Maria Ewing, dramatically daring opera star, dies at 71

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Maria Ewing, dramatically daring opera star, dies at 71
The opera singer Maria Ewing in “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1987. Ewing, who sang notable soprano and mezzo-soprano roles at leading houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, beginning in the mid-1970s and whose ambiguity about her racial heritage helped drive her daughter, the actress and director Rebecca Hall, to make the recent movie “Passing,” died on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, at her home near Detroit. She was 71. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Maria Ewing, who sang notable soprano and mezzo-soprano roles at leading houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, beginning in the mid-1970s, and whose ambiguity about her racial heritage helped drive her daughter, actress and director Rebecca Hall, to make the recent movie “Passing,” died Sunday at her home near Detroit. She was 71.

A family spokesperson said the cause was cancer.

Ewing was a striking presence on opera stages, where she strove to bring an actor’s skills and sensibilities to her roles rather than simply stand and sing.

“I’ve watched how actors work and work at it,” Ewing, who was once married to director Peter Hall, told The Orange County Register of California in 1997, when she was appearing in LA Opera’s production of Umberto Giordano’s “Fedora.”

“I don’t mean to criticize or underestimate the importance of beautiful vocalism, which alone can move people,” she added. “But why is it that opera so often becomes predictable in terms of staging?”

There was certainly nothing staid about her performance, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the title role of “Salome,” first seen in Los Angeles in 1986 and restaged in other cities, including London. In the initial production, she ended the Dance of the Seven Veils wearing only a G-string; in later ones, she dispensed with even that. (She is not the only Salome to have ended the dance in the altogether; Karita Mattila did so at the Met this century.)

“Sometimes you have to put yourself on the edge,” she told The Register. “You go to the precipice and lean over it. You have to. A role like Salome, you are completely on the edge. You’re over it, in fact.”

Although critics had sometimes frowned on her leading roles — her attempt at the title role in “Carmen,” also under Peter Hall, at about the same time drew some harsh notices — her “Salome” was generally acclaimed. John Rockwell, reviewing a return engagement in Los Angeles in 1989 for The New York Times, called it “the most arresting, convincing overall account of this impossible part that I have ever encountered.”

Whenever Ewing performed, critics almost invariably commented on her exotic looks. Those were in part a product of a mixed racial heritage that Ewing tended not to dwell on, even with her daughter, who was raised in England.

“When I was growing up, my mother would say things to me like, ‘Well, you know we’re Black,’ and then another day she’d say, ‘I don’t really know that,’” Rebecca Hall recounted in an episode of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS genealogy program, filmed last year and broadcast this past week.

“She was always extraordinarily beautiful,” Rebecca Hall told Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the program, “but she didn’t look like everyone else’s mother in the English countryside.”

Her mother identified as white, she told Gates, but in interviews over the years Ewing also alluded to possible Black and American Indian ancestry. Ewing’s father, Norman, for years presented himself as an American Indian, but the researchers on “Finding Your Roots” determined that this was a fabrication; a DNA test of Rebecca Hall done for the program showed that she had no Indian background. Her grandfather had, in fact, been Black.

“You, my dear, are indeed a person of African descent,” Gates told Rebecca Hall.

This was more than a curiosity for Hall. She had for some time been developing a film based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” about two light-skinned Black women, one of whom passes as white. Part of what interested her about the novel, she said in interviews, was the nagging suspicion that the story was relevant to her own family.

“When I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Rebecca Hall told The New York Times last year, “she left it with an, ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”

The film, Hall’s first feature as a director, premiered in November and has been widely praised as one of the year’s best.

Maria Louise Ewing was born March 27, 1950, in Detroit. Her father was an engineer at a steel company and her mother, Hermina Maria (Veraar) Ewing, was a homemaker.

Ewing studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. About 1975, she made her debut at the Cologne Opera in Germany, and in October 1976 she made her Met debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

“At the moment some combination of nerves and artistic immaturity holds her Cherubino short of the very best,” Rockwell wrote in his review. “But she is a singer of enormous potential.”

That same month found her on the Carnegie Hall stage, one of two singers in a Mahler program by the New York Philharmonic conducted by James Levine.

“The voice is one with a good deal of color, and of course Miss Ewing will grow into the music,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Times.

Among her early Met roles was Blanche in John Dexter’s 1977 staging of Poulenc’s “Dialogues der Carmelites.” She was slated for a road production of that opera in Boston in 1979 when fog grounded the plane that was supposed to deliver her from New York to Boston for an 8 p.m. curtain. At 4:30 p.m., she climbed into a cab, which delivered her to the Hynes Auditorium at 8:55; the curtain went up at 9:05. The fare: $337.50, not including a $47.50 tip.

In addition to her dramatic roles, Ewing stood out in comedies such as Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte.”

“Give any ‘Così’ Kiri Te Kanawa’s patrician Fiordiligi, Maria Ewing’s lovably dopey Dorabella and Donald Gramm’s subtly understated Don Alfonso and you will have yourself a night at the opera,” Donal Henahan wrote of the Met’s production in 1982.

In 1987, a dispute with Levine over a revival and telecast of “Carmen” led her to withdraw from Met performances.

“I cannot work with a man I cannot trust, and I cannot work in a house that he is running in this fashion,” she said at the time.

But she would eventually return; her final Met performance was in 1997 as Marie in Berg’s “Wozzeck.”

Ewing and Peter Hall married in 1982 and divorced in 1990. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three sisters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing; and a granddaughter.

In 1996, when she was singing a concert with the Philharmonic, The Times asked Ewing about that famous dance in “Salome.”

“It was my own idea to do the dance naked,” she said. “I felt that it was somehow essential to express the truth of that moment — a moment of frustration, longing and self-discovery for Salome. For me, the scene wouldn’t work any other way.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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