The saga of how Ana Maria Martinez resolved her career conflicts, shed her inhibitions and wound up as one of the most sought-after operatic artists of her generation might make an interesting little made-for-TV drama.
The Puerto Rico-born soprano radiates a palpable joy in singing that owes as much to the satisfactions she derives from motherhood as to the close identification she feels toward the heroines she portrays on operatic stages throughout the world – heroines including Mimi in "La Boheme," a touchstone Puccini role that will mark her return to Lyric Opera in a production opening Monday night at the Civic Opera House.
Martinez has lost count of how many times she's sung the tragic heroine over the 16 years "Boheme" has been in her repertory, but it's definitely the part she has sung most often, she says, in theaters ranging from Vienna, Berlin and Dresden to Houston, Santa Fe, her native San Juan and, now, Chicago.
"I refer to all the ladies I interpret as my friends, but the relationship I have with Mimi is very close," she said during a rehearsal break backstage at the Civic Opera House. "I resonate with Mimi – she has seen me through so many phases of my life. One of the characteristics I love about her is she's very kind and gentle, an introvert. Introverted people have a rich inner life they don't necessarily feel comfortable expressing publicly."
The vivacious Martinez has no problem expressing herself, whether in full operatic mode or simply posing for photos during our conversation ("Let me know if I have to tuck in my tummy," she laughs, as the photographer clicks away). The very antithesis of a stereotypical diva, she's known as one of the nicest singers in the business, generous to a fault toward colleagues. At the same time, she's committed to searching out the musical and dramatic truth in every role she performs, and she's realistic about what is required to be a long-distance runner in her field.
"When you've been in the business long enough, people start to know who you are," she reflects. "Once you're established, respected and seen as an artist who can progress into different roles and repertory, that requires continual work on your vocal technique. You can't stop working on your voice and say, 'Oh, I'm arrived – I'm booked for the next five years.' "
Houston Grand Opera was her home company beginning in the mid-1990s – the theater where "I got my chops," as she puts it. Former general director William Mason brought her to Lyric for the first time as Nedda in Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" in 2009, inviting her back to sing Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust" the following season. Another mentor, Placido Domingo, noted her potential during one of his international vocal competitions, and she has since appeared with the famed tenor in numerous world tours and several recordings.
From there it has been, in Martinez's words, "a smooth and steady progression, one step at a time." Having started out as an exponent of Mozart, bel canto and much of the lyric soprano repertory, she has been taking on heavier roles such as Puccini's Cio-Cio San, Verdi's Luisa Miller and Dvorak's Rusalka, but only after her voice told her she was ready for each one. She is scheduled to bring her acclaimed portrayal of Rusalka to Chicago next season.
A shy only child, Martinez moved with her parents from San Juan to Tallahassee, Fla., when she was young but grew up a few blocks north of Lincoln Center in New York. Her mother, opera soprano Evangelina Colon, took her to dress rehearsals at the Met and allowed her to eavesdrop on her voice lessons with the great soprano Eleanor Steber. At first the girl was drawn to musical theater (her dream, fulfilled much later in her life, was to sing Maria in "West Side Story"), but her teacher at Boston University told her her destiny was to sing opera and that she deserved classical vocal training.
Martinez was hesitant. "I was concerned I would be stepping on my mother's toes by choosing the same field she was in," she recalls. "She was very encouraging and supportive, as were my father and stepmother" – her parents had divorced years before – "but I was filled with conflict."
Her classes with the legendary opera singer Rose Bampton at New York's Juilliard School helped reassure her she was following the path she was meant to take.
"One of the biggest lessons I had to learn," Martinez says, "was that regardless of what I chose as my career, I was never taking anything away from my mother, or from anybody else; this was my gift to develop and celebrate, through which I could become the best I could be. That realization liberated me of any conflict and guilt. I started to discover the art form through my own eyes."
The singer met her future husband, tenor Chad Shelton, in 2000 when both Houston Grand Opera Studio alumni were performing in main stage productions with the Texas company. Their marriage lasted nearly seven years before ending in divorce. Martinez and Shelton remain friends and share in raising their son, Lucas, who's now going on 6 and is the apple of his mother's eye.
Giving birth for the first time not only produced a perceptible shift in Martinez's voice physiologically but also exerted a psychological effect: It marked the end of the low self-esteem she had carried with her from childhood. "I definitely would say I'm come out of my shell since becoming a mom," she says. "There is this tremendous joy in life and in singing I hadn't felt before. I tell Lucas he's my biggest dream come true – even if he would rather hear me sing the Power Rangers song than opera!"
Martinez appreciates being a role model for young Latinos who are considering careers in the arts. "I want them to see a Latina woman who's successful in a competitive career," she says. "It's imperative we go to them with the message that we care about what's going on with them. I love it when we can open up for them a world many of them don't know exists."
The singer learned long ago the power her vocal gift gave her to change lives. That awareness hit her during her Juilliard years when she and other voice students would perform for patients in New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
"It was sometimes very hard to do these performances when you looked out on your audience and saw young people wheeling around intravenous machines," she says. "But as they listened to the music, I could see the transformation in their faces. All of a sudden, they were forgetting about their pain; that caused something to click in me. The experience was healing for them, and it was healing for me. I realized for the first time that singing wasn't about me – it was about serving and connecting with people. You can't put a price on touching someone's soul."
Lyric Opera's production of "La Boheme" opens at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Ana Maria Martinez and Dimitri Pittas head the cast for performances through Feb. 7; $34-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.
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