Liu Takes a Tumble

by Mary Hammann, violist

 Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

 Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Harlem-born soprano Martina Arroyo turned 80 years old on February 2. With her talent and humor, she was an artist who helped break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world.

Artie Griffe, stagehand at the Metropolitan Opera since 1964, regaled me with the following story about Arroyo on Thursday, which just happened to be her birthday.

Back in the days of the old Met, just a half hour before the curtain of Turandot, Artie was horsing around with a fellow stagehand. He picked up the little guy and swung him around just as Arroyo was coming on stage to rehearse the blocking for her part as Liu. She was almost clobbered by Artie and his friend. Mortified, Artie immediately apologized to Arroyo, who was unharmed.

The staircase as seen in a 1961 performance of Cecil Beaton's production, starring Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson (Photo by Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera)

The staircase as seen in a 1961 performance of Cecil Beaton's production, starring Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson (Photo by Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera)

In response, she jokingly challenged Artie to swing her around, too. Embarrassed, he declined, but she insisted. As a compromise, they bet $100 that he could not carry her up the grand staircase that led to the pagoda of the Cecil Beaton set. So Artie picked her up and carried her up the stairs…until he tripped and fell on the top step, where they both landed in a pile.

So Artie lost the bet. Rather than demand the money, Arroyo negotiated that he would pay her one dollar every time she saw him at the Met. Which is exactly what he did. Apparently she got a lot of laughs recounting the incident on one of her many appearances on the Johnny Carson Show!