The year 2019 was quite a milestone for Larisa Martínez. To start, the Puerto Rican-born soprano made both her Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall debuts — the former in recital and the latter with the Athens Philharmonic.
“Not in one year – in one month!” she said. “And in between, a wedding.”
And not just any wedding. Martínez, then 32, married acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, after a nearly eight-year courtship. New York Times columnist David Brooks officiated the event at the couple’s home in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and the wedding was featured in the Mini-Vows section of the Times.
The musical couple will appear Aug. 12 at the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program titled "Voice and the Violin." (Bell returns alone Aug. 13 for a second night with the orchestra.) The couple came up with the concept before the coronavirus pandemic, and they used their off time to develop the idea. “It has taken us awhile to find music for voice and violin that we really like and that we want to bring together in a program,” she said. “So we have to thank COVID for that — a little silver lining.”
This concert will mark the first time the couple has performed this version of the duo program, which includes the Habanera from Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for violin and Jours de mon enfance from Le pré aux clercs, an 1840 comic opera by Ferdinand Hérold. They plan to perform the line-up elsewhere as their touring schedules allow. “It’s tough,” she said. “It’s still developing, and we’re not putting too much pressure on ourselves. Of course, the more we do them, the more we get to be together.”
The Aug. 12 concert will also mark Martínez’s premiere with the Chicago Symphony. “This is my debut, and I’m incredibly excited,” she said. “They are a legendary orchestra — one of the Big Five.”
It also will be the soprano’s inaugural appearance at the Ravinia Festival, and she’s looking forward to that experience as well. “I love these kinds of venues where people can sit outside,” she said. “You just go, and it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. You sit on the lawn and you’re with your family. It’s a different way of experiencing classical music, and it gives me a lot of joy to make music in such an environment.”
Singing is embedded in the culture of Puerto Rico, which has produced such operatic stars as Justino Díaz, who sang 400 performances at the Metropolitan Opera; tenor Antonio Verasorda, who died in 2018, and one of the opera world’s top stars today, soprano Ana María Martínez (no relation).
Larisa Martínez’s journey to becoming a professional opera singer was gradual. There were no what she called “eureka moments.” She was exposed to classical music through the Puerto Rican Choral Society and has strong memories of a performance of Mozart’s Requiem when she was about 17. “When the choir started the Dies irae, the second movement, the wave of sound behind my head and the power of the music, I couldn’t even sing," she said. "I started crying on the stage. It was so powerful.”
Joshua Bell and Larisa Martínez, partners in real life, also collaborate professionally. At Ravinia, they will present "Voice and the Violin" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Michael Stern.
When she was 18 or 19 years old, she appeared in her first opera. “The first opera I ever saw, I was in it, funny enough,” she said. She was the shepherd in the third act of Tosca, singing the character’s aria. Typically, the part is sung by a boy backstage, but she was dressed to look like a boy and performed the solo on stage. “It was really magical for me,” she said. “It’s addictive — the euphoria of being onstage and connecting to an audience and in character and pretending to be someone else.”
Her piano teacher recommended that she study vocal performance at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico in San Juan, which she did while she earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Puerto Rico. She chose that major because it cut across a wide swath of subjects. In addition, her mother was a nurse and her father a doctor, and she planned to pursue medicine.
“It was the most natural path for me,” she said. “There are a lot of singers and a lot of [musical] aficionados, but no professional musicians in my family, so the thought of a musical career was very scary. I didn’t even know what that would look like.”
But in the end, music won out and she went on to obtain her master’s degree from the Mannes School of Music in New York City. In 2010, she made her debut in the title role of Luisa Fernanda, a popular 1932 example of zarzuela or Spanish operetta at the Centro de Belles Artes de Puerto Rico. She has gone on to perform in New York and other operatic stages in the United States and Europe.
One of the most prominent aspects of Martínez’s career has been her appearances with tenor sensation Andrea Bocelli, a collaboration that began about three years ago. She connected with Bocelli through her vocal coach, Eugene Kohn, who has served as a pianist for notable singers such as Maria Callas and Franco Corelli and also happens to be one of the conductors for Bocelli. Martínez met Kohn when he served as music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony.
Bocelli was looking for a new soprano to sing with him on his arena-style programs, and Kohn suggested Martínez. She auditioned for the tenor and his wife, singing for some two hours in Miami. “The next thing I know, his manager is calling me, offering me a whole tour that included Madison Square Garden and all these places," she said. "And we haven’t stopped. It’s really a privilege to sing to such big audiences.”
Though most attendees probably come for Bocelli’s pop selections, he insists on devoting the first half of his concerts to classical music — a practice the soprano calls both brave and heartwarming. Martínez typically sings one aria and then joins the tenor in four operatic duets. “It’s really a brave thing to do and people love it,” she said. “Bocelli is doing us all a favor in the classical world by exposing new audiences to classical music.”
Just as Martínez’s career was heating up, nearly all of her subsequent projects had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But many of those events have been rescheduled, including a voice and guitar recital in February at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. She is also recording a solo album of art songs from Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.
“Things have started to happen at the right time,” Martínez said. “I feel I’m at a point where I’m technically very secure and being on a stage is a joy for me. It took me a while to be ready to be where I am right now.”