Maria Ewing, who sang notable soprano and mezzo-soprano roles at major houses including the Metropolitan Opera from the mid-1970s and whose ambiguity over her racial heritage drove her daughter, the actress and director Rebecca Hall, who made the recent film “Passing,” died Sunday at her home near Detroit. She was 71 years old.
A family spokeswoman said the cause was cancer.
Ms Ewing was a striking presence on opera stages, where she strove to bring an actor’s skill and sensibility to her roles rather than just stand and sing.
“I’ve seen how actors work and work at it,” Ms Ewing, who was once married to British theater director Peter Hall, told the Orange County Register of California in 1997 when she appeared in the production of Umberto by LA Opera. Giordano’s Fedora.
“I don’t want to criticize or underestimate the importance of beautiful vocalism, which alone can move people,” she added. “But why does opera so often become predictable in terms of staging?
There was certainly nothing fixed about her performance, under the direction of Mr. Hall, in the title role of “Salome”, first seen in Los Angeles in 1986 and revived in other cities, including London. In the initial production, she completed the Dance of the Seven Veils wearing only a thong; in the last, it even dispensed with it. (She’s not the only Salome to end the dance in the all-set; Karita Mattila did it at the Met this century.)
“Sometimes you have to push yourself to the limit,” she told The Register. “You go to the precipice and lean over it. You have to. A role like Salomé, you are completely at the limit. You’re above that, actually.
Although critics sometimes disapproved of her starring roles – her attempt at the title role in ‘Carmen’, also under Mr. Hall’s direction, drew harsh reviews around the same time – her ‘Salome’ was generally acclaimed. John Rockwell, reviewing a 1989 return engagement in Los Angeles for The New York Times, called it “the most gripping and compelling overarching account of this impossible part I have ever come across”.
Whenever Ms. Ewing performed, critics almost invariably commented on her exotic appearance. These were partly the product of a mixed racial heritage which Ms Ewing tended not to dwell on, even with her daughter, who grew up in England.
“When I was growing up, my mum used to tell me things like, ‘Well, you know we’re black,’ and then another day she was like, ‘I don’t really know that,'” Ms Hall said. told in an episode of “Find Your Roots” the PBS genealogy show, filmed last year and aired last week.
“She was always extraordinarily beautiful,” Ms Hall told Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show’s host, “but she didn’t look like everyone’s mother in the English countryside.”
Her mother identified as white, she told Professor Gates, but in interviews over the years Ms Ewing has also hinted at possible black and Native American ancestry. His father, Norman, presented himself for years as a Native American, but researchers at “Finding Your Roots” determined that it was a fabrication; a DNA test of Ms Hall taken for the program showed that she was not of Indian descent. His grandfather was actually black.
“You, my dear, are indeed a person of African descent,” Professor Gates told Ms Hall.
It was more than a curiosity for Mrs. 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 poses as white. Part of what interested her in the novel, she has said in interviews, was the lingering suspicion that the story was relevant to her own family.
“When I asked my mom about her Detroit background and her family,” Ms Hall told The Times last year, “she left him with a ‘I don’t want to dwell on the pass “.”
The film, Ms Hall’s feature debut as a director, premiered in November (before moving to Netflix) and was widely hailed as one of the year’s best.
Maria Louise Ewing was born on March 27, 1950 in Detroit. His father was an engineer in a steel company and his mother, Hermina Maria (Veraar) Ewing, was a homemaker.
Ms. Ewing studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She made her Cologne Opera debut around 1975 and her Met debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in October 1976.
“At the moment, a combination of nerves and artistic immaturity keeps her Cherubino short of the best,” Mr. Rockwell wrote in his review. “But she’s a singer with huge potential.”
That same month, we find her on the stage of Carnegie Hall, one of the two singers of a Mahler program of the New York Philharmonic conducted by James Levine.
“The voice is one with plenty of color, and of course Miss Ewing will grow in music,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Times.
Among her first roles at the Met was Blanche in John Dexter’s 1977 production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues der Carmelites”. She was scheduled for a road production of this opera in Boston in 1979 when fog grounded the plane that was to fly her from New York to Boston for an 8-hour curtain call. At 4:30 p.m., she got into a taxi, which delivered her to Hynes Auditorium at 8:55 p.m.; the curtain rose at 9:05. The price: $337.50, not including a tip of $47.50.
In addition to her dramatic roles, Ms. Ewing has stood out in comedies such as Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte”.
“Give any Fiordiligi Così’s patrician Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Ewing’s lovable dopey Dorabella and Donald Gramm’s subtly understated Don Alfonso and you’ll have an evening at the opera,” Donal Henahan wrote about of the Met’s production in 1982.
In 1987, a dispute with Mr. Levine over a revival and telecast of “Carmen” caused her to withdraw from Met performances.
“I can’t work with a man that I can’t trust, and I can’t work in a house that he runs that way,” she said at the time.
But she would eventually come back; her last Met performance was in 1997 as Marie in Berg’s “Wozzeck.”
She and Mr. Hall were married in 1982 and divorced in 1990. Besides her daughter, she is survived by three sisters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing; and a granddaughter.
In 1996, while singing a concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra, The Times asked Ms Ewing about this famous dance from “Salome”.
“It was my own idea to do the dance naked,” she said. “I felt it was somehow essential to express the truth of this moment – a moment of frustration, longing and self-discovery for Salomé. For me, the scene wouldn’t work any other way.