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Martina Arroyo (Soprano)

Born: February 2, 1937 - New York City, New York, USA

Martina Arroyo is an operatic soprano of Puerto Rican and African-American descent who had a major international opera career during the 1960ís through the 1980ís. 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.

Arroyo first rose to prominence at the Zürich Opera between 1963-1965, after which she was one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading sopranos between 1965 and 1978. During her years at the Metropolitan Opera she was also a regular presence at the world's best opera houses, performing on the stages of La Scala, Covent Garden, the Opéra National de Paris, the Teatro Colón, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Vienna State Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the San Francisco Opera to name just a few. She is best known for her performances of the Italian spinto repertoire and in particular her portrayals of Verdi and Puccini heroines. Her last opera performance was in 1991, after which she has devoted her time to teaching singing on the faculties of various universities in the USA and Europe.

Early Life and Education

Martina Arroyo was born in New York City, the younger of two children of Demetrio Arroyo, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, and Lucille Washington, a native of Charleston, South Carolina. Her older brother grew up to become a Baptist minister. The family lived in Harlem near St. Nicholas Avenue and 111th Street. Demetrio was a mechanical engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and earned a good salary which enabled Arroyo's mother to stay at home with their children. His job also allowed the family to experience New York's fine cultural offerings and the family frequented museums, concerts, and the theatre. It was attending several performances of Broadway shows during the 1940s that first inspired Arroyo's interest in becoming a performer. Her mother humored her dreams and allowed Arroyo to take ballet classes. Her mother was also a talented amateur classical pianist and taught her daughter to play the instrument. Arroyo's other musical experiences as a child were largely through singing in the choirs at her Baptist church and as a student at Hunter College High School.

After finishing high school in 1953, Martina Arroyo attended Hunter College where she earned a B.A. in Romance languages in 1956 at the young age of 19. While there she studied voice as a hobby in an opera workshop with Joseph Turnau. Turnau recognized that Martina was a major talent that just needed proper training, and, after the workshop ended, he introduced her to voice instructor Marinka Gurewich. Gurewich immediately took Arroyo on as a student but she did not take her training as seriously as Gurewich wanted and Gurewich eventually threatened to end their lessons. Gurewich's threat, however, forced her to take her studies more seriously and she continued to study with her until Gurewich's death in 1990. Another important partnership formed around this time was with concert manager Thea Dispeker who, after attending one of Arroyo's recitals, offered her services at no charge until Arroyo's career took off. Dispeker helped manage much of Arroyo's career over the next several decades.

After graduating from college, Martina Arroyo was faced with the difficulty of working while trying to study singing. Under the advice of her mother, she became an English teacher at Bronx High School in the Fall of 1956 but found it difficult to balance her teaching responsibilities with continued training under Gurewich. She decided to leave her teaching position and take work as a social worker at the East End Welfare Center. For two years, she managed a case load of over 100 welfare recipients while continuing her voice training.

In 1957 Martina Arroyo auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera but was not accepted. Somewhat disheartened, Arroyo flirted with the idea of becoming an academic and began working on a Masters degree in comparative literature at New York University with a dissertation on Ignacio Silone's Pane e Vino and Vino e Pane. The following year she competed in and won the Metropolitan Opera's Audition of the Air competition (pre-cursor to the National Council Auditions), earning a $1,000 cash prize and a scholarship to the Met's Kathryn Long School. She dropped out of NYU and entered the Kathryn Long School in the Fall of 1957 where she studied singing, drama, German, English diction, and fencing. While at the school, she was offered the role of the First coryphée in the American premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral to be performed at a festival in upstate New York. The concert, however, was rained out and was rescheduled for a performance at Carnegie Hall instead on September 17, 1958. The performance marked Arroyo's first professional appearance singing in an opera. The New York Times said of her performance, "Martina Arroyo is a gifted soprano who appears to have remarkable potential, and she sang with a voice of amplitude and lovely color."

In February 1959 Martina Arroyo sang the title role in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in a concert version with the Little Orchestra Society at Town Hall. Shortly thereafter she made her debut on the opera stage at the Metropolitan Opera as the Celestial Voice in Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo on March 14, 1959 with Eugenio Fernandi in the title role, Leonie Rysanek as Elizabeth, Robert Merrill as Rodrigo, and Nell Rankin as Princess Eboli. This was the beginning of a long association with the Met and the beginning of a lengthy career on the opera stage.

