Martina Arroyo

NEA Opera Honors recipient
Martina Arroyo

Photo courtesy of Ms. Arroyo

Transcript of conversation with soprano Martina Arroyo


That was soprano and 2010 Opera Honoree Martina Arroyo singing "O patria mia" from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aïda. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Famous for her interpretations of Verdi, Puccini and Strauss, Martina Arroyo is admired by fans of opera everywhere. Leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera from 1965 to 1978, she's also performed at major Opera Houses around the world.  She's made over 50 recordings of major operas with conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, and James Levine. She was also a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over twenty times and made appearances on the television show, The Odd Couple.

Since her retirement from the stage, Martina Arroyo has become an established teacher of Opera and singing at leading universities and conservatories. She was a member of the National Council on the Arts and served as an opera panelist for the NEA.   In 2003, she established the Martina Arroyo Foundation which prepares young singers in the interpretation of operatic roles.  Given her career as an artist and as an educator, it's little wonder that she was named a recipient for the NEA's 2010 Opera Honors.

I spoke to Martina Arroyo in her New York City apartment early this summer, and you can occasionally hear the roar of the city's traffic.  New York is Martina's hometown; she was born and raised in Harlem, and I began our conversation by asking her to tell me about her family.

Martina Arroyo: I have a wonderful, big family.  Have you ever seen the movie, the Fat Greek Wedding?

Jo Reed: Oh yeah.

Martina Arroyo: Well our family is a little bit like that.  Our cousins come in and they bring their friends.  I always had access to lots of friends coming in and being a part of the household.  So I grew up with a lot of love and a lot of laughter and a lot of having fun within the family.  I used to think it was normal.  I thought everybody lived that way and then I found out later on that in fact it was rather special.

Jo Reed: And another special thing about your family is that when you were young the family would go to concerts, they'd go to museums, they'd go to the theater.

Martina Arroyo: Well when I was young my mother took me to these places because she had never been there and her attitude was what's good for me is not good enough for my daughter.  So sometimes friends and family members came along but it was always my mother pushing me to go and see the museum and in that process she learned as well.  She became very interested in museums and not only museums but plays and not so much the opera.  I was introduced to the opera by my school but anything that she felt she had not experienced and would be important for me to experience.

Jo Reed: And musical theater was your first love.

Martina Arroyo: Well yes.  Well it started with the movies, come on.  When I was a little girl there was Janie Powell and Catherine Grayson who sang but they sang what I thought was opera and I used to like to imitate them and I had a voice that could sing the same notes.  So I was very thrilled with it and always thought, which is I think interesting, that I could do that and there would be no problem with my being the next movie star.  I never thought that there would be a barrier.  I grew up not knowing about barriers.

Jo Reed: Why do you think that is?

Martina Arroyo: Because my parents were the type of parents who said you can do and be anything you want.  So I wasn't aware until I was almost an adult that there were other issues that would have to be dealt with and even then my way of thinking was well that's your problem.  I'm going to go along and do what I feel I can do and since I had so many encouraging people in my life, like my voice teacher, this was very early on because I was still in Hunter High School, Hunter College High School, I grew up with an open mind and an open spirit and I think that's extremely important for any young person and particularly an artist who then wants to play other characters and open their thoughts to being another person.

Jo Reed: You had set your sights on being a teacher.

Martina Arroyo: Yes.  Well if you grow up in Harlem or any place where it's not the wealthiest of neighborhoods you're a doctor, lawyer, or an Indian chief.  It never occurred to me to be an astronaut or a high fashion model.  You chose from those professions that were considered good, steady professions and I loved teaching very much and still do and in fact when young people say to me things like "Oh if I didn't sing I couldn't do anything" and so I say, "Well then you'd better find something else that'll make you happy because if you don't have a career you don't want to be a miserable human being.  This is your only chance.  This is not a rehearsal."  And since I knew, even after starting the career, that I could go back and teach and enjoy teaching, except that I wanted to teach in a high school or a college.  I didn't imagine teaching a group of young artists to-- not teaching them but helping them to go on their way as we're doing now.  But that too developed, that developed out of the career.

Jo Reed: Now how did the career develop?  What made you first look at opera as a possibility?

