Martina Arroyo is an American Soprano who had a major international opera career from the 1960s through the 1980s. She was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve wide success, and is viewed as part of an instrumental group of performers who helped break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world. Martina has received numerous awards and accolades for her long-standing preeminence at the world’s foremost opera houses and concert halls, including a 2013 Kennedy Center Honors and a 2010 Opera Honors Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She continues to make an invaluable contribution to the art form through her teaching and her commitment to young artist development through the Martina Arroyo Foundation.
ANDREW-MARTIN WEBER: I want to ask you first about the Kennedy Center award, which you received recently, given by President Obama, one of the highest awards given in the arts in the US. Alongside recognition for an extraordinary career, equally as important, is your foundation.
MARTINA ARROYO: Yes, I really think that award was given, not only for many years of singing a long time ago, but much more about what we are doing for young opera singers and what we are doing and being involved with their lives, especially those who have little preparation for an operatic career. It might seem like a lot but it is comparatively little. Right now it is the time to really get in there and work for the opera and the young singers. We are losing support and some of our better opera houses. We truly need to bolster this young talent to push ahead to save our opera houses!
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Absolutely! Let’s start with your own life and career. You were born in NYC, in Harlem and your father was a mechanical engineer and you had the benefit of the great arts organizations that were in NY at that time. Do you think that played a large part in your desire to find a life in the arts?
MARTINA ARROYO: Yes, but not right away. In the beginning I didn’t want to be a singer, I wanted to be a schoolteacher. Going to Hunter High School changed my ideas when I went to an opera workshop and it became by life. Not only opera but also song literature like Brahms and Schubert. I had a BA in Romance Languages and Education and also in Comparative Literature. This sounds simple enough but you have to understand that I came from a relatively poor home. We were not underprivileged, but we did not have a great deal of money and my family thought you must go to college, you must have a degree to be able to work for yourself and have a career in your life and they didn’t see opera singing or song recitals as a career. My father was so afraid I would have to wear a short dress and kick up my legs. He finally found out more and saw an opera himself, certainly my mother came to love opera and respect it almost more than I do. She became addicted to it. The goal was to begin to have an education, to be able to take care of yourself on a different level. Their attitude was “what was good for us, is not good enough for you.”
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: An Opera career don’t happen overnight—it takes years and years of study and people don’t understand how much goes into it.
MARTINA ARROYO: Yes, but I was fortunate in that I started studying at a very early age. I went to Madame Marinka Gurewich at the advice of Professor Joseph Turnow and I was a 14.5 which is already too young to be singing, according to Madame Marinka Gurewich, so I had several years of just studying and allowing the voice to grow and allowing my learning of the languages and characters to happen without the pressure of performance. We only had our own performances at Hunter College. I went to Hunter High School and then Hunter College where there was an extremely well known opera workshop. That allowed the voice to mature without being pushed and without be asked. I did a great deal of song. So I had sung lots of recitals when I finally sang professionally. Then I went into the opera shortly afterwards but nevertheless with that background of how to make a full picture I was ahead of the game.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: I understand that your first big break came in Europe.
MARTINA ARROYO: Well I sang Butterfly and Aida in Europe shortly after The Voice from Heaven … Zurich, Düsseldorf, etc. Mr. Bing said ‘get some experience in Europe and I promise I’ll bring you back if all goes well.’ And in 1965 he did, when Brigit Nilsson was sick, I replaced her. He couldn’t replace her with just one of the Met singers, he replaced her with a total unknown, hoping they wouldn’t throw everything at me.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: I think it’s important to touch on this, especially since we think today things are getting easier, as a woman of color how did you feel you were accepted, or not, in the US. What things did you have to fight or stand up for as a singer?
MARTINA ARROYO: I didn’t realize that I was singing as a woman of color. I sang because I wanted to sing and I loved it and I had success and obviously the people who heard it endorsed what I was doing. I didn’t worry about being black. I knew what Marion Anderson and Roland Hayes had gone through when they were breaking into the profession but when you are thinking about yourself and I was told to go out and audition, “oh here I am a black girl, are they going to like to hear me?” I went out and sang.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Your voice was a Grade A passport to acceptance.
MARTINA ARROYO: I think so but it also had to do with meeting and greeting people and talking to them.so that they like you as well as your voice. They call it networking now. I think that was really a part of it. I know that I was invited back very often too because there was a harmony. I was working with other people who didn’t care about race.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Was your big debut in America at the Met?
