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Happy birthday, Martina Arroyo!

Martina Arroyo (born February 2, 1937), is an American operatic soprano who had a major international opera career from the 1960s through the 1980s. 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 Zurich 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 United States and Europe.

On December 8, 2013, Arroyo received a Kennedy Center Honor.

Arroyo was born in New York City, the younger of two children of Demetrio Arroyo, originally 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, Arroyo attended Hunter College where she earned a B.A. in Romance languages in 1956 at the young age of nineteen. While there she studied voice as a hobby in an opera workshop with Joseph Turnau. Turnau recognized that Martina was a major talent who just needed proper training. After the workshop ended, he introduced her to voice instructor Marinka Gurewich, who immediately took Arroyo on as a student. When Arroyo did not take her training as seriously as her teacher wanted, Gurewich eventually threatened to end their lessons. Arroyo said of the incident, “It was a real wake-up call. Up to then, I must have been, in my mind, treating singing as a hobby, a lark–something I loved that I was dabbling in.” She further explained that at that point most of the major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, had never cast a black singer, so in her mind “opera wasn’t a real possibility.” 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.

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