Martina Arroyo: The old story of course.  As I was going to Hunter College High School, the College Opera Workshop used to rehearse in our auditorium and we would listen outside and as young girls can be very, very, oh, daring, all four of us, started imitating the singers.  We were caught and we were taken inside and as a punishment we had to sing for the director, Joseph Tornow, who was one of the directors of the Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna Staatsoper, and instead of punishing me he said, "Do you want to be a singer?"  I said, "No, I want to be a teacher," thinking that that was really something, want to be a teacher, and he instead introduced me to Mrs. Gurewich, Marinka Gurewich was my voice teacher, my only voice teacher, and to the opera in terms of studying it.  After a few months of going to the opera workshop, we're still in the high school and then graduating and going into the Hunter College with the help of President Shuster, I just realized that it had taken over my life.  That's all I thought about, that's all I wanted to do. 

Jo Reed: Marinka Gurewich made you take your voice seriously.

Martina Arroyo: Oh yes, oh yes.  And she didn't joke.  She sometimes would tell me, "If you don't do this the way you're supposed to I'll throw you out," and she meant it.  You have to want to do this and she was very stern.  She wasn't teaching me for the money.  First of all I was paying so little she wouldn't have noticed if they stopped altogether because at that time I was being helped by another family, Mrs. Kuffner, Helene Kuffner, who stayed also in my life until the very end, and it's important to know who your professional family is because you get criticisms and comments and praises from many, many people but they don't necessarily know your truth.  Some people will come and say, "Oh you sang that beautifully," and Mrs. Gurewich would smile and then the next day say, "Now this wasn't good, and that didn't work.  This was good.  Let's work on that because I think that needs work."  The professional family are the people you listen to.

Jo Reed: You were a social worker.

Martina Arroyo: Yes, also.  So that I could take lessons and didn't have to be tied down to an office or-- I couldn't be a teacher and have this career.

Jo Reed: Your life as an opera singer and your life as a social worker mush have been such a stark contrast.

Martina Arroyo: Oh but that was an experience for me.  First of all I didn't know that there was such a thing as a woman with three children with different fathers.  That had never come into my life.  I didn't know that someone could be taken in for being drunk all weekend and leaving their family without care.  I didn't know that there were old people whose children wouldn't give them 15, 20 dollars every month or whatever it was because our family was so different.  I think my parents probably went to the extreme sheltering me from all of that, even though I was living in Harlem, first on 111th Street and St. Nicholas and then 154th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.  So my life was really in that part of the city and all these situations existed I'm sure but because we were close and because we were in-family I wasn't aware of them as much and for me it was an eye-opener that said you better count yourself darn lucky and my father, before his death, said, "I don't want you to work with this because if you work with this, everything we try to build will be destroyed by the reality of life out there and I'm hoping you never experience these things."  But you can't keep someone from experiencing life.  Sorry. 

Jo Reed: Well you ended up winning a scholarship to the Met's Kathryn Long School.

Martina Arroyo: Yes.

Jo Reed: Another big crossroads.

Martina Arroyo: Yes, that's what Uta Hagen was teaching at the time.  You see, that was my first introduction to dealing with a character.  It just wasn't long enough.  It wasn't enough.  The Kathryn Long School was really an eye-opener.  First of all it was my first professional introduction to learning a role.  I still think Mrs. Gurewich had more to do with it because she from the beginning, whether it was a role or whether it was a song, insisted you must know every word you're saying, you must know why you're saying it, you must know to whom you're saying it and you must know what someone says to you.

Jo Reed: That leads me into my next question of how do you begin to learn an opera?

Martina Arroyo: Well I begin at page one.  Now that wasn't true when I was a young girl.  When I was a young girl I started learning little arias, having first worked on a great deal of song literature, a lot of Schubert, a lot of Young songs, old Italian songs.  Mrs. Gurewich, even though I was in the Opera Workshop, Mrs. Gurewich said, "No no no, you don't touch those roles until you get a good solid background in song literature," and as I said, even in the songs you had to prepare for the songs properly.  The Kathryn Long School was about opera and not necessarily about your singing a particular role.  It was about generally working in a theatre as I remember.  It's been a very long time now <laughing>.  I'm not remembering it quite the way, or else I'm remembering it better than it was <laughing>.

Jo Reed: Well would you translate the opera?  Yourself?

Martina Arroyo: Well I had to do that anyway but there were many who didn't.  As a matter of fact one of the shocks when we have auditions for our program is that so many teachers do not insist that they learn the translation.  What it really means is you must learn the language.  Eventually.  You learn the vocabulary through that-- translations with dictionaries but you have to then also know how to conjugate the verbs, you have to know what form the verbs-- you have to be careful about the nuances of the language.  That all takes a lot of time, whether you have a very beautiful voice or whether you don't have any talent at all.

