Pinza was born into humble circumstances and initially wished to pursue a career as a racing cyclist; but having studied singing at the conservatories of Ravenna and Bologna with Ruzza and Vizzani, he made his operatic stage debut in 1914 as Oroveso / Norma at Soncino in the province of Cremona.
Service in the Italian army throughout World War I intervened, but Pinza resumed his operatic career after its conclusion. He appeared at the Teatro Verdi, Florence in 1919 and at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome from 1920, in a wide range of operas including La forza del destino, La Gioconda, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Aida, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Salome and Tristan und Isolde, in which he sang King Mark in Italian translation. During 1921 he appeared in Turin as Oroveso and in Naples, where he later enjoyed great success with the title role of Boito’s Mefistofele.
At La Scala, Milan Pinza made his debut in 1922 as Pogner / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and sang there regularly until 1924, being especially admired by Toscanini. In addition to repertoire operas he took part in several first performances at La Scala, including those of Pizetti’s Debora e Jaele in 1922 and in 1924 (the same year in which he toured Germany and Switzerland with Max Sauter’s travelling opera company) Boito’s Nerone, in which he sang Tigellino.
Pinza first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1926 as the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) in Spontini’s La vestale, singing opposite Rosa Ponselle in the title role. The Met proved to be his spiritual and physical home and he remained there for twenty-two seasons until 1948, giving his final performance with the company as Don Giovanni in Cleveland in May 1948. Pinza sang over fifty roles at the Met and became a great favourite with the public through his charismatic stage presence, compelling acting and beautiful voice. His repertoire was focused predominantly upon Italian opera and Mozart. Major roles included, in the Italian repertoire: Oroveso, Padre Guardiano / La forza del destino, Fiesco / Simon Boccangera, Ramfis / Aida, Sparafucile / Rigoletto, Raimondo / Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Basilio / Il barbiere di Siviglia, Alvise / La Gioconda, Silva / Ernani, Colline / La Bohème, Archibaldo / L’amore dei tre re, Dulcamara / L’elisir d’amore and Rodolfo / La sonnambula; and in Mozart: Figaro / Le nozze di Figaro, Sarastro / Die Zauberflöte and the title role in Don Giovanni, in which perhaps he made the greatest impact, especially in performances conducted by Bruno Walter. In the American premiere of Alfano’s Madonna Imperia in 1928 he created the role of Chancellor Ragusa.
Roles in French operas included the Father / Louise, Méphistophélès / Faust, Nilakantha / Lakmé, Lothario / Mignon, Zacharie / Le Prophète, Golaud / Pelléas et Mélisande, Escamillo / Carmen, Cardinal de Brogni / La Juive, High Priest / Samson et Dalila and Frère Laurent / Roméo et Juliette. In Russian opera, Pinza sang Pimen and the title role in Boris Godunov (in Italian) and King Didon in Rimsky- Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or (in French). In the German repertoire he sang isolated performances as Hermann / Tannhäuser and King Mark.
While primarily active in New York, Pinza also sang in Chicago and San Francisco and appeared regularly in Europe: singing in five international seasons between 1930 and 1939 at the Royal Opera House, London; at the Paris Opera; at the pre-war Salzburg Festival, where his Don Giovanni and Figaro were greatly admired; Florence and the Vienna State Opera. He also appeared every season at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires from 1925 until 1932.
After leaving the Met Pinza started a second career in musical theatre. His performance on Broadway of Emil de Becque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in 1949 made him a national celebrity as well as a matinée idol and won him a Tony Award in 1950 for the best lead actor in a musical. He then moved into films and television comedy before returning to Broadway in 1954 in Harold Rome’s musical Fanny, which ran until 1956. Shortly before his death he completed his memoirs, which were published in 1958.
The outstanding basso cantante of his generation, rivalled only by Tancredi Pasero who, however, lacked his charisma on stage, Pinza possessed a beautiful, velvet tone and a remarkable (and rare) vocal flexibility. Possibly because he could not read music, he was more willing than many to follow a conductor’s concept; certainly he was admired by Toscanini, Serafin and Walter. He recorded extensively during the 78rpm era and many of his performances at the Met have been released commercially. All can be recommended unreservedly.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).