American soprano Martina Arroyo (born c. 1936) was a pioneer among African-American performers in the operatic field, and in general one of opera's most effective public ambassadors.
"She … has a reputation as the wittiest woman in opera," noted Brian Kellow of Opera News . Arroyo's down-to-earth sense of humor, coupled with a diva-sized personality, brought opera to new audiences over her three-decade performing career. After her retirement, Arroyo continued to contribute to the opera world as a noted educator. She was a mainstay at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s and 1970s, frequently portraying the heroines in operas by Giuseppe Verdi, and she made more than 50 recordings.
Martina Arroyo was born in New York City on February 2, 1936 (or, according to some sources, 1937). Her father, Demetrio Arroyo, was an engineer, born in Puerto Rico, who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; her mother was an African American from Charleston, South Carolina, whose schooling ended after she finished third grade. Both parents encouraged Arroyo to do well in school. The family was middle class, with money for dance lessons for Arroyo, who later took issue with descriptions of her story as a rags-to-riches saga. Arroyo sang in a Baptist church choir, learned to play the piano from her mother, and dreamed of a career in the arts.
Her parents supported her but warned that she should have another career in reserve, since artists of African descent faced barriers to their participation in traditionally all-white performance traditions. The family listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera (the "Met") on the radio, and Arroyo, who had not studied the French language, learned to sing the "Jewel Song" from Charles Gounod's French opera Faust by ear, sounding it out syllable by syllable as she followed along with a record of the opera.
Arroyo's grades were good enough to win her admission to the academically selective Hunter College High School, whose students could attend Hunter College's opera workshop. One day, when Arroyo was 14, she and a group of friends were clowning around in a hallway outside the auditorium, imitating the opera singers who were holding forth inside. The voice teacher, annoyed by the noise, came out and asked Arroyo if she would like to try singing. Perhaps his aim was to punish her, or perhaps he heard the makings of a splendid soprano voice. Whatever the case, she stepped up with the "Jewel Song." Despite Arroyo's mangled French, the teacher was impressed and invited her to begin taking voice courses. As a teenager Arroyo found a mentor, voice teacher Marinka Gurewich, and started learning the role of Madame Butterfly in Giacomo Puccini's opera of the same name.
Nevertheless, she took to heart her parents' advice that she should have a more financially reliable career in reserve. She went on to attend Hunter College, finishing a degree in Romance languages in three years and receiving a bachelor's degree in 1956. She thought about becoming an academic and enrolled in a graduate program at New York University, beginning a thesis on Italian novelist Ignazio Silone. Arroyo also taught Italian at a New York City public school (P.S. 45 in the Bronx), and was active as a caseworker for the city's welfare department. She continued taking voice lessons with Gurewich, who urged her to devote herself exclusively to opera and even threatened to end their lessons if Arroyo did not get serious. The debut of African-American soprano Leontyne Price at the Met in 1955 was the opera world's equivalent of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, and the pioneering vocalist served as another inspiration to Arroyo. She auditioned at the Met in 1957 and was rejected but encouraged to try again. That year she was part of a joint recital program given at New York's Carnegie Hall; a New York Times review of the concert praised her "brilliant, ringing clarity of tone."
In 1958 Arroyo entered the Met's Auditions of the Air, a sort of operatic American Idol in which young singers competed in a radio concert for admission to the Met's training program. Singing an aria from Verdi's Aida , she emerged as one of two winners (the other was Grace Bumbry, another African American who went on to a stellar operatic career). With a $1,000 prize in hand, Arroyo abandoned her various non-operatic careers. She studied drama, German, English diction, and even fencing at the Met's Kathryn Long School. In 1958 she received a break when a storm forced the cancellation of an outdoor performance in upstate New York where she had been scheduled to sing. The opera, Ildebrando Pizzetti's Assassino nella cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral), had been newly composed and was thus moved to Carnegie Hall, vastly increasing Arroyo's visibility.
Once again, Arroyo rose to the moment with a strong performance that gained positive critical notice. The Met began to cast her in small roles, but Arroyo felt that she might be pigeonholed as a bit-part singer, and she wanted more. She began to travel to Europe, spending long stretches of time there and performing in operas, oratorios (sacred unstaged dramatic works), and recital programs. On a 1959 trip to Italy she met violinist Emilio Poggioni, who in 1961 became her first husband. Their marriage, she said, was free of racial tensions but not of musical ones; Poggioni became a stern critic of her performances. Another source of support in Europe was Arroyo's mother, who frequently accompanied her on trips, once breaking out in laughter when her daughter came on stage in a Viking outfit, with blonde braids, in a performance of an opera by German composer Richard Wagner.
