Soprano Ana Maria Martinez to proudly showcase her Latin roots at Festival Miami
Ana María Martínez has won a Grammy Award and other notable honors, but the acclaimed lyric soprano was especially touched last month to be named one of 20 Latino trailblazers by the online magazine, Being Latino.
She is proud of her heritage, but like most people, never set out to be a role model. Martínez says she just wanted to be the best singer she can be, and in that she has clearly succeeded, performing concerts regularly with tenor Plácido Domingo and appearing on prestigious operatic stages like the Paris Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“If it impacts Latino youth and especially teen-age girls,” she said, “and if it inspires them to say, ‘Hey, there is a Puerto Rican-Cuban woman who is successful at something that I didn’t even know was out there,’ that’s really cool. Many of these kids don’t know about opera, and they don’t know that you can actually have a career in it.”
Martínez will publicly celebrate her Hispanic heritage Saturday night [Oct. 13] as part of the monthlong Festival Miami at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, presenting a recital of predominantly Spanish selections, with a few famous Italian operatic arias thrown into the mix.
To showcase different aspects of her voice and highlight a variety of composers, she chose a program of art songs and selections from zarzuelas by Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo, Federico Moreno Torroba and others.
“There is such a wealth of Spanish repertoire,” Martínez said. “In Miami, you’ve got a really large Spanish-speaking audience, and it is my first language, so I wanted to bring some of where I come from.”
The soprano has taken a somewhat conventional path on the opera stage, making her mark in some of opera’s best-known roles, including Marguerite in Faust, Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Mimi in La Bohème, a role that she will perform in Chicago in January.
She hasn’t so much mapped out a career trajectory, she said, as kept on the lookout for the next challenge. It could be trying something new vocally or a role that presents a demanding dramatic opportunity.
“It might be the acting challenge from the perspective of the character being so different than how I see myself or different from my comfort zone and wanting to stretch beyond that,” she said.
Recently her seeking out new challenges has meant frequent new roles. In September she made her debut as Antonia in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann at the Paris Opera and, later this season in Amsterdam, she will tackle her first Eva in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger of Nuremberberg.
Yet Martinez earned her initial fame—and her largest audiences—not in the opera house but through her many arena tours with Andrea Bocelli. The best-selling pop tenor has been shunned by much of the classical world, but Martinez doesn’t care.
“The bulk of Andrea’s audience are pop fans,” she said. “It often feels like you are at a rock concert when you’re in it, with the screaming and the fans. That experience is a completely different world than the operatic world.”
It’s important to keep in mind, the soprano said, that opera began as a popular music form, and, in her view, it has turned into something more elitist. With Bocelli, she feels like she is bringing opera back to the people.”That’s more real,” she said. “You feel like you’ve got your thumb on the pulse of the real stuff that is going on.”
Although Martínez moved to the United States when she was 6, she says the two happiest years of her childhood were spent with her extended family in her native Puerto Rico just before leaving.
Music was already a regular part of her life then. Her aunts and uncles would show up at her family’s home unannounced, and soon, someone would pick up a guitar and they all would be singing.
“I thought everybody’s family did this,” she said. “I was shocked when I realized that not everyone does that.”
Martinez’s mother, Evangelína Colón, was an opera singer, but that was as much a deterrent as an inducement for her to enter the field. She had to come to the form on her terms, and it was not until she began music-theater studies at Boston Conservatory that she finally realized that opera made sense for her and her voice.
“I felt something was missing,” she said, “and at that time music theater was going more in the direction of rock and roll, and my voice just doesn’t do that.”
On the advice of one of her teachers, she auditioned for the Juilliard School and was accepted. In 1993, she took part in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and got as far as a national finalist but did not win. Rather than being a big letdown, the setback just made her work harder.
“When you don’t win everything, it keeps you hungry,” she said. “Getting some validation and getting opportunities is fantastic, but staying hungry is really important. That kept me hungry.”
The next two years proved to be a turning point for the young singer. In 1995, she was among the winners at Operalia, Domingo’s world opera competition, and a year earlier she took first place in the Eleanor McCollum Auditions and Awards at the Houston Grand Opera.
She became an apprentice artist with the Texas company, making her professional debut there in 1995 as Micaëla in Carmen. The experience was terrifying, she said, but it also made her realize the full scope of her abilities.
“You need your teacher to teach you the technical things,” she said, “but the best teacher and gauge for where you are is the actual stage itself, because that is where you have to learn how to pace yourself and how you handle everything.
“You have to watch your conductor, you have to know where you are, you have to react with your colleagues, and you have to keep a lot of things straight—all your props. And when you’re starting out, it’s nerve-wracking, but it’s delicious, too.”
Martinez has maintained strong ties to Houston Grand Opera since then and has projects in discussion there through 2017. The company is one of the reasons she moved to Houston, where she lives with her husband, tenor Chad Shelton, and her 5-year-old son.
Looking forward, the singer professes to have no fixed goals beyond continuing to grow as performer. She did cite one role she hopes to perform one day—the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier—but she is not concerned if some doors remain forever closed to her.
“I think it’s important to be happy, to go where you are wanted,” she said. “There might be some opera houses that don’t get you, and that’s fine. I would say: Stop beating down that door if it’s not opening for you. Just go someplace else.”
“For me,” she said, “what’s important is to be respected in what I do, so if that includes fame, that’s great. But it’s more about doing a good job. I often heard when I was beginning my career, and I believe it’s true: You’re only as good as your last performance.”
Soprano Ana Maria Martínez performs with pianist Thomas Jaber at Festival Miami, 8 p.m. Saturday at Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Drive in Coral Gables. 305-284-4940; festivalmiami.com
Kyle MacMillan is the former classical music critic of the Denver Post and a 2004 recipient of a USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Classical Review and the Chicago Sun-Times and has also written for such magazines as Opera News, Symphony and Chamber Music.
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Mon Oct 8, 2012
at 2:27 pm