Raquel Montalvo Koch died peacefully at the home of her daughter in Manomet at the age of 86 on July 12th, 2019. She was a resident of Plymouth since 2011, most recently at Laurelwood at the Pinehills. She was born in 1933 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the eldest of three daughters of Josefina Torres and Eleuterio Montalvo, the owner of men’s clothing stores near the Parque De Bombas, the iconic firehouse in the heart of Ponce. Raquel was sent to a girl’s boarding school near Boston to learn English when she was 14. It was at the Academy of the Assumption in Wellesley Hills that Sister Joseph Anges heard her singing “White Christmas” and insisted that she start taking private voice lessons. After finishing at the Academy in 1950 she entered The Boston Conservatory. As fate would have it, her future husband, John Koch from Pewaukee Wisconsin, was studying electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His fraternity on The Fens happened to be next door to Raquel’s dorm. A 1957 article by Richard Davis in the Milwaukee Journal recalled “While she worked at operatic arias he struggled with higher mathematics. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he would shout ‘Shut up!’ and she thought it was charming. They were married in New York in December of the 1955.” And so, this was how a young man from Wisconsin ended up married to the future lead soprano for the Milwaukee Florentine Opera Company. When he proposed he said, “You could stay in New York and be a little fish in a big pond, or you could marry me and come to Milwaukee to be a big fish in a small pond.” Her career in that ‘small pond’ which started in 1956 with Micaela in Carmen lasted over 20 years, performing to thousands in Wisconsin, the upper Midwest, Puerto Rico and St. Croix.
Raquel was always proud of being a Puerto Rican while adopting Milwaukee as her home. In 1957 John Anello, the musical director for the “Music Under the Stars” summer concert series, decided to try to repair tense US relations with “our South American neighbors” with a special “Latin-American Night” program featuring Raquel, the famed Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, and Brazilian conductor Eleazar de Cavalho. Vice President Nixon had recently sparked riots in Venezuela during a state visit with his wife, and it was Mr. Anello’s belief that “a musical event such as this could help heal the breach between citizens of neighboring countries”. Anello flew to Washington DC to personally delivery an invitation to the concert to Nixon. When Wisconsin Senator Wiley heard of the event, he contacted the Unites States Information Agency so that the concert could be broadcasted by the Voice of America. The July 8th Latin-American Night at the Blatz Temple of Music in Washington Park was attended by 8,000 and the Voice of American broadcast reached 19 countries. Arrau’s Beethoven 4th was acclaimed by the Milwaukee Sentinel as “some of the most memorable piano artistry ever heard. He was right in playing no encores because a finale would only have dimmed the perfection which flowed from his fingers in the concerto.” Reporter Joe Boyd continued, “It took courage for Puerto Rican soprano Raquel Montalvo, now a Milwaukee resident, to follow a master like Arrau, and it is pleasant to report that she came off beautifully. Her voice is rich, clear and warm, all pleasant and rare facets among sopranos. Her “Bachianas Brasilerias”, “Eres Tu” and “Estrellita” were fresh and lovely.”
Being a big fish in a small pond certainly didn’t limit the reach of her voice to touch the hearts of so many listeners. Moreover, she didn’t limit her talent only to the professional stage. When she joined the Milwaukee Junior League, she helped to establish the Junior League Singers to bring music to nursing homes in the metro area, a group that is still active today. She enjoyed singing a happy show tune to a senior citizen in a wheelchair while holding their hand as much as singing with Met star Jan Peerce at the Pabst Theatre. She was also a mainstay of the choir at Galilee Lutheran Church in Pewaukee, where she and John made their home and were life-long members of Galilee. God blessed her with a beautiful voice, and perhaps some of her greatest musical moments were when her voice soared from the pew of a church during an ordinary Sunday morning service. It was not uncommon to have the congregation spontaneously breakout in applause after she sang “Ave Maria” or “Oh Holy Night”. Even in churches where applause was extremely rare, it felt as if it was the right way to show God thanks. Raquel loved to use her voice to share the love of Christ.
In 2011 Raquel and John moved to Plymouth to be closer to her daughter Lili and son-in-law Gordon Colby. After 60 years attending the Lutheran Church in Wisconsin she returned to her Catholic roots and joined the choir at St. Bonaventure where she greatly enjoyed the musical direction of Chris Ricci. She was deeply honored to sing a solo during the opening of the 2014 Mass of Dedication of the new Church. She also enjoyed singing in the Pilgrim Festival Chorus (2011 - 2016) lead by Bill Richter, where she managed to tone-down her soaring operatic voice to blend beautifully with the rest of the soprano section. The Carmina Burana in 2013 was especially memorable since it was the last time that her beloved John saw her sing on stage. He passed shortly afterwards. She also enjoyed singing with the Golden Melodies at the Plymouth Center for Active Living, led by Dotty Belanger. Although by definition she was an opera Diva, she never lived her life as one. She was just as happy singing for an audience of thousands as she was sitting around the campfire on Raspberry Island in Lake Superior with a scotch and soda in her hand, singing “Indian Love Call” to our family and the local fishermen.
The only thing she loved more than singing was her family, her beloved husband of 58 years, John, her daughter Lili, her son Johnny, her sisters Elba and Gladys, and her many grandchildren. In Gunnison, CO, she will greatly be missed by her son John and his fiancé Erin, her grandchildren Nicolas, Tyler, and Zoe, and her future step-grandchildren Ethan and Elizabeth. In Plymouth MA she will be missed by her daughter Lili and her son-in-law Gordon Colby, her grandson Ira and her step-granddaughters Emilie and Allie. She is survived by her sisters Elba Montalvo of Cummings, GA and Gladys Montalvo of San Juan, PR. She will never be forgotten by her Puerto Rican family in San Juan, Ponce, Georgia, and Florida. She will never be forgotten by those who were blessed to hear her sing.
A funeral Mass will be held on Saturday July 20th, 10:00 AM at St. Bonaventure in Manomet.
In lieu of flowers please kindly make a donation to The Florentine Opera Company www.florentineopera.org/give or to The Pilgrim Festival Chorus www.pilgrimfestivalchorus.org