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The Passions of Ana María

Ana María Martínez, who is one of opera’s most in-demand singers, is also one of its most generous. SCOTT BARNES talks to the soprano, who takes every opportunity she can to reach out to audiences everywhere.

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Photographed by Chris Corrie in Santa Fe
Makeup and hair and clothes styling by David Zimmerman / Watch: Rolex
© Chris Corrie 2014
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As Cio-Cio-San in Houston, 2014
© Felix Sanchez 2014
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Desdemona at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013
© Dan Rest 2014

In a time when vocal charm is in short supply, and the once inviolable rule of singing on one’s vocal interest is breached in performance after performance, Houston resident Ana María Martínez’s soprano harks back to the golden age. Her range is even, from a dusky chest-voice through a claret-colored middle and up to radiant top, and is as impressive in its quiet moments as it is at full power. A canny use of diction permits her to shine in spinto roles, and a facility with coloratura assures success in the lyric rep. The burnished sound of her voice makes for a slyly serious Rosina, a soulful Rusalka, and an intelligent, sexy Carmen.

Martínez reaches me by Skype from Munich, the day after her opening performance in Madama Butterfly for the Bayerische Staatsoper. “It’s a beautiful, very traditional production. But there’s no stage rehearsal. It’s always that trial by fire, the first time back. Everyone’s senses are heightened. My Pinkerton is Joseph Calleja, with whom I did Butterfly my first time, at Houston Grand Opera. And we had the luxury of such a long time preparing that one, I felt that the relationship onstage was solidified. 

“It’s been about seven months since I last played Cio-Cio-San. When she realizes that Pinkerton has married someone from his culture, and that he and his American bride will take Dolore, the child that is everything to her — last night, I lost it! How wise Puccini was, to understand the human condition. He is able to express so much of the depth of feeling that goes way beyond the words. And in the silences. In Act III, as she’s putting two and two together, Butterfly’s trying to piece the story that everyone in front of her already knows (but no one’s telling her), Puccini will write out the measures of silence he demands in those moments. He understood the timing that it takes for a certain individual with a certain degree of intellectual and emotional intelligence to process it and come to her conclusions. Puccini gives the interpreter the time to ‘lose it’ — to let the tears flow. He takes into account the closed throat — and you can almost speak those words. And then collect yourself in time for the aria to the child. I know of colleagues who have had their own child in the part, but I just could not. Anyway, my son would probably be putting his hands over his ears, ‘Stop! Stop!’ or ‘I need to go to the potty.’”

During the run of Madama Butterfly, Martínez’s little boy, Lucas, was with her ex-husband, tenor Chad Shelton. The couple met when both were performing at Houston Grand Opera. “His father is great with him. We are amicably divorced. I’m so glad that we took the high road the whole time. What’s the point in fighting? Sooner or later, we would have to make peace. There are PTA meetings, family gatherings and special events for our son. I would love for him to have as little toxicity as possible in his relationships. To date, we have been able to maintain a friendship as Lucas’s parents. Up until he started kindergarten, he was able to travel with me. When I was in Paris, he left school to visit me, and the rest of the time, we would Skype. He’s such a brilliant, complex thinker — ‘Mommy, why can’t you be here?’ I was fit to be tied.”

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Carmen at HGO, 2014
© Lynn Lane 2014
 

Martínez at one time seriously considered becoming a nun; it is clear that she regards her celebrity as a call to service. She takes every opportunity to mentor young singers, but she is particularly eager to do outreach programs, especially for minority kids. “They need to see someone who is Latin American in a very competitive field. Doing it. Making it. Being very self-sufficient. Especially the girls. It’s documented that girls’ self-esteem starts to plummet by the age of nine. And I’m thinking about single-parent households. We need to give them as many role models as possible. It is especially important to me that young Latinas see that they can reach for, and achieve, their dreams.”

Is it a burden always to have that “Latin American soprano” or “Puerto Rican singer” stuck before her name?

