Kennedy Center Honor a Flourish to Martina Arroyo's Remarkable Career

Friday, September 13, 2013 - 11:00 AM

On August 31, 2012, I published an article entitled, “Who Should Receive the Kennedy Center Honors?” In it I gave a long, reasoned and highly opinionated list of performing artists I felt should receive these awards. 

I had noted the names of the opera singers who had received the honors in the previous 34 years: Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry, Plácido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Risë Stevens and Joan Sutherland. All richly deserved this recognition but I felt that other singers should be honored. l mentioned  four: Martina Arroyo, Samuel Ramey, Regina Resnik and Renata Scotto. Mr. Ramey wrote in to say that I should have included Frederica von Stade – he was right – and I came to believe I should have added Sherrill Milnes too.

In that article I discussed performers in many art forms and examined how to create a good mix of recipients for the awards. I gave my suggestions as to whom I felt should be honored in 2012 and this year, one of whom was actress Shirley MacLaine.

You can imagine my delight in reading this announcement when it came over the virtual transom early in the morning of September 12, 2013:

"The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts today announced the selection of the five individuals who will receive the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors. Recipients to be honored at the 36th annual national celebration of the arts are: opera singer Martina Arroyo; pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer Herbie Hancock; pianist, singer and songwriter Billy Joel; actress Shirley MacLaine; and musician and songwriter Carlos Santana. The Honors Gala will be recorded for broadcast on the CBS Network for the 36th consecutive year as a two-hour primetime special on Sunday, December 29 at 9 pm. (ET/PT)."

All of these artists richly deserve this accolade, but opera lovers have a particular reason to rejoice in the selection of Martina Arroyo. The 76-year-old, Harlem-born soprano is beloved. To have some sense of how endearing she is, watch this interview that was recorded in 2010 when she received the National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honor.

Arroyo had a long career in major theaters in the United States and Europe. She sang in three opening nights at the Met, a theater where she gave nearly two hundred performances. She began and ended with Verdi. In 1959, her debut came offstage as the Celestial Voice in Don Carlo. It ended, brilliantly, as Aïda, on October 31, 1986, a performance I had the pleasure of hearing.

Her Verdi singing, whether from Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Macbeth or Aïda, was sublime. The voice was rich and beautifully supported, the attention to drama in words and music scrupulous and impeccable. Ultimately, though, her singing reached even the hearts of listeners who did not understand its refinement. Verdi would have loved her.

She was equally wonderful in Mozart—she was a thrilling Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Mozart would have loved her. And she had the dramatic thrust, combined with being simpatica, that is ideal for verismo roles such as Maddalena, Santuzza, Tosca and Madama Butterfly (right). Puccini would have loved her.

In addition to the audiences around the world who warmed to opera thanks to her performances, Arroyo has been almost unrivaled in her outreach efforts for the art form. Among American artists, only Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills accomplished as much. She has taught singing at important schools, including Indiana University. She has sat on boards at major centers of learning as well as performing arts institutions.

In 2003, she established the Martina Arroyo Foundation and, with it, a program called "Prelude to Performance" in which she and other artists and teachers train young singers in the dramatic elements of their roles. Most programs of this kind focus on the musical aspects of a role, which is of course crucial. But this program goes further by teaching young artists how to dig into their characters in all ways. At its conclusion, in mid-July, the students trained by the Arroyo Foundation perform in two full productions of the operas they have learned.

Tony Randall, a huge opera lover, engaged her to appear on The Odd Couple. Her natural charm, excellent singing, and ability to deliver a funny line even brought the famously cantankerous sportscaster Howard Cosell to his knees. Watch:

In addition to being very pleased that she has been accorded this richly-deserved honor, I know that the large television audience who will watch the Kennedy Center Honors on December 29, including many who did not know of her, will have the opportunity to discover what makes Martina Arroyo great and what she has meant to opera and to her nation.

Photo: Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera


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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

WE SHOULD ALL BE HAPPY THAT MARTINA, AGAIN, HAS GOTTEN THE RECOGNITION SHE SO HIGHLY DESERVES !!! MARTINA ARROYO is all one would want to see in a person with high achievements and one wishing to succor, help, others in this highly competitive world. At the Hunter College Opera workshop Martina and I were participant members. At the Hunter College Opera workshop jn a staged production, I sang the role of SIEGMUND [DIE WALKURE ] with ROSE LANDVER as the stage director and maestro WILLIAM TARRASCH conducting.. ] am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb: Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6
PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including
programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. I am the director at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute of Boonton, NJ. where I teach voice and train artists in all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles.

Jan. 04 2014 01:35 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

MARTINA ARROYO, the complete artist and wholesome empathetic human being. I remember her from the days when I sang the title role of FRA DIAVOLO in the Met Opera's assistant manager John Gutman's adaptation into English of the French original libretto for Francois Daniel Auber's FRA DIAVOLO given its premiere at the Hunter College Playhouse now renamed the Danny Kaye Playhouse. Rose Landver was the stage director and Maestro William Tarrasch [of Broadway's STREET SCENE by Kurt Weill] was at the orchestra's helm. Others in the cast were Janet Southwick, Peter Binder and William Workman. In the Hunter College Opera Workshop, I sang the Radames to Martina's Aida in a scene from AIDA. When we ate together with others in the school's cafeteria, Martina's buoyant self-deprecating humor produced belly laughs. She is one rare thoroughly, universally, appreciated talent and human being. It is hard to think of anyone more deserving of the Kennedy Center honors. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["SHAKESPEARE" and "THE POLITICAL SHAKESPEARE"] and the director of The Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the Wagner and all the Shakespeare roles are taught as well as vocal technque for singing and declamation.

Sep. 16 2013 03:17 PM

I agree with the comments expressed by others. I feel that the Kennedy Honors should be given to Americans. The artists from other countries have been afforded many honors by their own countries and other countries where they long lived and performed. Anyway, brava for Ms Arroyo!

Sep. 16 2013 10:36 AM
beachsiggy from NYC

This is an honor long overdue. We also ought to give Ms. Arroyo an award for being the funniest, most down to earth, and positive in the face of anything that can possibly happen person on the planet. I envy her voice and sense of humor; I try my best to emulate her approach to life.

Sep. 16 2013 09:38 AM
Eliza O'Doherty from Greenville, NC

Martina Arroyo is also a distinguished judge for Opera Competitions like the PARIS OPERA AWARDS, whose inaugural Finals were held in January of this year. As a judge she showed great integrity in choosing as the winner an outsider like Mary-Jean O'Doherty, a graduate of East Carolina University.

Sep. 15 2013 10:22 AM
Herman Joseph from NYC

Martina Arroyo was one of the greatest spinto sopranos in the history of opera. That she is a master teacher and organized the Martina Arroyo Foundation to educate young singers just adds to her immense contribution to NYC, the nation and the art of music. She deserves this award.

Sep. 13 2013 09:58 PM
Michelle Kamhi

An accolade well deserved! Having been lucky enough to attend Hunter College High School a year behind Martina, I still recall with a thrill her singing "Un Bel Di" at a school assembly. We knew we were in the presence of a very special talent. I also recall with gratitude her part in admitting me to the glee club. Stagestruck but not very talented, I auditioned for her and our superb music teacher, Charlotte Hochmann. Sensing how badly I wanted in, Martina turned to Ms. Hochmann after my rather feeble performance and said forgivingly "Well, we do need altos."

Sep. 13 2013 05:01 PM

"long overdo"?????

Sep. 13 2013 02:42 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

No piece about Arroyo would be complete without referencing her delightful sense of humor.I heard "Madam Butterball" on the radio as she said it,and her witty retorts are almost as iconic.When a security guard at the old MET said "Good night,Miss Price",she answered,"I'm the other one,honey.".When Augusta,Georgia- born Jessye Norman began to speak in the ersatz British accent she has been known to employ,Arroyo said "You want some chitlins with that?",and when a Black singer discussed going to Europe as "Returning to the Fatherland",she replied "Oh,are you going to Africa?".

Sep. 13 2013 12:03 PM

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