Martina Arroyo was one of the major American singers who suddenly appeared on the international vocal scene in the 1950s and 1960s. She was also a leader in a pioneering generation of black American singers who followed the example of Marian Anderson in breaking barriers on the opera and concert stages.
She attended Hunter College in New York, taking a Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages. She won the 1958 Metropolitan Opera Auditions (sharing first prize with the similarly illustrious Grace Bumbry). Arroyo was immediately invited to participate in a Carnegie Hall concert performance of Ildebrando Pizzetti's L'Assassinio nella cattedrale, a new opera based on T.S. Eliot's play about the murder of St. Thomas à Beckett. This was followed by a period of singing minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera.
She went to Europe, which at that time was better disposed to ignore the skin color of singers portraying nominally "white" roles in operas, and immediately took the leading roles in operas in Vienna, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Zurich, accepting a contract to join the company of the Zurich Opera from 1963 to 1965.
She was a classic spinto soprano, tailor-made for the most powerful Verdi roles, yet was able to handle Mozart parts with the necessary lightness and flexibility. Among her best-known roles were Gioconda, Santuzza, Donna Anna, Butterfly, Liù (Turandot) and Wagner's Elsa, and most of the major roles of Strauss, Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini.
She was invited to sing her first leading role at the Metropolitan in 1965, as a last-minute substitute for Birgit Nilsson as Aïda. She went on to become one of the favorite stars of the Metropolitan, where she sang all the major Verdi parts. She was asked to sing in the season opening performance at the Met three times. She remains associated with the Metropolitan as a frequent participant on the "Singer's Roundtable" feature on Metropolitan Saturday matinee broadcasts and sang over 20 times on the popular Tonight Show on America's NBC television.
She made her debut in Britain at a concert performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in 1968 as Valentine and in the same year made her operatic debut in that country at Covent Garden, singing Aïda. Her Paris Opéra debut was in 1973. Arroyo also appeared regularly on the concert platform in a wide variety of repertory that ranged from Handel oratorios such as Judas Maccabeus and Samson to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, Rossini's Stabat Mater, the requiems of Verdi and Fauré, and such modern compositions as Barber's Andromache's Farewell (which she premiered), Karlheinz Stockhausen's Momente, William Bolcom's Simple Stories, and African Oratorio by Carlo Franci.
Arroyo has taught at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Delaware, Wilberforce University, and the International Sommerakademie-Mozarteum in Salzburg. She is now a Distinguished Professor of Voice at the School of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. She is co-author (with Dr. Willard Boyd) of the National Endowment of the Arts' Task Force Report of Music Education in the United States.
Arroyo was appointed by President Gerald Ford as a member of the National Endowment of the Arts, served twenty years as a member of the Board of Trustees of Carnegie Hall (and was subsequently named a lifetime Honorary Trustee), is a member of the Board of Trustees of Hunter College of the City of New York University, and won honors from the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. She made over 50 recordings in a wide variety of repertory from oratorio to spirituals.