Musical Career

After having made her Met debut, Martina Arroyo moved to Europe where she began to appear in roles with minor opera houses in 1959. While performing in Italy of that year she met her future husband, professional violist Emilio Poggioni. Over the next several years Arroyo worked mostly in Europe in mostly smaller roles, failing to land the larger name-making roles. Those larger parts which she did get were mostly in more obscure works. During 1961 and 1962 she went back and forth between Europe and the Metropilitan Opera frequently, with her roles at the Met during this period being in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and in reprisals of Don Carlo. Her roles in the Der Ring des Nibelungen included the Third Norn and Woglinde in R. Wagner's Götterdämmerung, Woglinde in R. Wagner's Das Rheingold, Ortlinde in Wagner's Die Walküre, and the Forest Bird in Siegfried.

In 1963 her first major break came when she was offered a contract to join the Zürich Opera as a principle soprano. She made her debut there in the title role of Verdi's Aida where she was received enthusiastically. She continued to sing regularly at that opera house through 1968.

Aida became an important role for Martina Arroyo early in her career, serving as a calling card for her at many major opera houses during the 1960ís. She sang the role for her first appearance at the Hamburg State Opera in 1963 and at both the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Vienna State Opera in 1964. In February of the following year she sang Aida in her first starring role at the Met as a last minute replacement for Birgit Nilsson. The performance received rave reviews with The New York Times praising Arroyo as "one of the most gorgeous voices before the public today." Rudolph Bing, the Met's director, immediately offered her a contract to join the roster of the company's principle sopranos which extended for several years.

Martina Arroyo began the 1965-1966 season at the Met in October with a critically acclaimed performance of Elizabeth in Don Carlo. She immediately became a favorite singer at that house portraying mostly Verdi heroines and the Met became her principle home from that point up until 1978. Her other roles at the Met during these 13 years included Aida, Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butter, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth, Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore, Leonora in Verdi's La forza del destino, Liù in Puccini's Turandot, Maddalena in Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Santuzza in Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, and the title role in Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda among others. She was also notably the first black person to portray the role of Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin in 1968, not just at the Met, but in all of opera history.

During her years at the Met, Martina Arroyo would frequently travel to perform at other houses both in the USA and internationally. In 1968 she sang for the first time in Israel and made her first appearance in the UK as Valentine in a London concert performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Later that year she made her debut at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company, both singing the role of Aida. She returned to both companies a number of times during the 1970ís as Verdi heroines and in parts like the title roles in Puccini's Tosca and Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She sang Amelia in Un ballo in maschera for her debuts with both the San Francisco Opera (1971) and the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1972). She returned to Chicago to sing her first Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra in 1974. In 1972 she sang Aida for her debut at La Scala opposite Plácido Domingo as Radames. In 1973 she made her first appearances at the Opéra National de Paris and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. In 1977 she made her debut with the Opera Company of Philadelphia portraying Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and in 1979 made her debut with Michigan Opera Theatre as Lenora in Il trovatore. She remained very busy in the world's major opera houses through 1979 singing mostly Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss heroines and other roles from the lirico-spinto repertoire.

Famous for her interpretations of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Mozart, Martina Arroyo has had the honor of three opening night performances at the Metropolitan Opera, two of them in consecutive seasons. At ease with contemporary music, she has premiered works of William Bolcom and Carlo Franci and was chosen to present the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Andromache's Farewell as well as Karlheinz Stockhausenís Momente. She later recorded both pieces and performed them throughout the USA and Europe.

By 1980, Martina Arroyo's career had started to slow down and she was much more selective in what roles she chose to take. She returned to the Met in 1986 to sing Aida and Santuzza; making her last appearance and 199th performance at that house on October 31, 1986. In 1987 she sang her last portrayal of the title role in Turandot with the Seattle Opera and in 1989 she announced her retirement from the opera stage. She came out of retirement in 1991 for one last performance in the world premiere of Leslie Adams's Blake, an opera whose story is set in pre-Civil War America when slavery was still a reality.