Arroyo did encounter racial prejudice. On tour in Macon, Georgia, she was told to keep her black hands off a child whom she had just rescued from falling out of his mother's overloaded arms. "But America is not alone," Arroyo remarked to Thomas Cole of the New York Times . "I walked into a Munich [Germany] restaurant once and heard a man remark, 'Here comes a Menschfresser [cannibal].' I shot him a look and said, 'Yeah, but we only use a little pot; you use ovens.'"
Arroyo's career kept building on both sides of the Atlantic. A 1961 New York Times review noted that she "has been delighting New York audiences with the beauty of her voice." By 1965 she had been made a permanent member of the Zurich Opera Company in Switzerland, and early that year she received her big break in New York: Met impresario Rudolf Bing called her and asked her to fill in for ailing star Birgit Nilsson in a production of Aida . Arroyo first thought the call was a prank on the part of one of her friends, but she was convinced of its veracity in time to make her debut in a lead role at the Met on February 4, 1965. Although Nilsson was one of the biggest names in opera at the time, the tough Met audience cheered Arroyo's performance, and Nilsson quipped that if she got sick again, she would make sure she did it when Arroyo was not in town.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Arroyo's career epitomized the jet-set lifestyle of the international opera star. She was the featured star in the opening production of the Met's season three times, twice consecutively. Making her debut at London's Covent Garden in 1968 and the Paris Opera in 1973, she was as much in demand in Europe as in the United States. Arroyo was a "lirico-spinto" soprano—one whose voice lay in between the extremes of melodic beauty and dramatic power. Nor were her activities restricted to opera; she sang vocal parts in choral and symphonic works, becoming an especially favored soloist of New York Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein, and she had the power for Beethoven's soprano-punishing Symphony No. 9 and Missa Solemnis . The only downside of her hectic career was that her marriage to Poggioni suffered and finally dissolved after the two, deciding independently to take intercontinental flights to surprise each other, crossed paths in midair and ended up on different continents. She later married banker Michel Maurel.
In tandem with her record of musical accomplishment went Arroyo's uncommon gift for communicating the beauty of opera to ordinary people. She became a favorite of Tonight show host Johnny Carson and appeared on the program more than 20 times. Arroyo, at the request of actor and opera fan Tony Randall, also made a guest appearance on the television situation comedy The Odd Couple . She was a frequent guest on the "Singers' Roundtable" heard during the intermissions of the Met's Saturday radio broadcasts, and it was here that her wit had free rein as she dubbed herself Madama Butterball and bantered with other divas of the day. Her ideal of service to opera also led her to public service, and President Gerald Ford appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council on the Arts, a division of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Arroyo's repertoire grew to include difficult contemporary works such as German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's Momente , in addition to Italian and German standards. Her schedule began to slow down in the late 1970s, and by 1989 she had retired from performing, although she did re-emerge two years later in order to appear in Blake , a new opera by Leslie Adams with a story set in the time of slavery. She made the transition easily to a second career as an educator and arts advocate, beginning with a stint at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She also taught at the University of California at Los Angeles and Wilberforce University in Ohio before settling in as distinguished professor of music at Indiana University. In later life she developed a variety of modes of assisting young singers and nurturing their careers in the same way that her own had been carefully encouraged. She established the Martina Arroyo Foundation as a support structure for her new Prelude to Performing program, a 14-week course aimed at helping young singers develop unique and exciting vocal and performance styles of their own. Many of Arroyo's more than 50 recordings were reissued on compact disc, and by the early 2000s she loomed as a major figure in the history of American opera.
Contemporary Black Biography , volume 30, Gale, 2001.
Notable Hispanic American Women , Book 2, Gale, 1998.
New York Times , January 20, 1957; February 18, 1961; April 28, 1968.
Opera News , January 1999, p. 10; October 2006, p. 24.
"Biography," Martina Arroyo Official Website, http://www.martinaarroyo.com (December 17, 2006).
"Martina Arroyo," All Music Guide , http://www.allmusic.com (December 17, 2006).
"Martina Arroyo, Distinguished Professor," Indiana University, http://www.indiana.edu/∼alldrp/members/arroyo.html (December 17, 2006).