By Mark Holston.
Growing up in a small town in the mountains of Puerto Rico, Larisa Martínez was exposed at an early age to the wealth of her island home’s music culture, from boleros and salsa to the folkloric rhythms of bomba and plena. So, when she heard opera for the first time, she was stunned, asking herself, “What in the world is this?” There had never been any classical musicians in her family, so her sudden fascination with this demanding style came as a bit of a surprise. “I quickly developed a taste for it,” Larisa recalls, “and I thought, ‘This is the most powerful and beautiful thing I have ever experienced, and I want to be part of it!'”
Today, few in the opera world are unfamiliar with Larisa’s multi-faceted talents, her captivating stage presence and luxuriant soprano voice. Since her debut in a featured role just nine years ago, the singer has shared her artistry with fans in major productions on three continents and has gained well-deserved acclaim for her performances with Andrea Bocelli on the Italian pop opera star’s tours throughout Europe, the U.S., Canada, and South America. She has also been frequently showcased in concerts featuring Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell.
Opera critics have been smitten with Larisa’s performances, lauding the young singer for her interpretive prowess, range of vocal personas, and her vivacious charisma. “Her aria, the famous and dazzling ‘Quando m’en vo,’ is enchanting,” wrote Roark Littlefield for Stagebuddy.com, “Her voice moving from that of a young flirtatious girl to that of a sultry, experienced woman in one effortless breath.” George Grella of New York Classical Review was equally impressed, writing that “Martínez was mesmerizing.” Fred Cohn of Opera News noted that she “brought a smoky soprano to the key role of the poet Corinna [and] cut an elegant figure, the grace of her stage deportment matching that of her singing.”
LATINA Style caught up with Larisa while she was in Puerto Rico to visit family and perform. She is a native of the small municipality of Orocovis, just 50 miles inland from San Juan. So centrally located in the island’s mountainous interior that it is known as the “Corazón de Puerto Rico,” Orocovis is also referred to as “The Music Capital of Puerto Rico,” because it is the hometown of so many accomplished musicians. Among the most notable are cuatro (the small guitar indigenous to the island) master Edwin Colón Zayas; Bobby Valentín, a bassist and revered salsa bandleader; vocalists Fabián Torres and Manny Manuel; and the late Manuel A. Jiménez, a legendary exponent of the island’s rustic plena style. Today, the name of Larisa Martínez can be added to that illustrious list.
“The reason I’m in Puerto Rico is to help out with the family,” explains Larisa, whose mother just retired after a four-decade career as a nurse. “She was the first one in her family to go to college,” she continues. “My whole family still lives in Orocovis, and I consider myself an Orocoveña — a proud Jibara (country person),” she chuckles. While the effects of the recent storms can still be seen, she reports that things are finally looking better. “There’s still so much to do but, fortunately, nature comes back quickly here,” she adds. “Right after the storm it looked like a bomb had gone off, but now it’s looking better, although there are scars that will remain and that we’ll probably never get rid of.” Another reason for the trip: The singer had participated in a fundraiser for Puerto Rico in New York City, and one of the items in auction was that she would come to San Juan to perform. “Someone bought it, so that’s part of my trip, to fulfil that obligation.”
Although she went to a school that had no music education at all, she had a talent for singing, and has been singing since the third grade. “The first time I ever sang on stage was in school,” Larisa recalls. “Our teacher had composed an anthem for the school and she wanted to teach the students to sing it. She convinced me that I could do it, and I did. That led to talent shows and other opportunities.”
Her budding talent was obvious, and Larisa was recommended to participate in an extension program offered by the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico in San Juan, a storied institution that was founded in 1959 by world renowned cellist Pablo Casals.
“I started there as a 14-year old,” Larisa states. “I studied piano as a teenager, as well as music theater, and was a member of the Puerto Rican national choir. I traveled widely with them, including a trip to Austria, where the group won a competition. That was my introduction to classical music. After returning to Puerto Rico, members of the choir would be hired to sing in the chorus with the national symphony orchestra.”
Although her vocal talents were becoming more and more refined, Larisa still hadn’t settled on singing as a career. “I was really interested in medicine,” she notes, “and I needed a degree that would have the prerequisites to go into medicine, so I began to study environmental sciences at the University of Puerto Rico. I wanted to study everything, so I picked the hardest degree program they offered!”
Attending the university and conservatory simultaneously was challenging. “It was insane,” she recalls today. At the same time, Larisa started getting offers to sing in locally-produced operas and Zarzuelas (a lyric-dramatic genre from Spain that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance). “I was drawn to that world.”
