Ana María Martínez sings the title role in HGO's upcoming Florencia en el Amazonas, set to open Jan. 18.

Ana María Martínez is a Grammy-award winning soprano and one of the most sought-after operatic artists of her generation, but she’s also a mom, and at the start of our interview she’s just picked up her 11-year-old son, Lucas, from school. “Give me just a second,” she says. “I need to make sure he gets started on his homework.”

Martínez has the type of down-to-earth and disarming personality that nearly belies her international opera diva status, and she’s totally unabashed about her love for Houston, where she’s lived since 2002.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, Martínez arrived here in the mid ‘90s as a Young Artist in the Houston Grand Opera studio, a platform that helped launch her now-monumental career. She later returned to play the role of Rosalba in HGO’s 2002 production of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas. She knew then that Houston would become home base.

Image: Tom Specht

“I wanted to live in a cosmopolitan city, but not at the hectic pace that I was used to in Manhattan, and Houston just kept ringing true to me,” she says. “I also loved that it has such a vast Hispanic population; I am Latina, and I needed to feel that connection.” 

Florencia is part of that connection. Originally premiered by HGO in 1996, it’s the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by a major United States company, and Martínez says Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s libretto fostered a unique personal connection.

“Spanish is my first language, and just like anyone speaking their mother tongue, you have a more visceral connection with the language,” she says. “Every part of your human experience revolves around it— you’ve been dreaming in that language—and that brings about so many other levels of meaning for each word. If you're a native Spanish speaker or speak Spanish as a second language, you'll find it so refreshing and beautiful to hear that language in this opera.”

Yet Florencia should appeal to all Houstonians. The story, which follows legendary opera singer Florencia Grimaldi as she journeys down the Amazon by boat, is based on the writings of Gabriel García Márquez that imbue the story with that author’s sense of magical realism. 

“It’s about travelers on a riverboat: there’s unrequited love, and young love about to sprout, and a woman searching for the love of her youth, and an older couple that is bickering non-stop, who think they've had it with each other,” says Martínez. “All of those dynamics of relationships, of wanting, of desire, of trying, of being afraid, of disdain, of regret, of holding on to hope for dear life—it's all there. And then you add the layers of the beautiful lush music that you're hearing in the orchestra, and the dancers that are a part of the show.”

Now, nearly two decades after she tackled the secondary character of Rosalba, we wonder what it’s like to graduate to the title role. People were always asking her when she would take on Florencia, she says, but only now, after years of experience, does she feel ready. “You need to have an understanding of how your voice works more and how to use it in this piece, more so than just about any role I’ve done, and that includes Madame Butterfly, Marguerite in Faust, and even some roles in Verdi operas. In a way, they’ve all prepared me for Florencia.”

At this stage in her life, Martínez feels she can also identify more with the title character, who is an opera singer journeying back home to South America. At the core of the story is love, but Martinez says it’s not just through rose-colored glasses. 

“When you’ve been around for so long in that intense lifestyle you’ve pretty much gone through it all, and it’s an active choice to always return to a sense of love. That I can identify with a lot: putting the importance on love and intuition and following your passion. And marrying that with your personal life—that's always tricky. But finding the truth that Florencia ends up discovering at the end of the opera just rings true with how I feel and what I’ve been through. And I know it will for so many people.”

Jan. 18–Feb. 3. Tickets from $25. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.

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