Jo Reed: Opera is so complex--

Martina Arroyo: Yes.

Jo Reed: Obviously there's the singing and you have to bring a beautiful voice to the table but I would think that's where you begin.

Martina Arroyo: Well you know I've heard voices that were not so beautiful but they said something and I wanted to hear them and I've heard other voices that were truly gorgeous to the ear but they said nothing to me and I was bored after five or ten minutes.  So you do need the combination.  You need to please the ear but also the mind and the heart.  You don't always do it a hundred percent.  I'm not trying to sit here and say that I'm a perfect singer or a perfect performer.  I'm trying to say that's what I strive for and I hope that the young people with whom I work strive for that artistry.

Jo Reed: There's also that characteristic that can't be defined, can't be taught or learned, and that's charisma.

Martina Arroyo: Yes, and not everybody has charisma and there are people without very much talent who have charisma and you just follow them right down the Yellow Brick Road.  I don't know how to describe it but I know when I'm there in front of it, or it's in front of me.  But even with charisma that does not mean you cannot do the groundwork that you must do.  You only make that charisma stronger when you know who and what you are and how to do it properly.  When you talk about it this way it sounds a little overdone, who gets to do all of this.  No, you don't do it all.  You strive for it all.  You work toward it and at which point you arrive depends on how much time you had to learn it, how well it suits your voice, what kind of colleagues you're working with, how well they've prepared, what kind of director you have to help you along the way, what kind of conductor that's sensitive to what you're trying to do and you to what he tries to do.  There's a lot involved and sometimes if fifty percent of it is achieved that's quite a bit, but rarely do you reach the hundred percent mark.

Jo Reed: It's knowing what you're trying for.

Martina Arroyo: Yes.  Yes, and not accepting less than going forth the maximum.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you sang at the Met?

Martina Arroyo: Oh yes.

Jo Reed: Tell me about it.

Martina Arroyo:  I didn't get on stage because I was singing the voice from Heaven. My mother missed the first performance because she went to the ladies' room so she didn't really hear me the first time <laughing> and I only tell that story because, I don't know, there was something so right about it, you know.  It would be my mother, it would be just when I was singing.  She came to every other performance after that as long as she was alive except when it was a performance she didn't like.  She didn't care for the Lohengrin and the Villin Wagner and usually after the first or second-- after the second or third actually performance she would say her bursitis was bothering her in her left arm, "I won't go tonight," but then when I got home I would say, "How's your bursitis?" and she'd touch her right arm and say, "Oh, it's much better." 

Jo Reed: When you were young you did a lot of concert work.

Martina Arroyo:  Oh yes, that was a requirement.  Mrs. Gurewich felt not only concert work with orchestra and oratorio but recital work.  Lots of it.  As a matter of fact, many people don't realize that I had a long career in recital and oratorio before coming back to the Met.

Jo Reed: Which you did in 1965. That's when you returned to the Met as a last-minute replacement for Birgit Nilsson. Singing Aida.

Martina Arroyo: Nobody replaces Birgit Nilsson <laughing>.  You just sing for her that night.

Jo Reed: You did pretty well.

Martina Arroyo: Well thank you because the public-- but you see I think the New York public is just fabulous.  They'll always help you out.  All you have to do is show that you're willing to be there, you have a little bit of talent and they're on your side.  That's true.

Jo Reed: Can you tell me that story? How did you find out you were singing Aida?

Martina Arroyo: I got a telephone call and the first person to call was Robert Herman and I thought it was a friend joking.  So I said, "I'm so sorry, I can't do it, I have to go to the movies," and then Mr. Bing called and he was serious <laughing> and I knew it was Mr. Bing. I was out of my mind thrilled because you don't think that moment you can't do it or you don't think when was the last time I sang?  You think this is Metropolitan Opera, it's a chance to go on that stage and sing the entire role and I think when you're very young you never think you can't do something.  I think that you always think you can and that's one of the wonders of being young.

Jo Reed: And you receive this glorious ovation.

Martina Arroyo: Yeah.  But during the second act the triumphal scene when I finally realize, I didn't have to sing, I was standing there holding the crown and I didn't have to think at that moment about the character and where I was, I shouldn't have gotten out of character but I guess I did because I looked out and I saw the crown on the pillow shaking.  My hands were literally shaking and I thought, "Don't look down but I think your knees are knocking too." <laughing>

Jo Reed: And you had a very long relationship with the Metropolitan Opera.

