Arroyo’s father was Puerto Rican and her mother hailed from South Carolina. She grew up in New York City, where she studied dance and was taught the piano by her mother. She gained a BA in Romance languages from Hunter College in 1956 having also taken singing lessons while a student, first with Joseph Turnau and subsequently with Marinka Gurewich, who proved to be a major professional influence. Arroyo taught English at the Bronx High School, later becoming a social worker at the East End Welfare Center; but in 1958 she won the Metropolitan Opera’s Audition of the Air competition, part of the prize being a scholarship to the Met’s Kathryn Long School, which Arroyo took up. She made her operatic début in a concert performance of Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral at Carnegie Hall in September 1958 and was immediately hailed by the New York Times as a singer of ‘remarkable potential’. Her stage début came in February 1959 as the Celestial Voice in Don Carlos at the Met, beginning a long association with this distinguished opera house; and at about this time also she was taken on by the concert manager Thea Dispeker, who offered to represent her without fee until she was established.
In 1959 Arroyo moved to Europe and began to take small parts in various opera houses, although during 1961 and 1962 she also appeared at the Met in a variety of parts, including several in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Her ‘galley’ years ended in 1963 when she was offerd a contract as a principal soprano by the Zürich Opera House. She made her début as Aida to an enthusiastic reception (indeed Aida was to become a successful ‘calling card’ for her) and sang at Zürich regularly up until 1968. Arroyo made her débuts at Hamburg (1963), Berlin and Vienna (both 1964) and at the Met in 1965 in a leading rôle as a last minute substitute for Birgit Nilsson, after which she was immediately offered a contract as a principal. She went on to open the Met’s 1965–1966 season as Elisabetta/Don Carlos and quickly established herself as a house favourite and a constant presence at the Met up until 1978 as a major lirico-spinto soprano. Her rôles included Amelia/Un ballo in maschera, Cio-Cio-San/Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna/Don Giovanni, Elvira/Ernani, Lady Macbeth/Macbeth, Leonora/Il trovatore and La forza del destino, Maddalena/Andrea Chenier and the title rôle in La Gioconda. In 1968 she was the first black artist ever to sing Elsa in Lohengrin.
During the late 1960s and the 1970s Arroyo consolidated her career in Europe and throughout the USA. She made her British début in the legendary concert performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots conducted by Richard Bonynge at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968, and in the same year made her débuts at Covent Garden and with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera (both as Aida). She was to return to the Royal Opera House on several occasions as a greatly respected and much-admired guest. débuts followed as Amelia at San Francisco in 1971, at Chicago in 1972, and at La Scala, Milan as Aida in 1972. During the following year Arroyo sang at the Paris Opera and at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires: she was by now acknowledged as one of the finest sopranos currently before the public, specialising in the demanding leading rôles of Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss. In the 1980s, Arroyo became more selective in what she sang. She returned to the Met with Aida and Santuzza/Cavalleria rusticana, making her last appearance there in October 1986. At Seattle in 1987 Arroyo sang the title rôle in Turandot for the last time and in 1989 announced her retirement from opera, subsequently building up an impressive career as an international vocal teacher and competition judge. She founded the Martina Arroyo Foundation in 2003 to assist young singers through the in-depth preparation of rôles.
An operatic star of the first rank, Arroyo possessed a commanding and dignified stage presence. She sang with absolute assurance and the most beautiful, rich, vocal tone. Her catalogue of commercial recordings is small but distingushed. Especially notable are her Ballo with Muti, Forza with Gardelli, Vespri siciliani with Levine and Requiem (Verdi) with Bernstein. Of her ‘live’ recordings that of 1972, capturing her performance of Aida given by the forces of La Scala, Milan under Abbado at the Munich Olympics, is considered by many to be one of the finest assumptions of the rôle captured on record. She was in addition a much-admired concert singer as may be heard in recordings of major works by Mahler and Samuel Barber.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers).
Role: Classical Artist
|WAGNER, R.: Opera Arias (T. Adam, Arroyo, Bjoner, Crass, Frick, Greindl, Grummer, Ligendza, Schock, Silja)