Growing up in Cuba’s provincial city of Holguin, baritone Nelson Martinez loved music, but opera was not on his radar. At the opposite end of the island from Havana, Holguin beckoned the adventurous tourist with its relaxed pace and an overabundance of shiny vintage Chevys.
“But I loved to sing at school,” he said. “I sang all the songs—the ballads—that were popular at the time.” Once his high school girlfriend started studying voice, she challenged Nelson to sign up for lessons also. Their teacher was Raúl Camayd, a respected baritone who had studied opera in Italy and had made his career in Cuba singing leading roles zarzuelas, the musical theater of Spanish-speaking cultures.
“When I went to Camayd and sang for him, his immediate reaction was—you have to study opera!” Martinez said. Of course, there is nothing immediate about making a career in opera, but Martinez has diligently worked his way from Havana’s Cuban National Opera, to musical theater in Mexico City, to numerous U.S. regional opera companies, and finally—in 2016—to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Martinez is in San Diego appearing as Amonasro in San Diego Opera’s production of Verdi’s ultimate grand opera Aïda, which opens this weekend in San Diego’s Civic Theatre. Although Amonasro is not part of the love triangle of Amneris, Radames, and Aïda that fills the opera with gripping emotional conflict, he is essential to the plot. As King of the Ethiopia—at war with Egypt—as well as Aïda’s father, Amonasro prevails upon his daughter to betray the Egyptian general Radames by obtaining Egypt’s military strategy from him.
“I find myself drawn to Verdi’s father roles,” Martinez explained. “My first role on stage with Cuban National Opera was Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La traviata, and I really get into singing Rigoletto,” he added. “What I find in Amonasro is a person who loves his country a lot. I would like to see my country and people free, and Amonasro also wants to see his people free.”
Martinez admits that the plot of Aïda requires his character’s manipulation of his daughter, but he is quick to temper that accusation. “He does not force Aïda to betray her lover in a bad way. So he manipulates her a little bit, but he isn’t a bad guy like Scarpia [the baritone villain of Puccini’s Tosca] or Iago [Othello’s betrayer in Verdi’s Otello]. I see his real motive as recovering freedom for himself, Aïda, and his people.”
Martinez’ commitment to the music of Verdi was sealed in his earliest days with Cuban National Opera. “In Cuba we would take our opera productions to the countryside, to places where they had never heard classical music performed, and it was incredible how these people were affected by Verdi’s music. What always impresses me is how Verdi translates every emotion so powerfully in his music. It gets right into my heart, and this is the emotion that communicates to the audience.”
In San Diego Opera’s production of Aïda, Martinez will be joined by soprano Michelle Bradley in the title role, tenor Carl Tanner as Radames, last season’s Calaf in the company’s Turandot, and mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova as Amneris. Joseph Colaneri will make his local debut conducting the opera, with staging in the capable hands of Alan Hicks, who most recently directed San Diego Opera’s All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. The company’s favorite designer Zandra Rhodes has designed the costumes, and portions of Michael Yeargan’s set will also be used in this theatrical concert opera production.
San Diego Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aïda” in the San Diego Civic Theatre on October 19, 22, & 25, 2019, at 7:30 p.m., with an additional Sunday 2:00 p.m. matinee on October 27.