From rising star to grande dame, Martina Arroyo never forgot who she was

December 6, 2013

When the soprano Martina Arroyo was interviewed by the New York Times in 1968, she had the interviewer over to her place with some friends and her mother for chateaubriand and lasagne. When I interviewed her for The Washington Post this fall, she invited me to a black-tie dinner with a couple of hundred well-heeled New Yorkers. The two meals bracket a career track from rising star to grande dame.

Both interviewers, though, talked to the same down-to-earth, riotously funny, and not at all diva-esque person — which says a lot about how well Arroyo has negotiated that trajectory.

Divas are goddesses, worshipped from afar. Arroyo is a human being, and people flat-out love her. Mention her name and they wax enthusiastic about the pure, warm, round beauty of her voice — and then, invariably, mention her sense of humor. “The funniest person I think I’d ever seen on a talk show,” reminisced the dramaturg Cori Ellison in a video when Arroyo won the National Endowment for the Arts’ Opera Honors in 2010.

She was talking about Arroyo’s heyday in the 1970s, when the soprano was a frequent guest on both the Metropolitan Opera stage and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Her quips were certainly quotable, and some haunt her to this day: singing the role of Cio-Cio San in one of Puccini’s most beloved operas, she referred to herself not as “Madame Butterfly,” but as “Madame Butterball.”

This is the person who comes out in conversation — the Arroyo whom the Times reporter got to hang out with in 1968, and whom I got to chat with the day after the black-tie dinner in her duplex apartment on a high floor of a building on Central Park South, where she sat, beautifully clothed and coiffed, against a backdrop of glass cases of objets d’art and side tables with framed photographs of herself and her husband, Michel Maurel, who died in 2011.

The Post's Anne Midgette says the voice of Kennedy Center Honors recipient and opera singer Martina Arroyo has a "softness and gentleness, combined with large power, that makes her truly stand out as an artist." (Tom LeGro and Anne Midgette/The Washington Post)

But her sense of humor is not, of course, the reason she is being recognized with a Kennedy Center Honor. She’s being honored for her voice: her beautiful, clear, soaring, pure sound. She was, or is, a real Verdi singer — “was” because, now 76, she hasn’t sung an opera role on stage since 1991, and “is” because her speaking voice still has the clear, high pitch and extra resonance of a singer.

As for “Verdi singer,” it denotes a voice that can soar, that has heft to carry over an orchestra and lightness to mount the scale, and that has an innate sense of drama. “Drama” can mean different things to different people. Some found Arroyo’s early singing relatively cool; others, like the late stage director Lotfi Mansouri, who worked with her from the early days of her career at the Zurich Opera in the early 1960s, found that she “has a wonderful way of connecting with the audience.”

“It’s such a rich, rotund and luscious sound,” said the tenor George Shirley, a professor emeritus of voice at the University of Michigan. “I saw a few years ago a video of her singing Bess [in “Porgy and Bess”] in Sweden when she was quite young. It was just amazing. . . . There was a quality of the tone and her artistry that made her distinctive.”

In the years between the dinner in 1968 and the fall of 2013, Arroyo has played many roles, on and offstage. There is no artifice about her. Yet when you tell your story over and over through the years, to so many audiences and fans and interviewers, the narrative has a way of sliding, imperceptibly, into a canonical form that smooths over some of the rough edges, the dark spots in even the sunniest of lives.

To hear her tell it now, Arroyo stumbled almost by chance into a singing career. She grew up in Harlem in a loving family. Her father, Demetrio Arroyo, Spanish-born and raised in Puerto Rico, was an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Her mother, born Lucille Washington in Charleston, S.C., was something of a force of nature.

“Her mother was an incredible woman,” Shirley said. “Her mother was, I think, the person that gave strength to Martina in many ways.” The parents put a huge premium on experience and education, taking their children — Arroyo and her older brother, Theodore — to a wide range of events in Manhattan and cheering Arroyo on as she was admitted to Hunter College High School, then as now one of the elite public schools in the city.

But opera, Arroyo says, was not part of her background — until one day when she and some friends, aged about 14, were listening in on the Hunter College opera workshop and mimicking the way the singers sang. They were caught in the act by the workshop’s director, Josef Turnau. Arroyo recalls that he said, “Since you like singing so much, I want each of you to sing for me.’’

“I sang,” Arroyo continues, “what I thought was the Jewel Song [from Gounod’s “Faust”], in what I thought was French.” She had learned it from a recording — one indication that opera, even then, wasn’t entirely outside her sphere of interest.

However it happened, Turnau gave Arroyo permission to sit in on his classes. He also called the voice teacher Marinka Gurewich and told her he had a brilliantly talented singer with no money to pay for lessons; Gurewich remained Arroyo’s teacher for her entire career. (She also taught Grace Bumbry, another Kennedy Center honoree in 2009.)

