Known as the “Nightingale of the Americas,” soprano María Belen Ortega was born on December 21, 1914, in Cerritos, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to Epitacio and Mercedes Ortega. She arrived with her parents in the United States during the Mexican Revolution.
Ortega’s musical abilities were apparent in her childhood, and she received her first scholarship in piano when she was nine years old. She came to the attention of Feodore Gontzoff, the Russian baritone, with whom she studied voice; later, she also studied with soprano Maria Kurenko, also Russian, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. As a high school senior, Ortega received the T. G. Terry Scholarship in music, which allowed her to study at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. In addition to her work in voice there, she undertook instrumental studies in piano and classical guitar. Ortega graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from SMU in 1960. She also pursued “folkloric studies” at the Universidad Nacional de Mexico and at the Music Conservatory in Mexico City. After completing college, Ortega embarked on a thirty-year career as an interpreter of the folk songs of Spain, Mexico, and South America.
Ortega became known for her faithful and inspiring renditions of the masters of Spanish-language folkloric music. Among the composers whose work she sang were Manuel Ponce, Alberto Ginastera, and Juan León Mariscal. In her stage appearances, she honored her cultural roots by donning the costumes of the countries whose music she performed. Ortega typically enhanced each piece she presented with “delightful short anecdotes, comments and legends.”
During her three-decades-long career, the soprano appeared at Radio City in New York, the Trocadero in Hollywood, the Samovar in Montreal, and El Patio in Mexico. Ortega, who became known for her outstanding encores, was praised by music critics who attended her concerts. Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune noted that Ortega’s “voice…has the indefinable quality of personality.” The Associated Newspapers in New York rhapsodied that Ortega “sings with a liquid voice, resonant and of rare enchantment.” In addition to her work on the musical stage, Ortega appeared on radio and television and worked with Alfredo Antonini at CBS and with Joseph Stopak at NBC. During her concert tour of Spain, she also recorded for RCA Victor.
In addition to her career as a musical performer, Ortega worked as a music educator. After she obtained a master’s degree in music education from Texas Woman’s University in 1971, she taught for Mexico City College, St. Mark’s School in Dallas, and Dallas public schools. In later years, she gave private voice lessons. In 1989 Ortega endowed a $50,000 scholarship at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts to ensure that Hispanic students pursued music as a career. The scholarship, awarded to a first-year student, was the first voice scholarship at the school established by a living individual.
Ortega also served as the arts columnist for El Sol de Texas, a Spanish-language newspaper. She was active in Amigos de Mexico, the Spirit of Dallas, and the Dallas Opera Guild. For her outstanding community service, she was recognized as one of a select group of Mexican-American women “trailblazers” in 1993 by Dallas City Council member Chris Luna. In a presentation ceremony at Pike Park in the Little Mexico neighborhood in Dallas, Luna honored Ortega as one of the “women that allowed me to be where I am today—the ones that were active in the community, the ones that fought, the ones that did not take no for an answer and persevered.”
María Belen Ortega ultimately moved to the Lewisville Estates in Lewisville, Texas. She died there on August 17, 2005, at the age of ninety. She was buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas. Her endowed scholarship at SMU has continued to support voice students.