Arroyo, Martina 1936–
Martina Arroyo 1936–
Of Puerto Rican and African-American descent, soprano Martina Arroyo emerged in the 1960s as part of a vanguard of performers who broke down opera’s color barriers. After Arroyo’s debut at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera House in 1965, she was well on her way to becoming an international star. As one of the few black opera stars at the time, she helped usher in a new era in opera—an era filled with greater opportunities for black opera singers.
Born in 1936, Arroyo grew up in Harlem near St. Nicholas Avenue and 111th Street. Her father, Demetrio Arroyo, had emigrated from Puerto Rico and married Lucille Washington, a native of Charleston, South Carolina. Demetrio Arroyo was a mechanical engineer, and his salary from his Brooklyn Navy Yard job allowed Arroyo’s mother to stay at home with the couple’s two children—Arroyo’s older brother became a minister. Their comfortable income also allowed the family to experience New York’s rich cultural offerings.
As a child, Arroyo learned how to play piano from her mother, sang in the choir at her Baptist church, and took ballet classes. However, it was the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s which sparked her passion for the stage. “I had a lot of dreams when I was a kid, and my mother humored them,” Arroyo told the New York Times Magazine. “She said she’d help me be a singer or dancer or a pianist or whatever… provided I had another profession to fall back on.” At the time, only a few minorities performed in the classical arts such as opera. So Arroyo selected a back-up career that she knew would provide a steady income: teaching.
Arroyo, an excellent student, attended the elite Hunter High School, an affiliate of Hunter College. Fueled by her interest in music, Arroyo sought and earned special admittance to a graduate-level opera workshop at Hunter College. “One day I got up nerve and said I’d like to sing,” Arroyo recalled in the New York Times. “When I was through with Gounod’s ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust, they said that was fine, but what language was I singing?” Her French, which she had learned phonetically singing along with opera records was so bad it was nearly unrecognizable.
Arroyo remedied this shortcoming with a degree in Romance languages from Hunter College, which she
At a Glance…
Born in 1936, in Harlem, NY; daughter of Demetrio Arroyo and Lucille Washington; married Emilio Poggioni (divorced); married Michel Maurel. Education: Hunter College, BA, 1956; attended the Metropolitan Opera’s Kathryn Long School; pupil of Marinka Gurewich, Mo Martin Rich, Joseph Turnau, and Rose Landver.
Career: Soprano. Performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera, Berlin Deutsche Opera, and Rome Opera; performed at most of the major opera houses, including Covent Garden in London, Hamburg Staatsoper, La Scala in Milan, and Munich Staatsoper; Indiana University Bloomington, School of Music, distinguished professor of music, currently.
Memberships: Former member, National Endowment of Arts; honorary trustee, Carnegie Hall; trustee, Hunter College Foundation.
Awards: Metro Opera Award, 1959; Hunter College Outstanding Alumna; Hunter College, honorary doctorate.
Addresses: Office —Distinguished Professor of Music, School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405.
earned in 1956. By then, Joseph Turnau, her instructor at the opera workshop, had arranged for an audition with well-known voice teacher Marinka Gurewich, who immediately took Arroyo on as a student. Also around this time, concert manager Thea Dispeker, approached Arroyo after a recital, offering her services at no charge until Arroyo’s career took off. Arroyo worked with both Dispeker and Gurewich throughout much of her career, working with Gurewich until the teacher’s passing in 1990.
Arroyo faced several challenges throughout the 1950s. As a teenager, she was ostracized by her peers in Harlem because she dreamed of becoming an opera star. Then, as a college student sidetracked by extracurricular pursuits, Arroyo did not always take her training seriously. Gurewich finally threatened to end their lessons. The threat was a wake-up call for Arroyo. “Up to then, I must have been, in my mind, treating singing as a hobby, a lark—something I loved that I was dabbling in,” she explained to the New York Times Magazine. “Opera wasn’t a real possibility.” Since she had so few role models, it was difficult for Arroyo to see opera as a viable career. It was not until 1955 that an African American, Marian Anderson, performed a solo at New York’s Metropolitan Opera Theater.
Following her mother’s advice, Arroyo became a teacher after earning her degree in comparative literature. Yet she found it difficult to combine her duties at a Bronx high school with continued training under Gurewich. So she took a job as a welfare caseworker at the East End Welfare Center instead. For two years, she managed a case load of over 100 welfare recipients. However, she found her work extremely satisfying. “My life had been centered on music for so long, and suddenly there I was, deeply involved in other people’s problems,” Arroyo told the New Yorker.
Arroyo auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in 1957, but was turned away and told to try again next year. In 1958 she entered the Met’s national “Auditions of the Air” competition. Singing a particularly difficult piece from Aïda, she earned $1000 and a scholarship to the Met’s Kathryn Long School. There she studied drama, German, English diction, and fencing.
By sheer chance, Arroyo made her debut at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1958. She had been scheduled to perform in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral) at a festival in upstate New York. At the last minute, bad weather felled the tent that housed the stage, and the entire production was rescheduled for Carnegie Hall. Critical reviews, including her first mention in the New York Times, noted Arroyo’s remarkable potential.
Arroyo soon gave up her job as a welfare caseworker to perform overseas, where European opera companies offered numerous opportunities for up-and-coming singers. Although she had no difficulty finding steady work—she once performed in 45 cities in 48 days—she struggled to win the larger, name-making roles. Performing in minor or avant-garde operas, she earned a reputation as a reliable interpreter of difficult roles. Then, while performing in Italy in 1959, Arroyo met her future husband, professional violist Emilio Poggioni.
