Martina Arroyo: An Operatic Non-Diva

2013 Kennedy Center Honoree
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Photo Credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Martina Arroyo is arguably the best Verdi soprano of our time, but this opera singer is no diva. Far from it. Even though the 76-year-old’s voice has soared in crystal clear song for decades, she is about as down to earth as a person gets. And boy is she funny.

The Harlem-born talent made her way into her current field by mimicking opera singers at Hunter College in New York City. She and her buddies were busted by the director who said, “Since you like singing so much, I want each of you to sing for me.”

PHOTOS: 2013 Kennedy Center Honors

After coming up with her best impression of “The Jewel Song” from “Faust,” Arroyo found herself in his class as well as in training with Marinka Gurewich, an acclaimed voice teacher. Along the way, Martina was again plucked out of obscurity by Thea Dispeker, her tireless agent who originally worked with Martina without being paid but for the pure pleasure of being able to represent such a talent.

Martina Arroyo broke into the global operatic scene in 1963 as principal soprano for the Zurich Opera where she debuted as “Aida.” A fewyears later, she returned to the Big Apple to become one of the Met’s top sopranos. Her unparalleled voice was heard on all of the best world stages, from Teatro alla Scala in Milan to The Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Arroyo’s last bow took place in 1991 after which time she taught her craft at a number of places of higher education on both sides of the pond. She also appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” again displaying her sharp wit. When referring to her part as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” she dubbed herself “Madame Butterball.”

These days, this esteemed artist who is anything but a show-off runs two programs through The Arroyo Foundation. One gives immersion experience to young singers through in-depth workshops that last three months and the other is a summer program that ends in a the production of a full-fledged opera after six weeks of mounting the project.

Like colleague Grace Bumbry who was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient four years ago, Martina Arroyo is the second black opera singer to be applauded in this way. Although the daughter of a Spaniard who grew up in Puerto Rico and married an American from Charleston, South Carolina, Martina never really did identify as African American. However, this huge talent housed in a diminutive body acquiesced, once telling the New York Times, “I am what you see — a black woman.”

But don’t tag her as such, as this acclaimed soprano who won the National Endowment for the Arts opera honors in 2010 indicated to writer Anne Midgette, “I’m a New Yorker through and through. My father’s Spanish became so bad I used to have to translate for him [but] he was more American than I’ll ever be.”

You can watch “The 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors” on CBS Sunday, December 29th at 9 PM PT.

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Los Angeles freelance travel writer Jane Lasky, contributes to publications such as Travel + Leisure, Vogue and Esquire. Her weekly sojourning column ran in 40 newspapers for 20 years. Jane is anything but an accidental tourist. Check out her articles on Examiner.com.

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