Opera singer Martina Arroyo on her legacy

Martina Arroyo is a recipient of a 2013 Kennedy Center Honor.

Opera singer Martina Arroyo got her start in Harlem in New York City, but her career has spanned the globe. Arroyo is among this year's Kennedy Center Honorees.  


 The singer discussed her legacy and the moment that changed everything with CBS News’ cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis.

Her voice has been called one of the best voices in the world. It’s a classic spinto soprano – powerful, rich and impassioned, which is much like the woman behind the voice. And although it’s been almost 30 years since her last performance, Arroyo's legacy in the opera world is indelible.

From Verdi to Mozart, Arroyo's soaring voice transported listeners to other worlds and took her around the globe to all the great opera houses.

“When you go to a place like Vienna, London, Covent Garden, or to Buenos Aires, the Teatro Colón, you realize that this is a tradition - a tradition that's been going on for a very long time,” she said. “It's a major part of their cultural activities. It isn't so much in the United States, but there's no opera house that I prefer than the Metropolitan Opera.” 

It was at the Met in 1965 where Arroyo got her big break. The Met’s main star had fallen ill and Arroyo was called last minute to play the powerful role of Aida. Her substitution was met with skepticism, until she started singing. At the end, there was a standing ovation and everything changed. From that day forward she had devoted fans across the world.

The renowned opera star was born in 1937 in Harlem to a Puerto Rican father and black American mother who gave her a love of culture and a pioneering spirit.

She told Marsalis that growing up, “absolutely none” of her friends or people in her neighborhood were interested in opera.

“As far as my father was concerned, he was not interested at all in opera because he thought that we were gonna wear short dresses and kick up our legs,” she said. “He had never seen an opera.”

Education was the central value in the Arroyo home and as her parents wished, she received her teaching degree at 19 years old.

“My mother and father were afraid I wouldn't eat -well, of course, you can see I ate, but, for them, the teacher, doctor, meant security, whereas opera singer was like 'Well, who cares,'” she said. “I don't think they were aware of how popular opera is in the rest of the world, but my mother got the bug early and lived with it with me throughout my career.”

Her proud parents were there to see most of their daughter's remarkable career, including 199 performances at the Met.

Now, what makes Arroyo proud has less to do with high notes or arias and more to do with that old teaching degree. For the past decade she has dedicated herself to fostering the next generation of great opera singers with the Martina Arroyo Foundation.

She told Marsalis that while she “wasn’t a great actress,” her whole career has “all led to this (teaching).”

“It's knowing that it doesn't end with you,” she said. “It's gonna go on and you want it to go on even better than when you were working with that - in that profession.”

Arroyo’s invaluable contributions to the world of opera both past and present are why she is being celebrated as a Kennedy Center honoree.

She told Marsalis that getting the award is the “greatest honor” she’s ever had.  

“You know, so many people get up and -- in speeches and say, ‘Oh, this is the greatest honor I've ever had.’ Well, this is the greatest honor I ever have had or think I will have,” she said. “I'm just sorry that the people who worked with me through these many years to get there, like my mother, like my husband, are not here to enjoy it with me. But … it's very meaningful. … I can't explain how much it means to me.”