Martina Arroyo: Yes.  Yes, but not only with the Metropolitan Opera as a performer but with the chorus, with the guys who worked on stage with the orchestra members.  They know you by your first name and at that time it was very much a family feeling.  We hung out.  The guys who used to come over after performances and have a drink and some pasta or the kids in the chorus were very close with many of them and we remained friends even after.  So I don't know what it's like singing there now but at that time it was very, very warm and wonderful.  We used to hang out at each other's rehearsals.  We'd go to each other's performances and stand in the wings and distract them if we could <laughing>.

Jo Reed: You've sung with many different conductors.

Martina Arroyo: Oh yes.

Jo Reed: Here's a question that comes from pure ignorance.  What does the conductor bring to the performance of the opera?

Martina Arroyo: Well he's the thread that runs throughout the whole opera.  He's the one that gives you the high and the low, he's the one that gives you the loudest and the softest points.  He's the one that balances or should be balancing the whole growth of the story to the end of the opera.  He's extremely important, not so much because he has to conduct you or tell you what to do but he keeps you in line with the rest of that thread.  The stage director does the same thing.  He has the concept.  You learn it after a while but he comes in with the concept of how that opera should grow as the characterization and of course you come with your own ideas so you also react to your colleagues.  So there are lots of units melding together in an ideal situation.  Now there have been times when I hadn't met the conductor, I had not met any of my colleagues, you go on stage, you sing, you know rehearsals and you've seen your performance and for me those are the worst no matter how I sing because you know you're doing your thing rather than working together as a unit.

Jo Reed: It's hard to think of a more collaborative art.

Martina Arroyo: Oh it should be and when sometimes people say, "Oh, this, she was trying to show off for herself," that's a stupid thing to do because you're only as good as your colleagues and your job is to look as well as you can so that when you're being compared you're up there with them, not you're up at the top and they're some other place below.  You're not better.  I dislike very, very much when someone has the attitude, "I'm the star of the evening."

Jo Reed: You were one of Leonard Bernstein's favorite singers.

Martina Arroyo: Yeah, that's what they say <laughing>.

Jo Reed: Do you remember any particular performance with him? 

Martina Arroyo: Well I remember the St. Paul Verdi Requiem because of St. Paul.  That church in London had an atmosphere that was so spiritual and everybody was so involved, personally involved and Lenny was at his best during the performance giving and feeling and feeling with us and letting us feel too.  There are lots of performances that stand out in your mind for one reason or the other. With Leonard Bernstein for example, I loved working the rehearsal because when he was working at the piano and just you and the two of you, he would, "Look at this ring.  Now you see how he developed this?  Now when you sing that with just a little bit more expansion," you know, all of this energy and all of this love for his music and all his respect for the music and the other composers, 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.  There were other times of course when all of that wasn't happening but that's true with anybody.

Jo Reed: You've sung with some extraordinary singers.

Martina Arroyo: Oh yes. 

Jo Reed: You did a great Aida with Placido Domingo.

Martina Arroyo: Oh you're talking about one of the great ones.  He's so great that I'd like to say he did a great Aida with me but I can't. <laughing> He's an extraordinary artist.  To stop and think that he must be 50 by now.  If he's not his son is, and yet he can go in after a full day of riding cross country on horseback and he'll go in that night and sing a performance and then after the performance he's off recording something.  He's got an extraordinary strength, a personality, a will and this voice that is just unbeatable.  He's unique.  He's unique, that's all you can say, and having him as a colleague, I remember when we were younger we had fun together at rehearsals but he was always prepared and always ready to give.  In performance he was always there.

Jo Reed: Your voice was also beautifully matched with Pavarotti.

Martina Arroyo:  Luciano, look you're talking about my baby bear.  He was just the most lovable man and a great singer without even realizing it.  He didn't know that he was making no effort and yet still thrilling us with that sound.  I was talking to someone else recently and I said, you know, there were a few singers, Placido being one of them, Luciano another, but also Carlo Bergonzi that when we were on stage sometimes I had to be careful not to just stop and listen to them sing, stop being the character and say, "listen to that," you know <laughing> because they were just so wonderful.

Jo Reed: Your last appearance and your 199th performance at the Met was in 1987.

Martina Arroyo: It was the '86-'87 season, yes.