MARTINA ARROYO: Well now I also had a debut in Murder in the Cathedral in 1969 with Empire State Music Festival. That was very important too. In the meantime, I was one of the winners of the Metropolitan Opera’s auditions of the year in 1958 and so I was given the opportunity to do The Voice from Heaven. Then the following year as one of the Rhine Maidens, but not on stage. In the meantime I was singing major roles in Europe mainly Butterfly and Aida and if those roles were chosen because I was a woman of color I don’t know, but they were my vehicles. Finally it was Mr. Bing who brought me to the Met to sing Elsa, in Lohengrin, in 1968.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: You were the first woman of color to sing Elsa in a Wagner Opera anywhere in the world.
MARTINA ARROYO: I had sung the Flying Dutchman too, maybe not as well as Leonie Rysanek, but that’s alright.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: You’ve had such a spectacular opera career and the honor of opening the Met two seasons in a row with Don Carlo and Il Trovatore.
MARTINA ARROYO: Right, but I had also been at the Philharmonic since 1963 with the opening of Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, the Verdi Requiem, Mahler’s Second. My career was balanced with opera, oratorio and song–I was very fortunate.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: You seem to have maintained that balance throughout your career, if I might be so bold, knowing when to retire your career.
MARTINA ARROYO: I think knowing when to retire is extremely important but also knowing when it’s time to turn around to help by reach a hand out to the others. That became very important to me because if someone hadn’t done that for me I wouldn’t have had any career at all. I was helped by people – I didn’t do it all on my own.
ANDREW MARTIN WEBER: And then President Ford of course appointed you…
MARTINA ARROYO: To the National Endowment for the Arts, The Council.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: You have been involved with charitable works all of your life. This is sort of a fairly major acknowledgment by the President at a time when the Nation Endowment for the Arts actually meant something.
MARTINA ARROYO: Oh don’t say it that way. I think we can work toward making it mean a little bit more.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: That was a major recognition from the President, and not your first president or your last. Then of course your own foundation. I want to talk about that, because what you do is very important in terms of nurturing opera singers, teaching them to perform and pointing them in the right direction.
MARTINA ARROYO: The foundation started because I had heard and seen over the years, even with my generation many singers that didn’t make me believe their character. I thought I was a good actress, on the contrary, people like Tito Capobianco and Lotfi Mansouri helped me a great deal, and this was after my career had started. I saw that was a part of the growth of a singer. If that part of your education wasn’t developed properly you weren’t getting in the schools and in the private studios. Our foundation started with a role class talking about the character and making the words have enough meaning and telling the story by your expressions, by your use of the words, by your use of your body. We did not touch technique in singing because we thought that was something the teachers do, and take a lot of time doing, but then you get a young talent with a good voice and she doesn’t know what she is saying and I think the audience knows when you don’t know what you are saying. We started that small class ten years ago with a small foundation with wonderful people with a great deal of heart but not much money. We really had to fight hard to keep that alive and we still fight but now that we have turned it into the “Prelude to Performance”, where we now give two or four performances of two operas in the summer with orchestra, with costumes, with 21 different teachers, where they learn not only language and movement and combat and studying the role, coaching of the role from 10am to 6pm, it’s hard work. Believe me when people like Taylor Stayton or Ryan Speedo Green came through it they worked hard. But it was worth it. It is worth it. Again I don’t give myself the credit for being the one that teaches them the essence of the program, we bring in people that help us do that. It’s amazing how since we have started we have young people from all over the world.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: So, is opera relevant?
MARTINA ARROYO: Absolutely! Opera is life. It’s a portrayal of what happens. We are portraying other human beings. We are putting on the skin of another human being and that’s what we deal with, we put on that other person’s skin so we have to learn how would a geisha walk and move in order to make her believable as Butterfly.
ANDREW MARTIN–WEBER: And then, of course, music itself.
MARTINA ARROYO: I don’t think I could live without music.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: This is the agenda of FLATT, getting people to understand that arts education, be it music, literature, whatever it is, is essential to forming a fully diverse human being.
