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Opera singer Maria Ewing, known for her dramatic intensity, has died at age 71

Opera singer Maria Ewing photographed on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1994 while she was singing the title role in <em>Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk</em>, by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Jack Mitchell
Getty Images
Opera singer Maria Ewing photographed on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1994 while she was singing the title role in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Maria Ewing, the opera singer acclaimed for her sensual, dramatically charged performances in works by Strauss, Bizet and Shostakovich, died at her home near Detroit on Sunday. She was 71. Her death was announced in a family statement published by multiple news organizations.

"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," the family said. No further details were provided.

Ewing, who came from a biracial family, was in part the inspiration behind the recent film Passing – about two light-skinned African-American women who can pass as white – directed by Ewing's daughter Rebecca Hall.

Artistically, Ewing was a complicated figure. While some observers fell under the spell of her no-holds-barred acting, others criticized it along with a voice which they saw as not always technically perfect.

In 1989, John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times about a Los Angeles performance of Richard Strauss' Salome, staged for Ewing by her husband, Peter Hall, who once led London's Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. Rockwell noted that one of the keys to the production's success was Hall's direction. "But its real fame derives from Ms. Ewing's striking singing and acting, along with the notoriety of her Dance of the Seven Veils," he wrote, describing the use of full frontal nudity in the scene as its "logical conclusion."

Ewing, whose range was wide enough to sing both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, was fearless when it came to pushing the artistic envelope. "I do what I believe is right," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "If this appears to be risk taking or daring — so be it. The theater is meant to be a place where emotions are unleashed and where one reveals oneself."

Peter G. Davis was less charitable of Ewing's choices in his book The American Opera Singer, in which he wishes Ewing hadn't "restructured" her light mezzo-soprano voice to take on larger, dramatic roles such as Salome and Puccini's Tosca. "For many though," Davis writes, "Ewing's bizarre onstage behavior has been just as eccentric and unmusical as her singing."

Davis was referring, in part, to Ewing's polarizing portrayal of the title role in Bizet's Carmen, another Hall production, at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1986. Donal Henahan, of the The New York Times, was there on opening night, and was not impressed. In his view, Ewing played Carmen as a "pouty teenager," indifferent to the audience: "Miss Ewing pursues this eccentric concept to the end, which might be more plausible if her basically light mezzo were a true Carmen voice. It is not."

Talking to the Los Angeles Times in 1992, Ewing rationalized her career trajectory. "I sang lyric mezzo parts, but in your early 20s that was the right thing to do," she explained. "Then my voice naturally progressed as it should. I did Carmen at 35, Salome at 36. I sang these roles at the right time."

Maria Louise Ewing was born in March 27, 1950 in Detroit, Mich. to Norman Ewing and the Dutch-born Hermina Maria Veraar. Music seemed to be her path from the beginning.

"I simply had no choice," she told the BBC in 1990. "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.' And then the chorus master at the high school was very influential."

Ewing studied at the Cleveland Institute from 1968-1970 with Eleanor Steber and Jennie Tourel. That's also where she cemented her artistic relationship with a young conductor named James Levine, who presided over her professional debut in 1973 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. Her Metropolitan Opera debut, playing the role of Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, followed in 1976. She would eventually sing 96 performances there.

In 1979 Ewing appeared in a production at England's Glyndebourne Festival, directed by Peter Hall. They fell in love and married in 1982, and in that year welcomed their daughter, Rebecca. They divorced in 1990; Hall died in 2017.

Ewing's career took her to all the major opera houses in a broad range of roles, in works by Mozart, Puccini, Bartok, Poulenc, Berlioz, Berg and Shostakovich.

"She can never be uninteresting on the stage," Peter Hemmings, then the general director of the Los Angeles Opera, told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "You can't take your eyes off her."

"Actors always talk about what their 'characters' feel," Ewing explained to the Los Angeles Times. "I get tired of hearing that. It's yourself you're talking about-- your idea and your understanding of the 'character.' Ultimately, it's you who comes across."

Along with her daughter, Ewing is also survived by three sisters, Francis Ewing, Norma Koleta and Carol Pancratz.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.