11 March 2008

Ana María Martínez

There’s a widespread perception in Opera World that sopranos are: crazy, temperamental, self-centered, irresponsible, shrill, imperious, unprofessional, and not very bright. In short, prima donnas. The term “prima donna” means nothing more than “leading lady,” but some sopranos’ behavior has given it a bad rep.

In a survey I conducted for Opera News, the mezzo Susan Graham observed that these women ought to be called “sola donnas,” because they act as if they’re the only women on earth. In my very first interview, however, the soprano Beverly Sills told me that the temperamental soprano is a cliché at most, “Because they’d never be able to put on an opera at all, if some of those stories were true.”

Nevertheless, most clichés find their origins in truth, and while the sopranos I’ve known have been thoroughly nice women (who hate to be called “prima donnas”), I’m always relieved to find another who’s sensible. Such a one is Ana María Martínez.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Ana María has been in Paris the past few weeks; she’s wrapping up a run as Verdi’s Luisa Miller. It’s an extraordinarily good part for her, lying beautifully in her voice, with its richly rounded, warm, almost chocolaty sound, its lyric agility and sometimes surprising power. Luisa is a good acting part for her, too, drawing on her ability to project tenderness and vulnerability. I’d love to see her in a staging that was less static and gave her more freedom to explore the character, because Ana María never ceases to come up with insightful analyses that translate to unusually vivid performances.

Her father is a psychoanalyst, and it’s tempting — and reductive — to say that Ana María puts her characters on the couch. I’m sure her family background does give her a framework, as well as a willingness to dig more deeply into a character’s mind. But psychology is only a start, only one tool — and not the most important — in her work. She’s just plain smart — just plain sensitive.

And no matter how well I think I know a role, a conversation with Ana María invariably gives me some new angle to consider. Once, we were talking about the heroine of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette — who differs very little from her Shakespearean precursor, except that she sings more and doesn’t speak English. I offered up the observation that Juliette starts out as an immature girl, but grows into womanhood by the end of the story.

Ana María very politely set me straight. Taking her life doesn’t prove Juliette’s maturity, she said. If anything, it’s the opposite: she doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions.

Wow. In similar fashion, she’s enlightened me on Mimì in La Bohème, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Maria in West Side Story, and Luisa Miller herself. It’s gotten to the point that I’m spoiled: it’s not enough to hear her sing, I want to hear her explain, too.

Role of a lifetime: Loving mom

Dangerous is the singer who overthinks, and Ana María doesn’t. I’m not quite sure how she avoids it, except that these detailed analyses may be mere preparation — the way a Method actress can describe details of her character’s bedroom, or family relationships with characters who don’t appear in the play, things that may have little direct bearing on what does happen. But they’re resources, things she can call upon if she needs them.

It’s my impression that Ana María couldn’t sing a note onstage if she didn’t know why the character was singing. But once she does know why — she lets the music happen. Naturally.

All of that may help to explain why I admire her as an artist, but I haven’t said a word yet about how much fun she is. I had talked to her in preparing magazine articles, but we hadn’t sat down for a good heart-to-heart until two years ago, when she sang Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. We met for lunch on the Place des Vosges, in a little restaurant where one of the waiters had made a pet of her. He kept serving us tidbits and refilling our glasses, and we kept talking. The next thing we knew, nearly eight hours had passed — and we were old friends. (Although I have this weird feeling that people who know her better than I call her ”Ana,” without the María.)

She’s got a great sense of humor, and she’s a talented mimic. She does an Uptown Chica Borriqua so flawlessly, it’s almost like a Lily Tomlin character, not a generic imitation, and if there’s any justice on earth, somebody is going to write an opera that will let her bring that character to the stage.

Chad and Ana María,
with their most dramatic collaboration yet

Yesterday, we got together for lunch with her husband, the tenor Chad Shelton (whom I’d heard but never met), and their baby, Lucas — a sunny, friendly kid who, like Ana María, celebrates a birthday today. (It’s his first.) Motherhood suits her, and she says it’s the realization of a dream she’s cherished since she was a very little girl. We talked a lot about Lucas’ future, the determination of both Ana María and Chad to be “hands on” parents and not to let their careers get in the way. Lucas is going to have some terrific advantages, especially culturally: seeing the world, learning languages, hearing great music.

At one point, Ana María and Chad both sang for him, and I thought, “This kid is getting lullabies for free that audiences would and do pay to hear!”

I asked whether Ana María and Chad would be happy to see Lucas become a singer, too. Chad clearly hopes he’ll make another choice, though he says he’ll be supportive if it’s what Lucas really, really wants to do. Ana María said simply, “I just want him to be happy.”

This lunch lasted only a couple of hours, and there was no wine. We have agreed that we’ll have to wait until Lucas is in college before we have another of those get-togethers. But in the meantime, mi amiga querida remains a generous, caring soul — and a helluva good soprano.

NOTE: Among her several recordings and video performances, Ana María Martínez can be heard to especially good effect on a wonderful (and low-priced) CD available here. It’s an excellent introduction to her voice — and her versatility. Her Parisian Luisa Miller is coming to DVD soon. You can hear her with Chad Shelton in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, available here. It was while working on this opera that the two met.