Early in her career, Arroyo also met the agent Thea Dispeker, who after hearing her offered to work for nothing until Arroyo could afford to pay her; she, too, worked with Arroyo for virtually all of her career. Between mother, teacher, agent, and singer, it was a striking, and strikingly loyal, group of strong women.

Still, Arroyo didn’t immediately commit fully to singing. She got a BA in languages, planning to become a schoolteacher, and did briefly teach school as well as work for two years for the city welfare department. She was still working there in 1958 when she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions (along with Bumbry), although she had stopped by 1959, when she made her Met debut and went to Europe. It sounds glamorous, but the Met debut was in the role of the Celestial Voice in “Don Carlo,” a part so small that the New York Times reviewer said he didn’t feel qualified to judge her in it. “My mother missed” my debut, Arroyo says. “She went to the bathroom.”

Gurewich had schooled Arroyo in the song literature, and Dispeker’s first European bookings for the singer were oratorios and recitals. The conventional wisdom was that there was little work for a black woman on the opera stage, and Arroyo has said this in earlier interviews. Now, however, the attitude of determined positivism with which she faced early obstacles is reflected as positive memories.

“I thought the color problem was the other man’s problem,” she says. “I didn’t know how to carry that burden. I also came from a home where color didn’t matter. I wasn’t as aware as someone who came from a situation where there was segregation. . . . I had never been an outsider. It gives you a type of fearlessness because you don’t know you’re going to run into the problem, and I didn’t run into it. Or if I did, I didn’t know about it.” Or, to judge from earlier anecdotes, it has been charitably forgotten.

Her name and part of her heritage are Hispanic, but Arroyo has never particularly self-identified as such. “I am what you see,” she says: “a black woman.” She adds, “I’m a New Yorker through and through. My father’s Spanish became so bad I used to have to translate for him. He was more American than I’ll ever be.”

However, Arroyo was undeniably part of a generation that opened up opera to black singers: Bumbry, Shirley, Shirley Verrett, and of course Leontyne Price, to name only a few, were all coming onto the scene at around the same time. Indeed, they sometimes were mistaken for one another. More than once, Arroyo was addressed as “Miss Price.” “I’m not Leontyne Price,” she told one interlocutor. “I’m Reri Grist!” — referring to a petite coloratura soprano.

In hindsight, it’s easy to look back at the stations of success: The Zurich Opera hired Arroyo for a number of productions, and she embraced whatever other work came her way, including the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Momente” (not your standard Verdi soprano fare). But there was plenty of struggle and doubt between engagements.

The turning point came in 1965, when Birgit Nilsson pulled out of a Metropolitan Opera production of “Aida” on short notice and Arroyo went on for her. When she came offstage — so one version of the story goes — general manager Rudolf Bing was waiting for her with a contract. From then until her final performance in 1986, she was a star at the Met — and, soon enough, at the San Francisco Opera, the Opera de Paris, Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where she first met her future husband, Maurel, at a time when she was still married to her first husband, the Italian violist Emilio Poggioni.

Maurel, a French banker, is another vivid personality in Arroyo’s life; he remained her fiercest supporter, sometime critic (“You sang in French?” she recounts him saying after a recital), and collaborator until his death. “The void in my life is Michel having passed,” she says. “All those things you don’t realize someone else is doing.”

I have done Arroyo one disservice. I have dwelt on the past. Arroyo does not dwell on the past, and indeed has created a vividly active present. The black-tie dinner that I attended was the gala benefit celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Martina Arroyo Foundation, dedicated to training young singers. To say that Arroyo is passionately committed to this work is an understatement. “For me, that was all wonderful, that was the part with an active career, and success,” she says. “But life as I wanted it truly began for me with the foundation.”

The Arroyo Foundation runs two programs: one lasting several months that gives young singers in-depth experience working on a complete role with expert coaches, and a six-week summer program that takes artists all the way through the experience of performance, culminating with fully staged operas.

“We don’t try to claim that we make them the finished product,” Arroyo says. “We just want to get into them the need, the importance of the words, the rhythm being correct, the expression. . . . You must know who you are before page one. A Butterfly who came from a very big, gregarious family is different from a Butterfly who grew up mother and daughter only.”

At the gala, a number of ardent young singers gave proof positive of the way the foundation’s work had inspired them. Ryan Speedo Green gave a resounding rendition of “La Calumnia” from “Barber of Seville.” Now in the Met’s Lindemann program for young artists, he sang at Wolf Trap this past summer.

“They’ll go farther than I ever did,” Arroyo says, with utter sincerity. “You don’t know which one, but you have to give a shove to as many as you can.

“We have never had anybody want to drop out,” she adds, “unless I threaten to kill them.” Then she breaks into her signature laugh. Those young singers have a lot to live up to.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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