Ana María Martínez
A STAR – WITH NO PRESUMPTIONS – READY FOR NEW HORIZONS
By: Liliana Pérez | Photography: Svetlana Pasedko
Ana María Martínez, award-winning Puerto Rican soprano, winner of a Latin Grammy and numerous awards throughout her career in the world of opera. When you see her on stage, you feel that she is a true star: disciplined, impeccably prepared, professional in every sense of the word and thoroughly dedicated to each of her interpretations. But when I sat with her for this interview in a French café in Houston, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fun, human, warm, and vibrant woman with a contagious positive energy.
Sometimes I found it hard to believe that she was the same woman who has played and continues to play the leading roles of some of the most celebrated operatic works in history: Carmen in Carmen, Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Bohème, Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, Rusalka in Rusalka, Marguerite de Faust, Fiordiligi in Così fan Tutte, Alice Ford in Falstaff and Elvira in Rusalka, Elvira in Don Giovanni, to name a few. And we will see Ana María as Florencia in Florencia in the Amazon at the end of January in Houston, Tx.
Ana María has sung in practically all the important opera houses of the world and almost every month appears upon the most desired stages, next to the most renowned names in the world of opera such as Plácido Domingo, her mentor, and artists such as Andrea Bocelli. She also shares the stage with some of the most prestigious conductors of symphony and philharmonic orchestras in the world. Her life is spent between Vienna, Milan, London, Los Angeles and others, but she enjoys passionately her stay in Houston, the city where she has lived in for several years and where she has the privilege of indulging herself in family time, working out and pursuing an absolutely normal life.
In an exclusive interview for La Revista Mujer, Ana María talks about her childhood, about her first steps in the world of opera, and about innovative projects in which we have been seeing her lately and we will continue to watch her in the future. These projects seem to be something like a reinvention: Ana María Martínez 2.0.
Tell us a little about your childhood and who have been important in your life?
I always lived with my mother, Evangelina Colón. I love my mom. She was a singer in her time, with a beautiful voice… because of her I started on this career. But in interviews I have never had the opportunity to talk about my stepmother, Jeannette Maluf, and I want to talk about the significant role she has played in my life. I do not know who I would be today as a woman, as a human being, without my stepmother. Jeannette has loved me and treated me like a real mother loves her daughter.
My parents divorced when I was ten years old. And although many people have helped me in life, and many women, the deepest development at an existential level, the teachings that guide me through hard decisions and difficult times, are those that my dad and Jeannette have given me.
My grandmother, Monserrate Castin, I used to call her “mommy”. We had a very strong connection, she was so sweet… she died when I was eight years old and that was a very strong experience for me, but not a day goes by without me feeling her presence.
THE LOVE FOR MUSIC
How did your love for music begin?
From my mother I clearly inherited the ear that was always more advanced than any other of my senses. A beautiful thing is that she tells me that throughout her pregnancy she sang and that when I was eight months old, she was singing a very rhythmic part and I started to move to the rhythm. She also says that two weeks after I was born I started to imitate noises… I believe that is impossible, but she still says so.
My grandfather was a fan of the opera and once, he went to see Enrico Caruso, the great opera singer of that time, in the old Met in New York. I never met him, but they say that day, when he heard Caruso, he stopped and said: “a son of mine will sing at the Met”. It was not his son, but his granddaughter! How strong, right? He was not married nor had any children, or anything! The strength of the word that is thought, the written word and the spoken word, the power that they throw into the universe is very strong…
The most beautiful lesson my father gave me was that: “each of us is born with many gifts, but it is our responsibility to recognize the gift through which we want to achieve and reach our maximum; and dedicate yourself to that gift, that will become your vocation, that is, to live your life with a purpose, in harmony with who you are” .
Did you think about him when you sang at the Met?
Sure! And my debut was on November 19, which is the day of the discovery of Puerto Rico. There he was, he was present!
Amazing! And at what moment do you decide that opera is your thing?
At 15 years old. In my second year of high school, in Puerto Rico, they did a musical. At that time I only sang in any choir that I could get, because I loved music, but I had not had any lessons. I had a lot of nervousness, but it was because of my shyness… but I loved music so much that when I came out and managed to do it, I felt two things: I felt alone because I was exposed, very vulnerable, but at the same time I thought that it reached those who were there and that maybe I could do that better than anything else I could do in my life.
And when I was 18 years old my mom moved to Vienna, and I was in my first year at the Boston Conservatory. The following year I decided to go to New York, auditioned for Juilliard and for Manhattan School. They both accepted me and I decided to try Juilliard.
What music did you hear when you were young?
