Martina Arroyo

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    Kennedy Center Honors Highlights 2013


(Opera singer; born February 2, 1937 in New York, New York)

Born and raised in Harlem, Martina Arroyo conquered the opera world, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna State Opera, from Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires to La Scala in Milan, Paris Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden as well as the great concert halls from Salzburg and Berlin to her hometown of New York. Few in her generation have been so fearless, or so successful, triumphant across the repertory, from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Strauss to Barber, Bolcom, Schoenberg and Stockhausen. The New York Times once heralded her voice as "among the most glorious in the world." Her extensive recorded legacy reflects Arroyo's at once inspired and inspiring collaborations with the greatest conductors of our age: Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Rafael Kubelik, Zubin Mehta, Thomas Schippers, Colin Davis and James Levine. She is a most persuasive ambassador of opera. As a teacher, and especially in her work for the National Endowment for the Humanities and her own Martina Arroyo Foundation, she is a living example of the sublime possibilities of music.

"I grew up not knowing about barriers," Arroyo recalled, "because my parents were the type of parents who said you can do and be anything you want. I grew up with an open mind and an open spirit, and I think that's extremely important."

She was born in New York City in 1937, raised in Harlem by her Puerto Rican father and her African American mother. She attended Hunter College High School and then, encouraged by her mother to be sure to have a "real job" just in case, she studied to be a teacher and graduated from Hunter College at the age of 19. In 1958, she auditioned and won the Metropolitan Opera's Auditions on the Air, which gave her a chance to study both music and acting at the Met's Kathryn Long School.

Arroyo made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1958 in the American premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral. There, she was noticed, and started singing mostly small roles at the Metropolitan Opera.  A parade of successes followed in major roles in Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt and Zurich, where her reputation and authority on stage grew.

Back home in New York in 1965, Arroyo was called at the last minute to replace an ailing Birgit Nilsson in Aïda. "Nobody replaces Birgit Nilsson," Arroyo laughed years later. "You just sing for her that night." Still, that night became THE night, and the standing ovation the youngster received was only the first of many to come. Through her 199 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Martina Arroyo went on to perform all the major Verdi roles that would be the core of her repertory, as well as Mozart's Donna Anna, Puccini's Cio-Cio-San and Liù, Mascagni's Santuzza, Ponchielli's Gioconda, and Wagner's Elsa. Her 1968 London debut came in a concert version of Meyerbeer's epic Les Huguenots, followed the same year by her Covent Garden debut in Aïda. In close succession, her debuts at Paris Opera, La Scala and the Teatro Colón followed, as did the beginning of her recording career.

The best conductors wanted her, and she only worked with the best. One would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite Arroyo recorded collaboration with one of those maestros--Karl Böhm's Don Giovanni or Riccardo Muti's Un ballo in maschera come to mind among her more than 50 studio recordings--but Arroyo herself holds a special place in her heart for her Beethoven and Verdi recordings under Leonard Bernstein's baton. She said of the maestro, "All of this energy and all of this love for his music, it rubs off on you and you feel as though there's not only something going on between the two of you with the music and through the music, but it's all positive. And that's when I loved him most."

Martina Arroyo was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1976 to the NEA's National Council on the Arts. She later also joined the board at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Collegiate Chorale. She is a trustee emerita of the Hunter College Foundation, her alma mater. She was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. In 2003, she established the Martina Arroyo Foundation in New York City, offering emerging young artists a running start with a structured curriculum, detailed musical and dramatic work on preparing a role and a chance to sing. It is easy to understand how this great singer is also a great teacher.

Arroyo is also beloved among her colleagues and her fans for her saucy sense of humor, famously making fun of herself and of opera. An acclaimed guest spot on the classic TV comedy The Odd Couple, plus more than 20 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson all added to the American diva's popularity beyond the opera house.  She routinely kept her colleagues in stitches live on the radio whenever she turned up on a Met Opera broadcast intermission panel, just as she adds an always welcome touch of humor when she gives lectures and master classes to nervous young singers. She wins them over to music.

"I don't think that Martina's good humor is a mask for anything," said Opera News editor Brian Kellow. "I think its source is a happy and rewarding life. There's no meanness or pettiness about her. She has created a life that is only to be admired. It's a pleasure to sit at her dinner table. It's a pleasure just thinking about her. All her life, she has answered in the affirmative, and the rest of us are better off because of it."
Martina Arroyo