Martina Arroyo is one of the greatest singers of 1960’s and 1980’s and was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve wide success. Today she is viewed as part of an instrumental group of performers who helped break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world. This year Arroyo celebrates her 80th birthday and today she is still actively developing voices under her foundation. Associated with the roles of Verdi, Puccini and Ponchielli, Arroyo conquered every great theater in the world with her powerful spinto soprano. To celebrate her birthday OperaWire takes a look at some of the roles that Arroyo sang before she became a big superstar.
Arroyo only sang one leading Wagner role when she took on Elsa in “Lohengrin” in 1968. Aside from that, her work in the great composer’s repertoire came down to numerous smaller parts in the Ring Cycle. Two years after her 1959 Metropolitan Opera debut, Arroyo was given the task to sing Third Norn and Woglinde in “Gotterdammerung” as well as Ortlinde in “Die Walkure.” The Forest Bird was also assigned to her in “Siegfried” as was Woglinde in “Das Rheingold.” These were roles she repeated early on at the Met but would soon disappear as she became a bigger star. In 1968 Arroyo added the role of Elsa to her Met repertory in “Lohengrin” and became the first black person to ever sing the role in the history of opera. During that time period also sang the Wesendonk Lieder and in 1977 she added Senta in “Der Fliegende Hollander” for Opera Philadelphia debut. Arroyo developed her career towards the Italian repertoire and would not return to Wagner until 1983 when she performed the Immolation scene from “Gotterdammerung.” Perhaps it was a preview of what could have been or just simply an experiment. Whatever it was, the soprano performed the scene 12 times around the world.
The French repertoire was also something Arroyo rarely explored in her prime. But there was one composer she did sing and that was the rarely performed Meyerbeer. In 1962 Arroyo performed “L’Africane” in Bordeaux twice and returned to it in 1977 in Munich. For those who have never heard her take on the work, there is a CD recording with Sherill Milnes from Monaco and it includes the complete version of the opera.
The Russian repertoire was something that most audiences never got to hear Arroyo in during her prime. In parts because most of the operas are written for lyric voices. However, Arroyo did get a chance to sing “Das Maerchenvom Zaren Saltan.” She first did it in Hamburg and then in 1963 in Basel before retiring it from her repertoire.
Other composers that Arroyo shortly delved into included Weber in “Oberon,” Dvorak with his “Requiem,” Strauss with “The Four Last Songs” and Rossini with his “Stabat Mater.” She also performed Britten’s “War Requiem” and Janacek’s “Glagolitische Messe.”