“I love coming from a Latin culture. There are many layers to that. I grew up in the United States, and spent summers in Puerto Rico. My father was born in Cuba. His parents were Spaniards. My mother’s parents were half-French, half-Spanish, from Spain. I do have within me the cultural awareness of the Caribbean — that ‘instant Latin passion.’ I am also aware, since singing with Plácido in Brazil during the World Cup, that when I participate in some world event, I dorepresent all of Puerto Rico!”

The forty-three-year-old soprano’s first stage experience was in Puerto Rico, as Laurey in a high school production of Oklahoma! (in English). After a false start as a musical theater major at Boston Conservatory, she graduated from Juilliard with Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. Martínez credits her time at Houston Grand Opera Studio with giving her the platform from which to launch an international career.

Because of Houston’s diversity, and her work history with HGO (Butterfly, Rosina, Nedda, Mimì, Donna Elvira, the Countess, Liù, Lucero in the world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Salsipuedes and, most recently, Carmen), Martínez makes Houston her home base. “She’s amazing,” says Sandra Bernhard, director of HGOco, the opera company’s community collaboration initiative. “She’ll say, ‘Sandy, when I’m home, use me! I’m a community member, so put me to work. I need to give back!’ Ana María has a big following. There’s a huge audience that adores her, and no matter what or where she’s singing, they’re there. She’s gone into schools talking about empowerment, not just in singing, but whatever path. She’s addressed choruses, mariachi players, performing-arts kids and just kids in general. My favorite moment to date: she did Butterfly at the Miller Outdoor Theater. Late-night performance. Houston humidity. In the audience were students from all over the country who wanted to meet her. She met and took pictures with everybody but finally grabbed me and said, ‘Sandy, I’ve got to go — I have to bake cupcakes for my son’s class tomorrow!’ Not ‘It’s too hot,’ or ‘I’ve got dinner plans’ — cupcakes! She lives and breathes passing it down.”

In recognition of her talent and her generosity of spirit, Martínez was the inaugural recipient of the Lynn Wyatt Great Artist Award, granted by Houston Grand Opera and local philanthropists Lynn and Oscar Wyatt. A socialite who has spent decades on various best-dressed lists, Mrs. Wyatt is a proudly active Houstonian. “People are very pleasantly surprised when they realize the high quality of the arts in Houston,” she says. “And my answer always is, ‘Why are you surprised? We are a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. Not just cowboys and barbeque, although we’re proud of them, too.’ Diversity is very natural to us. My husband created in my name the Great Artist Award, to support the great artists coming to Houston for the opera. Ana María was the first recipient, in 2010. My theory is that the first one has to set the tone for the coming honorees. And Ana María sets the bar extremely high.”

Martínez has also been a regular at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she recently sang Desdemona and Rusalka. Cayenne Harris, director of Lyric Unlimited, the outreach and education initiative, echoes Bernhard and Wyatt. “Ana María is a wonderful human being, and truly a star in Chicago. Whenever she was in town for a production, she requested to go to a school and talk to students, several years in a row. We made it ‘official’ last season, by creating our Community Ambassadors initiative. Ana María and Eric Owens are our first. Ana María speaks to students with very little connection to music, as well as those who are very involved in singing. In both cases, she really talks about her own life and career path in a way that helps the students imagine whatever their goals may be. She talks about perseverance and staying focused on the goal ahead. Finding support from family members and teachers. She talks about life. Her message is the human message. She speaks as an opera singer, a mother, and as a woman of color. That particular combination makes Ana María ideal to connect to kids here in Chicago.” 

Martínez agrees. “When I talk to young kids of underserved communities, they are, at first, a bit intimidated,” she says. “You could feel it in the room, and see on their faces. At first they have an attitude of ‘Who is this woman, and why do we have to sit here and listen to her? She lives in a different world!’ No one says anything, but I can feel it. As I continue, they let their guard down, and we find a connection. Yes, I’ll talk about music, or if I’m feeling silly, I’ll sing a few high notes. But I speak more about the value that they each possess as an individual, and how important it is to discover their own gifts. And that’s their birthright. Whether a child chooses a life in the arts is not the end goal.”

