Janis Martin, a Sacramento native and El Camino High School graduate who became an international opera star, died Dec. 14 in San Antonio at age 75.
Ms. Martin grew up in a musical family. Her father, Emil Martin, a longtime program director for McClatchy Broadcasting, got his start before World War II with KFBK radio as a studio organist and musical director in the days of studio orchestras, said her brother Richard Martin. Her mother, Helen Martin, was a singer.
Ms. Martin studied at California State University, Sacramento, and UC Berkeley, but she was more interested in singing than academics, her brother said. When she was 18, she entered the Merola Training Program at the San Francisco Opera. Two years later, she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York, placing first among 1,500 singers. The first prize consisted of $2,000 and a three-year contract at the Met. At the end of those three years, she went to Germany, which became her home base for most of the next 40 years.
She began her career as a mezzo soprano, but transitioned to a soprano.
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“Soprano roles tend to be the more dramatic and starlike roles,” said Richard Martin. “Her forte was (operas by) Wagner and Strauss.”
She devoted much of her career to performing in Richard Wagner operas, in roles that included Senta, Sieglinde, Kundry, Isolde and Brünnhilde.
Ms. Martin performed at all the major opera houses. She enjoyed long associations with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bayreuth Festival, and also performed at La Scala, Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Paris Opera and Staatsoper Hannover.
Ms. Martin was twice married and divorced. He second husband, Gerhard Hellwig, was the artistic director to Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth, and the director of a boys choir. Their son Robert Martin recalls singing in his father’s choir and performing with his mother on stage as a child. His mother often appeared in “Hansel and Gretel” sometimes in the role of the mother, and other times as the witch.
The world of opera was somewhat puzzling to him as a child, her son said, recalling that he once commented to his mother, “You always die at the end of the opera, but the people still applaud.”
In a June 2000 interview with Opernwelt Magazine, Ms. Martin said, “I always separated my stage life and my private life, and that was not easy. I sang in all the big houses, but I was never No. 1, because I did not want that. I wanted to have my private life. If you are right on top, you are a public figure.”
She retired later that year and spent the last seven years of her life in San Antonio, where her son lives, enjoying the role of “Omi,” or grandmother, to her two grandchildren, ages 5 and 8.
“She had a full life and a massively successful career,” said her son, adding that she seemed content in retirement.
Her cousin Chris David of Fair Oaks recalled that Ms. Martin last visited Sacramento in September. She spent time with relatives, including her 97-year-old aunt, David’s mother, Phyllis Boyles.
David said she was playing a CD of her favorite band, Tom Rigney and Flambeau, in the car and Ms. Martin asked the name of the group. “She said she really liked them and she encouraged me to tell them she did,” David said.
David also recalled when she, Ms. Martin and their sons attended a wrestling match several years ago at Arco Arena. Getting into the spirit of the event, Ms. Martin began booing, and with her operatic voice, recalled her cousin, “she projected so beautifully.”
David described Ms. Martin as “just a regular person. She wasn’t a diva.”
Richard Martin said he will remember his sister as an ebullient woman with a wonderful sense of humor.
Robert Martin said his mother died of natural causes, but her death was unexpected. She was in reasonably good health and leading an active life.
When she retired at age 60, he said, she was still singing the biggest roles of her career. “She never wanted to sing the ‘old lady’ roles,” he said. “She never in life played the old lady role, so I guess there’s some parallel one can draw.”
Ms. Martin is survived by her son, brother and two grandchildren. At her request, her son said, no formal services are planned.
Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.