By 1965 Arroyo had become a permanent member of the Zurich Opera Company. While visiting her family in New York, she received a call that launched her career to the next level. The caller identified himself as Rudolf Bing, the Met’s famed general manager. Arroyo assumed the caller, asking her to temporarily fill in for star soprano Birgit Nilsson as the lead in Aïda, was joking. When Arroyo, attempting to play along with the joke, told the caller that she usually went to the movie matinee with her mother that day, but that she thought she could make it in time for the evening’s performance, the reaction from the caller assured her that this was, indeed, no joke.
Arroyo debuted at the Met on February 4, 1965. When it was announced that Nilsson would not be performing, this audience moaned in displeasure. But, at the end of the night, the audience was on its feet in a standing ovation. Bing immediately offered Arroyo a first-level contract with the company, and over the next few years Arroyo earned rave reviews. One music insider, quoted in the New York Times Magazine, praised Arroyo as “one of the most gorgeous voices before the public today.”
Arroyo debuted at London’s Covent Garden in 1968, playing Valentine in Les Huguenots. That same year, she became the first black singer to appear on stage in the role of Elsa in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. During the early 1970s, Arroyo’s life was a hectic one. She appeared in major productions on both sides of the Atlantic. She also sang with Placido Domingo at Covent Garden, opened both the 1970 and 1971 season at the Met, and, in 1973, played Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s version of the Shakespearean tragedy. She was praised for her roles in Ermani, Don Carlo, The Masked Ball, and Cavaleria Rusticana. Eminent American conductor Leonard Bernstein requested that Arroyo, one of his favorite singers, perform at a concert honoring his 1,000th performance with the New York Philharmonic.
Arroyo earned recognition outside of the world of opera. She appeared on The Tonight Show as well as the 1970s television series The Odd Couple. Yet with this success also came difficulties in her marriage to Poggioni. While his performance schedule confined him to Europe and her’s required her to travel all over the world, the couple spent little time together. On one occasion Arroyo decided to surprise her husband with a visit. But that same night, Poggioni embarked on the same scheme. Each arrived on another continent only to find the other gone.
Although the issue of their interracial marriage presented no dilemma, there were times in Arroyo’s career when she encountered difficulties because of her skin color. In a German restaurant, a man once made remarked about her African heritage using the German word for “cannibal.” Arroyo recounted this incident in the New York Times, saying that she “shot him a look and said, ‘Yeah but we only use a little pot; you use ovens.’”
At the height of her career, Arroyo, backed by eminent orchestras, produced several recordings. Included among these are: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Judas Maccabeus by Handel, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She announced her official retirement in 1989, but returned two years later to appear in Blake, Leslie Adams’s opera based on an 1857 novel about a slave family. “I had Miss Arroyo in mind even as I was writing the role of Miranda,” Adams told Opera News. “I was attracted to her soaring quality, especially on the high notes, and her beautiful richness of tone that seems to come from around her rather than directly from her.”
Arroyo maintained homes in both New York City and the Virgin Islands. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she married a second time, to banker Michel Maurel. She was an honorary member of the Carnegie Hall board and a member of the board of trustees at Hunter College. Throughout her career, Arroyo has recognized the necessity of positive role models. She told the Opera News, “Whatever positive influence we have been for whatever person, or whomever we may use as a role model, what’s important is that it’s a positive force.”
Current Biography Yearbook, H. W. Wilson Co., 1971.
Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 2, Gale, 1998.
Sadie, Stanley, ed, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1992.
New York Times, April 28, 1968, section I, p. 21.
New York Times Magazine, May 14, 1972, pp. 20, 26-31, 38.
New Yorker, April 8, 1967, pp. 33-35.
Opera News, September 1991, pp. 26-28.
Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
—Carol Brennan and Jennifer M. York
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.
Grew Up with Opera Broadcasts
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."
Won Broadcast Audition Contest
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.
Opened Met Season Twice
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).
Arroyo, Martina, esteemed American soprano of Hispanic and black descent; b. N.Y., Feb. 2, 1936. Her principal teacher was Marinka Gurewich, but she also studied with Turnau at Hunter Coll. of the City Univ. of N.Y. (B.A., 1956). In 1958 she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air and made her professional operatic debut in N.Y. in the U.S. premiere of Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale. On March 14, 1959, she made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera as the Celestial Voice in Don Carlos; she subsequently sang minor roles there until 1963 when she went to Europe, where she appeared in major roles in Vienna, Düsseldorf, Berlin, and Frankfurt am Main. From 1963 to 1968 she sang in Zürich. On Feb. 6, 1965, she scored a remarkable success at the Metropolitan Opera when she substituted for Birgit Nilsson as Aida. In subsequent years, she sang major roles there, and also appeared at London’s Cov-ent Garden (from 1968) and the Paris Opéra (from 1973). In 1989 she retired from the operatic stage. She taught at the Ind. Univ. School of Music in Bloomington from 1993. Arroyo was especially admired in Verdi spinto roles, but she also acquitted herself well as Donna Anna, Liù, Santuzza, and Cio-Cio San. She also proved herself technically equal to the complex soprano parts in the works of such avant-garde composers as Varèse, Dal-lapiccola, and Stockhausen.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire