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

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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