Throughout her carer Martina Arroyo was also a frequent performer of the concert repertoire and appeared with many of the world's leading symphony orchestras. She performed often with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Leonard Bernstein who particularly admired her voice in such repertoire as L.v. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Missa Solemnis.

Martina Arroyo is a recipient of a 2010 Opera Honors Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Having performed in the major opera houses and with the greatest symphony orchestras of the world, Martina Arroyo has left a legacy of more than 50 recordings, including major operas and orchestral works with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Rafael Kubelík, Zubin Mehta, Thomas Schippers, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado, James Levine and Colin Davis.

Her recordings of Verdi's Messa da requiem, Aïda (La Scala, Munich and Teatro Colón), Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino (in both the standard and the 1862 revised versions) and I vespri siciliani; Mozart's Don Giovanni (Donna Elvira for Karl Böhm and Donna Anna for Sir Colin Davis); L.v. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony; George Frideric Handel's Judas Maccabeus (twice) and Samson; Gustav Mahler's massive Eighth Symphony (the Symphony of a Thousand); Rossini's Stabat Mater and Arnold Schoenbergís Gurrelieder have all been recently reissued on CD.

She has also recorded important 20th century music, including Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and Carlo Franci's African Oratorio and two works she "created" in their world premieres: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Momente and Samuel Barber's Andromache's Farewell.

Martina Arroyo's discography (which also includes an aria recital), though enviable, does not encompass anything like the full range of roles she essayed onstage. At the Metropolitan Opera alone, these are the operas she performed but never recorded commercially: Verdi's Ernani, Macbeth, Il trovatore, Don Carlos (the Celestial Voice as well as Elizabeth, both in Italian), and Aida; Wagner's Lohengrin and Der Ring des Nibelungen (featured roles in all four operas); Ponchielli's La Gioconda; Giordano's Andrea Chénier; and Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Turandot (as Liù; she played the title role in Toronto).

Teaching Career

Since her official retirement from singing in 1989 Martina Arroyo has amassed significant teaching credits She has taught at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Delaware, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and Wilberforce University in Ohio, as well as the International Sommerakademie-Mozarteum in Salzburg and the School of Music of Indiana University where she remains Distinguished Professor of Music Emerita. She has also served on the Harvard College Board of Overseers for the Department of Music.

Appointed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, Martina Arroyo served on the National Endowment for the Arts Washington, D.C. for six years and continues to participate as an invited panelist and moderator. In addition, she remains actively associated with the National Council on the Arts as an Ambassador for the Arts. She sits on the Board of Directors of Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera Guild, and The Collegiate Chorale, as well as The Voice Foundation, which presented her with the V.E.R.A award in 2006.

A Trustee Emerita of the Hunter College Foundation, she has also served as an artistic advisor of the Harlem School of the Arts, the Singers Development Foundation, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, among others. In 2002 Martina Arroyo was inducted as a Fellow into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Amici di Verdi in London, Citizens Committee for New York City and Opera Index are a few of the many other groups that have honored her.

Martina Arroyo has served as an adjudicator of many prestigious international competitions such as the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium, George London Competition, the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and the ARD International Music Competition in Munich.

Having delighted television and radio audiences with ovtwenty appearances on the Tonight Show on NBC-TV, she is a frequent guest and moderator on radioís Singers Roundtable, the live intermission feature of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera.

While she continues to present master-classes and lectures at many institutions throughout the world, she is most passionate about the program she created in New York City. In 2003, she established The Martina Arroyo Foundation in order to offer a structured curriculum, focusing on the study and preparation of complete operatic roles, to emerging young artists at the inception of their professional careers. Whether as educator or performer of operatic roles, song literature or contemporary music, Martina Arroyo continues to share her superb artistry with the public.

With Dr. Willard L. Boyd, former President of the University of Iowa, she co-authored the Task Force Report on Music Education in the U.S.

Source: Martina Arroyo Website (2009); Wikipedia Website (October 2010)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2010)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Paul Boepple


BWV 232

Links to other Sites

Martina Arroyo | Opera Singer | Spinto Soprano (Official Website)
Amartina Arroyo Foundation
2010 National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors recipient Martina Arroyo

Martina Arroyo (Wikipedia)
Martina Arroyo (Encyclopedia of World Biography)
Extravagant Crowd: Martina Arroyo
Martina Arroyo (

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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