In New York, where we had moved with my parents, I listened to the West Side Story album, sang it and sometimes danced it in front of the mirror. I loved Fleetwood Mac, Abba, Earth Wind and Fire, Ruben Blades, Willy Colón, rap and hip-hop that started being born at that time, The Sugarhill Gang, break dancing, which was also born at that time…
What music is in Ana María’s playlist today?
Hamilton! I’m obsessed, I’ve seen it three times, I know it by heart. It changed my life. Lin-Manuel is a genius, may God bless him! The concept of presenting a musical in rap, hip-hop and different styles of music, telling you history in that way but with a lot of psychological influences (his mom is a psychologist). He does it with an empathy towards the characters… the words that are used to give voice and life to each character… Not only do they tell you what has occurred in history, but what the characters felt and the relationships between them. It’s something that has not been done that way before.
Lin-Manuel insists that each protagonist must be of color or of mixed race. Then the way we perceive a protagonist has changed. For instance, George Washington is played by a man of color, breaking up the whole scheme. Think about it: every time your perspective changes focus, a miracle has happened! You see everything from another perspective, then he has changed how we see the world. What a genius!
AN IMPECCABLE CAREER
How were your first experiences on stage?
Learning. I was still getting to know myself as a singer, as a person, more concerned with technical things than with the characters… the characters have always fascinated me, I consider myself an actress too, but in the last eight to ten years when I have come to feel much more comfortable, I give more of myself to the characters. I already ironed out the technical side, although I’m still perfecting it, I still have my singing lessons with my teacher, in fact I leave here for a class after this interview! I have a lot of discipline about that. But I handle it and I surrender myself more to the moment.
I find that in moments of extreme emotion I cry, in functions where it did not happen to me before, now I am more dedicated, very connected. Now it’s how much fulfilled I feel… as in my “prime”, but also as a mother, and I love my partner, he fulfills me, my son is happy… it’s a moment of absolute fulfillment. And in those moments, it is very important to start the day giving thanks.
What is a critical moment in your career?
When I was the winner in Operalia, the singing contest held by Plácido Domingo, I won the prize that was named after his mother, may she rest in peace, which today is called the Zarzuela Prize. For me that was extremely important.
But I would say that the role that existentially was an awakening to me, was Rusalka. It is the story of The Little Mermaid, but the original story that is very dark and tragic, not the Disney version. It is by the Czech composer Devořák. It is an experience in which you either grow up or grow up. It was an awakening of strength, courage, sacrifice, with the purpose of knowing love and having a soul. It was stronger than myself, I had to keep trying to do justice to her; it forced me to grow up, it is so very powerful. My life is measured as before and after Rusalka.
Equally my life before Plácido Domingo entered my life and my life afterwards. My life before being a mother, my life afterwards. My life before I met Gabriel [her partner] and my life later (sighs).
What have been those challenging moments that have made you grow and how have you overcome them?
There are always challenges, and of course, when young people are entering this world they ask how to deal with rejection. Every time before I entered an audition I meditated and programmed myself thinking that I was a certain color. For example a radiant blue, and I thought, I am going to give it to those who are there listening. And when you give a gift, the other person can do what he/she wants with it; but you can’t control that. If I didn’t get to win the role I thought: “well, my blue, I gave it to them and I made it radiant, with all my love. But maybe they were looking for green or orange, and blue was not what they sought that day, but that fact does not detract from my blue”.
And I think that is a very positive vision because singing is the most vulnerable thing you can do, it is when you feel naked, and if you are rejected you feel so attacked… it makes it very difficult to continue and shake off. So if you see it that way you’ll feel better. I like to give that advice.
What is it like working so closely with artists like Plácido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, Gustavo Dudamel, among others?
With Plácido Domingo there was a very nice connection from the beginning because his parents were also singers, they had their zarzuela company. He was born and raised in that… and he knows that I was too. He is my mentor, definitely, as an example of a human being, musically, everything… We have been working together for 23 years, in concerts all over the world. Now we are going to do more operas together.
Andrea Bocelli is divine, sweet, and comical, lots of sparkle… He’s super intelligent, and mentally quick and agile, he grabs things straight out of the air. He has told me that when you lose one of your senses, you develop others… he has an amazing power to read people, to perceive… he says he feels it, even in the person’s breathing. It is always a very sweet experience to sing with him, very peaceful.
Gustavo Dudamel, I love him! He has a joy, a love for the world… when I sang at La Scala, in Milan, it was because he invited me and it was in concert. And when I was going to go on stage, he would tell me “Are you ready for the party?”, and I was so nervous that I asked him “What party?” Thinking that there was a party after the concert; and he said “Well, this one!” He made me change my perspective and say to myself “It’s true, every presentation is a party and you have to celebrate it!”.