Jo Reed: Did you know that that was going to be your last performance there?

Martina Arroyo: I didn't think of that as being a farewell performance but I knew that I was winding down.  Just my friends know that when I got to the place that I woke up one morning, during the night actually, and didn't remember where the bathroom was.  I sat on the side of the bed and didn't remember where the bathroom was and I was home and I thought nope, it's time to slow down, it's time to start thinking about your life.  And I wasn't old by any means but I didn't have that, "I have to go on, I have to sing at the Met again," you know.  I sang other places after that including Flying Dutchman, I had fun singing still, other recitals, but then after starting the teaching, back to my first love but it was also-- it wasn't a substitute that had to be done.  It was something that when I got into it I enjoyed it so much I didn't realize that I had almost stopped singing myself.  And then by that time of course there were other voices, there were other people that take your place.  You feel yourself as not being in the best time of your life vocally or personally.  You want to get on with something and not everybody feels that way.  I mean, Placido certainly does and I think he's going to sing for at least a hundred more years at least, but I was slowing down obviously.

Jo Reed: You began your own foundation in 2003.

Martina Arroyo: Mmm-hmm.

Jo Reed: What made you decide to do that?

Martina Arroyo: Mainly because this little program had started at IU-

Jo Reed: Indiana University

Martina Arroyo: Yes, this class, learning a role but not from the aria and then the duets and expanding but from the beginning. In other words, if you're going to live in that person's skin, who is that person?  Who are you?  You.  Where did you come from?  Why do you react this way?  What's going on socially that makes you behave this way?  If it's been written by Beaumarchaise you read the original Beaumarchaise.  If it's in another language you must translate everything from beginning to end.  It's a tall order but it helps how to study a part. If you do it a few times, I think you won't accept not having this information when you sing a part.  Of course if you have to learn a role in four days and jump on the stage and sing it, that's another story.  I'm not trying to say that doesn't happen in life.  I'm talking about under what ideal circumstances, how do you approach a character?  How do you make her live?

Jo Reed: Here's the unfair question.  Is there a favorite role?

Martina Arroyo: I don't know if there's a favorite role.  I can tell you people I like.  I like Amelia very much in Ballo in Maschera.  I liked Rendort. I like her, how she changes and what she comes from.  Butterfly, I adore Butterfly.  For me, that's a labor of love singing that part.  It's not a labor at all, it's just love.  Many parts, but I wouldn't sing a part I didn't like.  I loved Lady Macbeth.  Oh, is she fun!

Jo Reed: In 1976 you were appointed to the National Council on the Arts, which is sort of like the Board of Directors for the NEA.

Martina Arroyo: Yes, for six years.

Jo Reed: And the years since then you've served on opera panels at the NEA.

Martina Arroyo: I think that's a responsibility.  Again, just like when you've had the good luck to have a career, it's your responsibility to turn around and help the next ones coming along and reach out your hands and say, "I'm here."  I think it's your responsibility if you're going to be in the arts to take part in what's going on if you can, and I say if you can because if you're not interested, don't do it.  If you're not interested you're not going to give it your all.

Jo Reed: Now tell me, how did you find out that you were awarded the Opera Honor this year?

Martina Arroyo: I got a call but a long time ago, when I say a long time ago, a couple of months ago but I was told I couldn't tell anyone until it was announced and those were the toughest two months because I'm a big talker anyway and to have to keep that secret was just murder for me.  I did tell my husband because I felt that they didn't mean not to tell your husband and if they did I goofed.  But my friends didn't know and afterwards when it was announced and I could talk about it, they said, "And you didn't tell me?  I thought I was special." <laughing>

Jo Reed: So it was a long two months.

Martina Arroyo: Oh but it was a long two months.  I couldn't even tell the kids in the class and now they think they're all going down to Washington.  I hope they don't consider it a march. <laughing>

Jo Reed: A well-deserved honor, most certainly.

Martina Arroyo: You're nice to say that.

Jo Reed: I mean it, which is even nicer.

Martina Arroyo: <laughing> Thank you very much.

That was soprano and 2010 Opera Honoree, Martina Arroyo. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts from AIDA,composed by Guiseppe Verdi and performed by Martina Arroyo, is used courtesy of Allegro Music Corporation.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at  Next week, director of the Michigan Opera Theater, composer and 2010 Opera Honoree, David DiChiera.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.



Legendary soprano Martina Arroyo talks about her career in opera, including working with such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. [27:17]