Opera singer Maria Ewing dies at 71

·5 min read
Maria Ewing
The singer was comfortable in both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles

Opera singer Maria Ewing, known for her electrifying stage performances in Carmen and Salome, has died aged 71.

The former wife of director Sir Peter Hall and mother of actress Rebecca Hall, she was a magnetic talent in her own right, singing with the Royal Opera and Metropolitan Opera, among others.

"She was an extraordinarily gifted artist who by the sheer force of her talent and will catapulted herself to the most rarefied heights of the international opera world," her family said in a statement.

She died on Sunday at her home in Harrison Township, Michigan, her spokeswoman Bryna Rifkin told the BBC.

'No choice' but to sing

Born to a Dutch mother and an African-American father in Detroit in 1950, Ewing was the youngest of four daughters.

Known for her naturalistic acting as much as her voice, she once said: "Singing is the means, but it's what you're delivering that really matters."

Asked by the BBC in 1990 why she became a singer, she replied: "In a way, it was decided for me. My mother was the one to say to me, 'You have a voice, you should do something about it.'

"I really had no choice," she added. "I simply had no choice."

Maria Ewing on stage circa 2000
Maria Ewing on stage circa 2000

She made her debut at the 1973 Ravinia Festival in Illinois, and gave her first performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1976, singing Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage Of Figaro.

With both soprano and a mezzo-soprano roles, her work ranged from mainstays of the repertoire like Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville and Tosca to concert performances of rarer works like Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Ravel's Sheherazade.

Infamous nude scene

It was at Glyndebourne in Sussex that Ewing's career really began to take off, leaving the audience in stitches at her debut in 1978, where she played a headstrong Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte.

She met Sir Peter, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, there and they married in 1982.

He later directed her at the Met, where she sang the title role in a new staging of Bizet's Carmen, portraying the heroine as a "pouty teenager" rather than the sultry temptress of most productions.

The couple worked together again on Strauss's Salome at the Royal Opera House in 1988 - causing a sensation when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Ewing finished the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils in the nude.

The decision was entirely hers. Her husband had initially wanted her to wear a G-string under the seventh veil.

"But I think that's dishonest and I think it's vulgar," she later told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. "Nudity isn't vulgar in this context, any more than the nudity we see in most classical paintings."

Maria Ewing in Salome
Ewing's performance in Salome was broadcast around the world

Her appearance on the Radio 4 programme surprised fans even more when she declined to choose any operatic music for her desert island playlist.

"What I've selected here is the music I listen to," she explained, saying she rarely even attended opera.

"It's too much a part of me," she said. "I'd probably be too critical. I'll see productions that are full of ideas but are missing the point altogether."

That perfectionism earned her a reputation for being difficult to work with, she later confessed.

"I'm not the most patient person when it comes to standards, I guess I have pretty high ones, and I care desperately about maintaining those and working hard," she told The Guardian in 2003.

"If I didn't like something someone did, or if a conductor was doing something I didn't understand, I would just bloody well say it. I think you have to."

One such incident caused her to sever ties with the Metropolitan Opera for six years after the company scrapped a television broadcast of her Carmen and screened a 1987 performance of the production starring Agnes Baltsa instead.

"The Met has no manners,″ she told the Chicago Tribune at the time.

Film inspiration

Sir Peter and Ewing divorced in 1990, but they remained friends until his death in 2017.

Ewing went on to give a hugely expressive performance as Katerina Ismailova in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Opéra-Bastille in Paris in 1993, but largely stepped away from full-scale productions from 1997.

She continued to record and give recitals, mixing operatic standards with jazz and popular ballads by George Gershwin, Noel Coward and others.

She told the LA Times in 1992: "The voice reaches a certain peak in your mid-30s and from then on is the real singing. That's when the real life happens, too.

"As your life progresses, it affects your work. Whatever emotion you're going through, you can use all of it. I think that's what theatre is about."

Ewing's family history recently inspired her daughter's debut as a film director, Passing, which tells the story of two light-skinned African-American women, one of who allows people to assume she is white.

Ewing often passed as white herself, although not necessarily by design, her daughter has said. Instead, she tended to "be whatever people chose to see", which sometimes meant being described as "exotic" by members of the opera community, Rebecca Hall recently told NPR.

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