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Maria Ewing, multifaceted opera singer, dies at 71

Opera singer Maria Ewing as Rosina in Washington National Opera's English version of “The Barber of Seville” in 1973. (Richard Braaten/Washington National Opera)
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Maria Ewing, a multifaceted American mezzo-soprano known for the dramatic intelligence and intensity she brought to a broad sweep of parts on the world’s leading operatic stages, died Jan. 9 at her home in the Detroit area. She was 71.

A family spokeswoman, Bryna Rifkin, said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Ewing was equally at home in 17th-century Baroque roles and the most craggy of modernist scores, which she sang in French, Italian, German, Russian, Latin, Hungarian, Spanish and English, in vocal registers that ranged from alto up to lyric soprano.

Although she was celebrated for her interpretations of heavier dramatic roles in “Carmen” and “Tosca,” she won her first fame as a dulcet Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976.

Ms. Ewing was probably best known for her performances of the title role in Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome.” She went back to Oscar Wilde’s original play, a decadent fantasia on the Bible story, and she decided to follow Wilde’s instruction that the princess should stand nude after the climactic “Dance of the Seven Veils.” First in Los Angeles, then at Covent Garden in London and in Washington, Ms. Ewing chose to forgo a body stocking or a stand-in and do the dance — and drop the veil — herself.

Her director was Peter Hall, then the director of London’s National Theatre and whom Ms. Ewing had married in 1982. He had suggested she wear a “G-string” underneath the veils. Ms. Ewing played it that way at least once — and then reconsidered.

She called the thong “vulgar” and likened her decision to appear naked to the tasteful and elegant beauty of a classical painting.

“Wearing a G-string is like a tease and in no way is this dance a tease,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “[Salome] is in her own world in that dance. She is not doing it for anyone else.”

The late Martin Bernheimer, the longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, attended the opening night — and was delighted by it. “The Germans have a wonderful, irreverent word: Theaterviech,” his October 1986 review of the first performance began.

“Literally, it means theater-beast,” he continued. “But it means more, and it isn’t pejorative. It describes someone who walks out on a stage and exerts instant magnetism, someone who takes chances, someone who holds nothing back, someone who can fascinate an audience while reading the phone book or staring blankly straight ahead.”

He called Ms. Ewing a “prime and wondrous example of the rare breed.”

The teaming of Hall and Ewing also stirred up controversy. Earlier in 1986, the two had brought their Royal Opera House staging of “Carmen” to the Met and received scathing reviews.

“A more eccentrically sung and acted Carmen has probably never been heard and seen in this opera house than the one delivered by Miss Ewing,” critic Donal Henahan wrote in the New York Times after their first performance at the Met. “The melodic line was persistently torn to shreds by her nasty lunges into notes, her disregard for phrasing in pursuit of who knew what theatrical effects and her disconcerting register separations, which sometimes made it sound as if three or four different voices were attacking the part of Carmen simultaneously.”

Ms. Ewing’s admirers were glad to overlook some occasional vocal difficulties for the distinctive power of her best performances.

“Most really interesting artists are controversial,” opera impresario Matthew Epstein, a friend of Ms. Ewing’s for 50 years, said in an interview. “I don’t think she cared that much about just making beautiful sounds. In many ways, she was closer to Édith Piaf and Judy Garland than she was to most operatic artists. She was deeply interested in the expression of meaning through music.

“This is a business full of people who are fighting against individuality as hard as they can,” Epstein continued, “and she was a pure individualist who did what she wanted to do. She went her own way — she read, she was a huge film buff, she was a night owl. And she was quite comfortable being alone if she wasn’t with her husband or her daughter.”

Maria Louise Ewing was born in Detroit on March 27, 1950, to an African American father and a Dutch-born mother. She later described herself as a temperamental child who was often angry but loved to sing and dance. “Music was always a part of my life,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t wake up one morning and say I’m going to be a singer of opera. It came to me. I didn’t go to it.”

She began her training in Detroit and then studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Eleanor Steber, where she met one of her great mentors, conductor and pianist James Levine, who engaged her for the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and then brought her to the Met, where she sang almost 100 performances.

Ms. Ewing met Hall when he directed her as Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at England’s Glyndebourne Festival in 1979. They married on Valentine’s Day 1982. That same year, their daughter Rebecca was born; she has gone on to distinction as an actress and director. They were divorced in 1990; Hall died in 2017.

A video recording of Ms. Ewing singing “Carmen” in Hall’s 1985 production at Covent Garden was already available on videotape by 1986. After the critical failure of the couple’s Met “Carmen” that year, the company decided to scrap and replace a forthcoming live telecast of the opera — a telecast that Ms. Ewing said had been promised to her by Levine, who was by then the house’s artistic director.

She learned of the cancellation through other sources, and it led to a breach in her association with the Met that lasted for several years. She returned in 1993 to sing Dido in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” and finished her Met career with a performance of Marie in “Wozzeck” in 1997.

Ms. Ewing’s family history recently inspired her daughter Rebecca to write, direct and produce “Passing,” a movie drama about two light-skinned African American women, one of whom allows people to assume she is White.

“She was very moved by it, and generous about it,” Rebecca Hall wrote in an email. “I dedicated the film to her, and it was very influenced by the kinds of films we watched together and loved when I was a child. The truth is of course a little deeper — I think there was some private turmoil in her life that came with having an unresolved identity on some level. Not that she didn’t know who she was, but that she still felt some lingering anxiety about it, that it couldn’t quite be spoken aloud.”

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Ewing is also survived by three sisters and a granddaughter.

Throughout her career, she spoke of the need for artists to “go to the precipice and lean over it.”

She sometimes took this credo literally.

According to the Los Angeles Times, before a first rehearsal of “Tosca” in 1992, her stage director, Ian Judge, worried that the mattress behind the parapet from which Ms. Ewing would make her suicidal leap might be too far away for her to make a safe landing.

“No,” Ms. Ewing replied. “It’s frightening. Keep it there.”