The first time the singer was featured in a small soloist role was when she was 19 and performed in a local production of Tosca staged in San Juan’s historic Bellas Artes opera house. The performance was particularly memorable because she was cast in the role of a boy.
“Yes, normally it’s done by a little boy, so they dressed me up like one,” she laughs. “It was a little part, as a shepherd, but it has the most beautiful aria in the last act that is sung in old Italian and is incredibly exposed.”
She was studying with a singer in Puerto Rico, but he was a tenor, and she decided she needed to study with someone who had a similar vocal range. “I found a teacher in New York, a soprano, that I liked very much, and she suggested that I attend Mannes School of Music (a noted conservatory),” she recollects. Larisa transitioned to a new life in the U.S., earning a Master’s in vocal performance at Mannes while launching her international career.
One of the most demanding aspects of starring roles in opera is the necessity to sing fluently in several European languages. Larisa studied French and Italian extensively, as well as Russian and German. “I’ve studied German the most,” she admits, “but it stuck the least! In that language I can order coffee and say ‘hello’ and be pleasant in an elevator, but the problem is that opera singers study a version of German that is dead! People give you strange looks when you use it.”
In 2016, Larisa had the honor of being chosen to create the role of Isaura and become the first ever to perform it in an obscure opera, Francesca da Rimini, by 19th Century Italian composer Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante.
“It was discovered only fairly recently,” Larisa explains. “There is so much music in Italy that has remained unknown for a long time.” Performed in the Bel Canto style (a variety of operatic singing that originated in Italy during the late 16th century), it proved to be a challenge for everyone from the technical crew to the singers because there were no recordings to provide a point of reference.
Larisa’s reputation as an emerging artist of undisputed talent caught the attention of the Obama Administration, and in 2016 she was invited to travel with a select group of other notable artists to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program.
“I was the only Spanish-speaking person in the U.S. delegation, so I spent a lot of time acting as an interpreter,” she recalls. “But we mostly communicated through art. The experienced let to an opportunity for the Cuban musicians to travel to New York City, where they performed for a PBS special at Lincoln Center.
“I did the same music I had performed in Havana, including ‘María la O,’ by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, and the folk song ‘Guantanamera,’ among others.”
Larisa was struck by the fact that most of the musicians in the Havana Chamber Orchestra, including the conductor, were women. And the experience of working with Cubans ended up being about more than just about music. She recalls one instance that proved particularly insightful in understanding the challenges that many Cubans face in day-to-day life.
“It was interesting for me to see that so many things we take for granted are much different there,” she states. “For instance, in Havana, when I was singing at a gala reception, I had to slip away to go to the bathroom, and sure enough, to my dismay, I discovered that there was nothing in the toilet paper dispenser! Then, one of the girls knocked on the door and came to the rescue. She said she’d seen me going into the facility and knew what I’d be up against. Then, she handed me some paper. During their time in the U.S., when I went to the ladies’ room with some of the Cuban singers, they were always amazed that there was an ample supply of toilet paper! We are very spoiled here.”
Larisa’s association with Bocelli will continue this year with a packed schedule of European dates. “He lets me choose my repertoire,” she comments, “and we do five duets in the show, which is a lot for a guest artist – popular arias that audiences love such as music from Romeo and Juliet, La Traviata and La Bohème.”
The singer recently performed a concert featuring underappreciated repertoire by Latin American composers. “Once you know this music, you love it,” she claims. “But many singers shy away from performing Latin American classical music because they aren’t comfortable singing in Spanish or Portuguese. They may have studied French and Italian, but probably have not studied these languages.”
She showcased tangos by Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla, a Zarzuela by Cuban composer Lecuona, “Bachianas Brasileiras” by Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos, and some traditional Spanish pieces by De Falla. “This has become an ongoing personal project,” Larisa explains. “I’m trying to unearth Latin American works that have never been performed or recorded. Eventually, I would love to do a recording featuring unknown Latin American composers in the lyrical repertoire.”
For an artist dealing with a bruising schedule of performances and special projects, it’s not surprising that Larisa has had little time for a life offstage. “That’s true, but there is always time for the important things in life” she observes before revealing that her boyfriend had proposed marriage to her a few days earlier. Her significant other turns out to be none other than celebrity violinist Joshua Bell, with whom she’s had a fruitful onstage relationship for several years. “We are both very ambitious in our own careers,” she adds. “So we perfectly complement one another.”
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