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Rusalka at Glyndebourne, 2009
© Laurie Lewis/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2014
 

Martínez’s desire to reach beyond the walls of the world’s great opera houses has manifested itself powerfully. For the past twenty years, she has joined both Andrea Bocelli and Plácido Domingo in huge stadium concerts, often singing to fifteen thousand fans, and many more through TV and radio broadcasts. The concerts with Domingo have included arias and duets from zarzuelas.

I got an email from Martínez while she was performing as Carmen in Santa Fe: “I would like to touch base with you regarding one of our topics — zarzuela. Hopefully, you might have some time to chat.” Predictably, she was only able to Skype with me from the airport in Houston, having flown in from Albuquerque, waiting to fly to Rio, to sing with Domingo at the World Cup. She was afraid she had given me the wrong idea about the musical importance of zarzuela. On the contrary: as a result of our chat, I watched several of her performances, solo and with Domingo. Like her mentor, Martínez’s voice is never more thrilling than when she sings zarzuela. As brilliantly as she speaks and sings English, Spanish was the first language in her home, spoken by her opera-singer/biochemist mother, Evangelina Colón (who sang Micaela to Domingo’s Don José). and her psychoanalyst father, Angel. This has resulted in deeply layered performances in Spanish opera and zarzuela; Martínez mines for the gold of nuance, the well-placed embellishment, the subtle arch of an eyebrow, or a knowing smile.

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Rosina to Lawrence Brownlee’s Almaviva in HGO’s 2011 Barbiere
© Felix Sanchez 2014
 

Just as the narrative changed the day that young Americans of color saw the Obama family in the White House, might zarzuela concerts (or eventually, staged performances) with classically trained singers singing Spanish also be a way into the Latin community? Opera and operetta plots are not so far afield from telenovelas, and zarzuela music is tuneful and sticks to the ribs.

“My main wish to convey here is that I would like to see zarzuela in the States,” Martínez says. “Plácido has done what he can to bring it to the forefront. We have beautiful operatic treasures by Daniel Catán, and I would love to see zarzuela get its chance. ‘Pícarois a word that is often used to describe a zarzuela performance — it means sassy, sly, even mischievous, and it’s always in the subtext. It’s very poetic, but quite fiery. I will always remember that when Plácido gave me the Zarzuela Award in 1995 [at his Operalia competition], it was named after his mother, Pepita Embil. And he said, ‘With this award, I want you to know that I am asking you and expecting you to champion this repertoire wherever you go.’ I want to do what I can, not only to include it in my concerts, but bring more awareness to it, especially with Spanish-speaking audiences. As a demographic, we are in the majority, and yet we’re the most difficult group to get into the opera house.”

Martínez has yet to establish a strong presence in New York. In 2005, she sang six well-received performances of Micaela at the Met. Yet despite frequent return engagements at the majority of the world’s foremost lyric theaters, the Met is nowhere on her five-year calendar.

“It’s getting to the point where colleagues, my management, other companies — we’re all scratching our heads. There’s definitely an unknown element. I admire the Met. It is such a special place. I grew up just up the street and used to sit in on my mother’s lessons with Eleanor Steber! I’m not saying that I deserve it over anyone else, but I am noticeable by my absence. 

“My mother’s father went to school on scholarship at LSU [Louisiana State University]. He finished his education and had his ticket to return to Puerto Rico by ship. He always loved opera. So after he finished LSU, without a penny to his name, and without telling his parents or his fiancée (who was to become my grandmother), he turned in his boat ticket, and instead of returning home, he went to New York to hear Caruso, live. At that time, he declared that one of his children would sing at the Met. Of all of his eight children and twenty-one grandchildren, it ended up being me, following that line of passion. I never met him. That is, to me, a sweet connection, and I sort of jokingly say, ‘Abuelito, can’t you put some wheels in motion?’” spacer 

SCOTT BARNES is an audition and performance coach for professional singers. He often gives master classes in opera acting in the age of HD. 

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