Born and raised in Harlem, Martina Arroyo was among the first performers—along with Adele Addison and Leontyne Price—to challenge the color barriers in the opera world. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother, Arroyo’s interest in singing began with a love of 1940s Hollywood musicals. Though she studied dance and piano as a child, Arroyo soon decided she wanted to sing opera.
Arroyo was encouraged by her family to pursue her interest in music, but they insisted on an education in a more practical field, too. Thus, Arroyo trained as a teacher and studied opera simultaneously. She would work as a teacher and as a social worker before becoming a leading performer in the New York and European opera scenes. In addition to her successful stage career, Arroyo has taught at UCLA, the University of Delaware, and Indiana University, and has given master classes at universities all over the world.
Like many African-American performers, Arroyo found early success in Europe, where more opportunities in the opera were available to people of color. Arroyo gained experience performing in many shows, generally playing small roles, or larger roles in small productions. But her powerful voice and dramatic performances earned her increasing visibility and popularity. She performed for several years in London, Italy, and Zurich. When she returned to the United States for a recital at Carnegie Hall in 1957, a New York Times critic wrote, “Miss Arroyo’s voice is by nature of pleasing quality, with a brilliant, ringing, clarity of tone.” 1
Arroyo’s big break came as she was visiting family in New York nearly ten years later. She was invited to substitute temporarily for Birgit Nilsson, then one of opera’s leading sopranos, in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s production of Aida. She debuted in the lead role on February 4, 1965, and though the audience was initially disappointed that Nilsson would not appear, Arroyo earned a standing ovation.
Arroyo has played a part in changing opera’s reputation as a stuffy, elitist art form by appearing frequently on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and guest starring on the popular 1970s television sitcom, The Odd Couple. Talking with other singers about opera on a Singers’ Roundtable segment of The Texaco-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Broadcast in 1970, Arroyo profoundly humanized opera performers when she made a comical slip of the tongue:
At one point the question was posed: Are there any roles that would have suited you vocally but that you choose not to sing for other reasons? Ms. Arroyo, who was not a small woman, answered, in one of the great Freudian slips of all time, “Yes, Madame Butterball.” 2
Martina Arroyo has appeared in every major opera house in the world and she has performed with the finest orchestras. She has made a number of recordings, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Requiem and Aida, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Though she formally retired in 1989, she has occasionally appeared for special performances.