic debut as Leonora in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Ljubljana, Slovenia, at the young age of 21. Her debut in her native Croatia, at the National Theatre in Zagreb, took place five weeks later as Marguerite in Charles Gounod’s Faust
After an early debut in Dresden (November 5, 1928, also as Leonora), her teacher, Ternina, was not pleased and much work commenced to perfect her technique. She performed in Zagreb and Ljubljana almost exclusively for the next six years. Later she became a member of the New German Theatre in Prague, where all performances were sung in German. She was discovered there by Bruno Walter, who recommended her to Arturo Toscanini for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in Salzburg.
In 1937, the soprano made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, once again as Leonora. At that time she adopted the name Milanov, which was the stage name of her second husband, an actor. According to Milanov herself, “Kunc” wasn’t “glamorous” enough for the Metropolitan Opera. In the article “Zinka Takes Off” (Opera News, November 2004, vol 69, no. 5), it is stated that the name change was deemed necessary since the gentlemen at the Met feared the “implications inherent in what they predicted would be the standard American mispronunciation — but they were never forthright with her about it”. On November 8, 1937, Erich Simon, who was in charge of engaging Milanov, cabled Edward Ziegler, the assistant manager of the Met, “Mme Zinka KUNZ-MARCOVIC has informed me that she wishes to perform under her husband’s stage name, MILANOV.”
In 1947, she left the Met when she married, for the third time, Yugoslav general and diplomat Ljubomir Ilić, and returned to live in Croatia. She was at the peak of her artistic and vocal powers when she made her debut at the Teatro alla Scala as Tosca in 1950. Milanov returned to the Metropolitan Opera the same year, invited by Rudolf Bing in his first year there as general manager
She gave her final performance in 1966 at the closing night of the old Metropolitan Opera House. Having worked as a voice teacher while still performing, Milanov devoted herself to teaching after her retirement. Among her pupils were Betty Allen, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Dubravka Zubovic and Milka Stojanovic. She recorded prolifically from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Her voice was well-suited to Italian operas such as those of Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini and the verismo composers. She died in New York City, aged 83.