REINVENTION AND DREAMS
Tell us about “Mozart in the Jungle”, the Amazon series in which you provide the voice of Monica Bellucci.
When they called me to provide the voice of the diva I was so happy, and I was impressed with how Monica Bellucci, who is not a singer, could pretend to be singing, she pulled it off perfectly! I felt that I had a little bit of the experience of Marni Nixon, rest in peace, who was the voice of Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”, Deborah Kerr in the movie “The King and I” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” But at the time those films were made, her name didn’t appear in the credits because Hollywood wanted it all to be a secret. But later it became known that Marni Nixon was always the voice of all these stars.
I got to know Marni Nixon, when a few years ago with the New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall I sang in the orchestral concert version of West Side Story and invited her. I wrote her a note by hand and Marni came. When “Mozart in the Jungle” came out I wanted to do an interview talking about Marni Nixon and asked the media to interview her, but she died at that time . Nevertheless, Marni is immortal.
Do these modern projects mean that you are reinventing yourself or that you are migrating to new spaces?
Yes, there are things that you want but do not know how they can be carried out. But projects like “Mozart in the Jungle” is exactly what I love and without realizing it, I put that dream into the universe and it came to me. As a child listening to Marni Nixon, I dreamed of singing like her… I had that fascination of wanting to be part of something being created, something new.
What’s next for Ana María?
I want to continue singing. I want to continue interpreting some roles that I am currently doing, others that I have not yet done and that I yet have to discover, and that maybe they do not associate with me but that interest me.
I want to be part of new projects, contribute my ideas and unite different areas… I have many ideas, concepts that have been forming… and I feel that the time is approaching to begin to manifest them. But I always want to feel a purpose, I want to help, I want to guide, to educate. Not at a formal level, although I would love to give singing lessons, but I’m not in a single place for long enough to do that.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
With Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. I would love to collaborate with him, and with Andrés Orozco Estrada, Director of the Houston Symphony.
I’m collaborating now with Jimmy Lopez and Nilo Cruz, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, who writes the lyrics, who are doing an oratorio for the soprano called “Dreamer”. Jimmy created it before Donald Trump won the elections but since the DACA issue is before us now, we will release it in March 2019. I feel extremely honored to be the first person to interpret in the premiere of that work, because the message is already on several levels.
WOMEN IN THE OPERA SCENE
What women of the opera scene do you admire?
My favorite voice in the field of opera has always been Mirella Freni, ahhh (sighs). I listen to her and my heart melts… I have come to know her and I have been able to express my admiration for her. Every time I was preparing a role that I had to learn, when I wanted to listen to a recording to become more familiar with the opera, I always looked for a recording of her.
We all have to always admire and point out María Callas, because she was a pioneer in emphasizing the importance of acting on the stage, the total interpretation; you forget that she is singing. And it was a voice that you can’t confuse with anyone else’s… the same with Mirella Freni. The voice of María Callas has a precision, an accuracy, a totality, the urgency that you could hear in her timbre, the urgency with which she communicated something to you, the passion, the energy that she had… it was incredible, I never got to see her on stage, but I could hear all that!
Also Catherine Malfitano, totally delivers. Latinas: Ailyn Pérez and the young Nadine Sierra. They are two of the most beautiful and very special voices I’ve heard lately. There are many more, I’d have to think a bit more, but I know that this field is in very good hands with these talents that are emerging now, and the Latin American culture is very well represented in both male and female voices.
What has it been like to be a woman in this world?
The world of opera is a very competitive field. For those who don’t know it, I compare it with the NFL: less than 1% of those who enter this field can maintain themselves. So I would say that being a woman does not make it even more difficult, nor being a Latina. Because if you can do it right, you will not feel any prejudice.
What do you do in order to be grounded within such a glamorous and competitive world?
I exercise… the exercise that I love the most is running; it clears my mind, it also helps with my self-esteem, because of the low self-esteem I had in my childhood… that’s why I want to give hope to girls, or to those in general who feel a little shy and with low self-esteem. The mere fact of being able to run and feel that you have completed something important gives you a very positive feeling.
Being aware of the universe in my own way. Sometimes I read things from Deepak Chopra. And there is an APP that I really like that is called Insight Timer. I love it because it has guided meditations, music or Tibetan singing bowls. And in times of great stress I wonder, how can I help today? I find that helping, changes your focus.
“I tell my son that the artist has to be an ambassador of peace, to unite, to help inspire a dialogue, to melt barriers. The artist belongs to the whole world. That is why, although I am Latina, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Spanish, when I play the Japanese Cio-Cio San, I am her and I am every woman, of every race, who has gone through that experience”.