BWW Interview: Grammy Award-Winning Soprano Ana María Martínez Returns to Houston in HGO's FAUST
You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight like FAUST? (Symbolically, not literally, of course.) This week, Grammy Award-winning soprano (and Houston favorite) Ana María Martínez returns to the Houston Grand Opera in FAUST, Charles Gounod's operatic take on Goethe's classic work.
Martínez joins us to discuss about her role, Marguerite, which she first played in 2009; muse on the potential of opera to heal societal wounds; and give us some really practical advice.
This is not your first time playing Marguerite [in FAUST], but I would like to ask about your first time playing Marguerite. What do you remember about performing FAUST for the first time? When and where was it?
Ana María Martínez: While I had studied the role of Marguerite during the Early Stages of my career, the first time I performed the role was in 2009, with Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Frank Corsaro's production, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. It was a tremendous experience on many levels: Musically, it is a treasure, filled with the abundance of colors and nuances normally found in French music, primarily during the mid-1800s. Vocally, it is a joyful challenge to take on. Marguerite is a beautiful young lady of a pure heart, who is bewitched unbeknownst to her, as part of the plot headed by Méphistophélès, aka The Devil, in order to fulfill Faust's request/desire. This brings me to the dramatic pull to play the role.
The most interesting characters in my opinion, are those that experience the greatest emotional arc throughout the story. Marguerite is such an example; however, she has no idea as to why these feelings, experiences and their consequences and outcomes are occurring to her, as she did not seek these out. Nevertheless, she is at the core of the plan and faces it with courage, albeit extremely tortured, to the point of insanity and tragedy.
How has your approach to Marguerite and FAUST changed since?
Ana María Martínez: Since having performed the role of Marguerite for the first time seven years ago, the main way in which my approach has changed has been vocal. This is due in great part to the roles I have sung since then which are new to my repertoire since 2009, primarily, Madama Butterfly, and of course, the work I continue to do with my voice teacher. We are all a work-in-progress throughout our lives and I believe it is our birthright and responsibility to embrace a constant search for improvement, aiming to master our skills, in every profession and walk of life.
I was lucky enough to see you in [HGO's] RUSALKA a few months ago, and let me tell you, nothing captures the imagination of the little girl in me like a mermaid and nothing breaks my heart like an ill-fated love story. But RUSALKA and FAUST are quite different. How do you choose what shows you'd like to? What do you take into consideration and how far out do you plan?
Ana María Martínez: The main deciding factor in choosing to take on/add a role to my repertoire has to do with how the role is musically written and if it is well suited to my vocal abilities. The second deciding factor is if the role speaks to me. This could mean that I relate to the character or that I don't, and if I don't, I love the challenge of trying to understand her and her circumstance. Ultimately, I believe that helps me to have even more empathy and compassion towards others, especially if we have varying views on life.
This may be an understatement, but opera is difficult - the technical skills you must acquire, the constant practice and continuous learning, the nomadic lifestyle. Is there an aspect that you really didn't expect or that took some getting used to?
Ana María Martínez: When you love what you do, you accept all that comes with your choice. I feel that what I do and devoting my life to music is my vocation. With that said, I find the most challenging aspect to be the long stretches of time away from home, and away from my family and loved ones. Fortunately, my family understands what I do and all are very supportive. We schedule things in such a way that we do not spend too much time apart. This could mean that I travel to them in between performances, when possible, and they travel to where I am working.
In a similar vein, what's the best advice (professional or personal) that you've ever received?
Ana María Martínez: Some of the best advice I have ever received:
1) Only give your advice when asked, and even then, do so very carefully.
2) Begin saving for retirement with your first paycheck. Life is expensive and it can be very easy to get caught up in the moment with expenses, current responsibilities. Saving a bit each month in an account you don't touch will be one of the best things you can do for your future and peace of mind.
3) Choose a sport you enjoy doing as your workout routine. A healthy and strong body helps to clear the mind and keeps you feeling upbeat and focussed.
Where I grew up, in a fairly poor, primarily Mexican-American community, things like opera, ballet, or even the symphony seemed a million miles away, things that were for other people, and not us. I know that outreach, to students and the Hispanic community, is incredibly important to you, so my question is why - why is it important for art forms like opera, which may seem exclusionary, to reach out to young people and people of color?
Ana María Martínez: I have always believed that arts belong to everyone! Imagination, dreaming, creating, making, inventing is for everyone. Opera, in its inception was the popular music and art form of its day, for the masses, for everyone. Through time, it became an elitist interest. Not so, and not in my book. It is an art form filled with beauty, passion and phenomenal human ability. Many do not realize that opera singers are not amplified in an opera house. Imagine! We are singing our hearts out, singing a story without a microphone, with an orchestra and chorus and you can hear us! We are athletes. Another important aspect is that it is the only genre that unites all of the art forms and it is also the most collaborative. Experiencing opera, whether as a participant on stage, backstage or as an audience member, unites us all and that makes it that much easier to feel connected to others and especially to one's community. It is a unifier, a connector and the most inspiring one at that!
You said something lovely on PBS NewsHour about opera. You said, "All of these stories are universal, whether they're about love, war, hate, desire, ambition - anything you see in the telenovelas, you are certainly going to see on the operatic stage set to beautiful music." (I do love this quote; I use it when I talk to someone new to opera!)
But though the stories are universal, sometimes the specifics can be offensive. For a little context for this question, I'll start by saying a couple of years ago the HGO mounted a production of Show Boat and had a symposium to discuss the show's racist themes. Without talking about any opera house in particular, do you think an opera house should take into consideration how it may alienate a community when it chooses to mount a show? How much responsibility should they take in choosing the stories they tell and also the way they tell them?
This is a great and sensitive question. Thank you for bringing it to our discussion. One of the saddest views one can see in the world is racism, which is closely related to fear, fear of the unknown. Education is one of the most important keys to healing this ailment. Addressing the issue in a way that can open one's mind through a shift in perspective is vital. I believe that one of the most important ways in which this can be achieved is through the arts and in telling a story of racism, or bigotry or sexism or objectification via a live operatic performance. Rather than finding it offensive, it can open the discussion.
We feel uncomfortable seeing it played out on stage, in a live performance and through beautiful music. It makes us feel, react, gain our own opinion of it, see how it affects those in the story - both sides of the story. And, in so doing, it can open the minds and hearts of those who see the world through prejudiced, fearful eyes awakening their awareness to the pain inflicted on the victims of this injustice.
Maybe through this forum, we can find healing.
Houston Grand Opera's FAUST opens Friday, October 28, and runs through Friday, November 11, at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $338.