MARTINA ARROYO: When I say music I don’t mean opera, I mean jazz, and I’ve seen jazz artists that got to my soul that couldn’t hold it back. They’re saying something. They’re living another character. There is so much song literature that are small pictures, small paintings. This is our opinion now. There are a lot of people out there and that’s why we can’t let it die. We can’t let it go to a point that it doesn’t revive at it’s best. We have wonderful people still in the arts that have a lot to say.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: This is very true. Now let’s do a bit of a circle back to your opera career. I know we were supposed to have a drink when we said this, but are there any particularly good stories…Martina Arroyo was one of the great guests of the tonight show of Johnny Carson. There were a few outrageous stories.
MARTINA ARROYO: First of all, they are not outrageous in the sense there’s something that happened that was negative. Sometimes they were just outrageous for that moment. The first night I was scared to death and I had never met him and he wouldn’t meet me beforehand. I walked into the makeup room and he was sitting there, he shouldn’t have been, and I don’t know why I had to go, I think it was because I have such a moist face and they were patting me down, and he didn’t speak, not even one word. He stayed in tune with his own thoughts. When I went out I thought “uh oh, here we go” and we started having fun immediately. I think the reason he liked me was because I didn’t talk about opera in the sense that I didn’t tell him my schedule. I’ll tell you this, at first it was not so accepted by people that we did these shows, then it became “please go do them” because there was so much publicity out there. When Joey Bishop came to the Met, backstage went bananas, because he was standing there with flowers in his hand. Then we started finding out that very often at the Met you would find Roddie McDowell, Ava Garder, big stars from other arts professions..so that we are not such an isolated profession.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: And at the foundation, how do you accept students?
MARTINA ARROYO: Well, it’s not like many years ago when you might live with your teacher or have a lesson every day. These young people are working and paying for their lessons – the price is quite high I’m told. Many of them get a lesson a week or two lessons a month if they are lucky. So things take longer. Also you can’t work 8 hours a day and come in and sing. We had to develop a process. At first we go by audition and last year we auditioned more than 500 people, because we are casting two performances and we have to have two persons per cast, per character. Before they paid the $3,000 tuition, since the board has abandoned that idea, now become free of cost, but they do not get a stipend, which is something we really want to work toward. When they come from Denmark or we have two coming from South Africa, two young men, this is for them a very big expense. That’s along with their singing lessons and other training that you have to have. Six weeks. Every day except Sundays, but sometimes on Sundays. Not only do we have those classes, we have guest master classes with people like Eric Owens, Stephanie Blythe. We have artists who have had careers so they can tell them about being in the profession. We also had artists like Tito Capobianco who work with them on their parts. They didn’t know what is was like to work with a stage director. They are exposed to so much more than you get from just studying with a teacher at a school. I know that Dona Vaughn up at Manhattan [School of Music] believes in this type of class but many of the schools don’t.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: The program culminates in?
MARTINA ARROYO: In four performances of two of each opera. We have a very small paying public, it’s a big public, but they don’t pay very much. We can’t afford to ask them to pay for so much. It’s very often friends and family of those who are singing, plus, we also have to pay for the costumes and everything that entails putting on a professional performance. Our budget is way up there too, near a half a million dollars.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: Is any part of the budget covered by grants or by the NEA?
MARTINA ARROYO: We do get grants. We’re very fortunate; the NEA gives us a grant each year. We get grants from other organizations.We get private grants, relatively small but never the less it adds up. We get grants from people, individuals like the gentleman I’m talking to which means the world to us. We continue to try to attract those grants; it doesn’t get less and less expensive each year it gets more and more. The other thing is that you always want to do more.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: On that note, tell us what the future has in store for Martina Arroyo.
MARTINA ARROYO: She’s just going to live and work until it’s over. I thought this was retirement. I’m hoping that we reach a level that we are not only allowing them to study in the program but they can live in the city and not sacrifice they’re living and eating. I want them to carry on [giving back]. If they don’t do this forty years from now then where are we. Not everyone is going to. Some people are so turned into themselves that they don’t think in terms of giving. If they have any sense at all they will remember that this program might have helped them and they got to help somebody else along the way. We have to hold on to each other. We are our only textbooks.
ANDREW MARTIN-WEBER: One more thing – for fun. Name three of your favorite things.
MARTINA ARROYO: Besides eating you mean. I still love old movies and Murder She Wrote. I still love reading, I’ve gotten off the track because there hasn’t been very much time and the eyes are acting up a little bit but that was always one of my favorite pastimes. I still love people very much.