Two months ago, almost to the day, actress Rebecca Hall saw her directorial debut, “Passing,” premiere on Netflix. It was a personal project for Hall, whose mother—the soprano Maria Ewing—had a family history that mirrored the plot of the 1929 novel on which Hall based her film. In fact, Hall learned more about that family history in the process of making a movie about a Black woman passing as white, which Ewing’s father had also done.
It was a gift for Ewing, who died on January 9 after a short illness. “My mother has a sort of freedom around this now that she didn’t have,” Hall told NPR in November. “She said to me quite recently, ‘What you have given me is a kind of liberation. You’ve liberated us all and you’ve liberated my father. What he could never speak about, you have done for him.’”
Ewing didn’t sing roles. She moved into them. She inhabited them, finding in the hidden recesses of each character their own unspoken truths and histories. She also revealed as much about herself in her parts as she did about the characters themselves. Simon Rattle once called her “the most interesting singing actress of the stage.” Leaving such a mark on each part—whether it was Mozart’s horny page, Bizet’s complex anti-heroine, or Strauss’s nymphette—was bound to make her a divisive performer. Not that she seemed to care about her critics. The work was fulfilling enough on its own.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Voi che sapete” from “Le nozze di Figaro”
Forget the singing here for just a moment: The 15 seconds of Maria Ewing as Cherubino preparing to sing the ballad he penned for Susanna and the Countess—eyes closed, tugging at his collar, a last desperate run of the lyrics through his head—makes the close-ups of this 1976 film version of “Nozze” read less like a Norma Desmond diorama and more like a prismatic character revelation à la Wes Anderson or Wim Wenders. You can feel the sweat build on Ewing’s Cherubino, the figure-eights of his stomach as he reveals the terrifying combination of desire, delight, and terror burning a hole through his psyche. Perhaps more Salomes should also sing Cherubino: Ewing’s performance reveals this to be one of Mozart’s most tender, intimate, and erotic arias.
Giacomo Puccini: “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” from “Tosca” (1900)
During a 1992 rehearsal for “Tosca” at Los Angeles Opera, director Ian Judge asked Ewing if the mattress used to cushion her fall at the end of the work should be closer to the point from where she jumps. “No,” Ewing replied. “It’s frightening. Keep it there.” Her entire Tosca seems perched on a similar knife’s edge. She’s not a caricature of a diva, self-obsessed and neurotic. Rather, she’s a woman forced to unpack all of her emotions, fears, and wants like a carry-on flagged for bag check at TSA, unsure of how her vulnerabilities and humanity will look underneath the fluorescent airport lights. It’s hard not to hold your breath with her as she wrestles with power, autonomy, and justice in “Vissi d’arte,” here sung softly and nakedly as a benediction.
Georges Bizet: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from “Carmen” (1875)
In his memoir, Making an Exhibition of Myself, Peter Hall wrote of his ex-wife: “She is not a well-mannered artist and does not live her life calmly. I love her for that.” The couple met at Glyndebourne in 1978, when he directed “Così fan tutte” and she sang Dorabella. It was an experience that felt like home to Hall, who was struck by how easy yet fruitful it was to work with Ewing—“reticent yet opinionated—a cat who walked very much alone.” The couple married four years later.
When Ewing mentioned to him that she planned to sing “Carmen,” he offered to direct. Unsurprisingly, many of Hall’s observations of Ewing come to bear in his 1985 production, also for Glyndebourne. Ewing herself believed that the performer needed to be revealed in the role as much as the role needed to be revealed in the performer, and had no preconceived notion of Carmen before taking on the role. For an era of performance that viewed Carmen’s character through femme-fatale–tinted glasses, Ewing was far more subtle, stalking the stage with a grace and mannerism caught somewhere between feline and feminine. When she cautions her audience to beware if she should fall in love with them, Ewing’s “prends garde à toi” comes out in a prophetic whisper—as much of a promise as it is a threat.
Bizet: “En vain pour éviter” from “Carmen” (1875)
“She’s not wicked, she’s full of fear and superstition,” Ewing later said of Carmen on the BBC program “Desert Island Discs.” “Like anyone who has to get on in life, particularly a woman—a woman alone, a woman working in a cigarette factory, living a rough life, [who] has to survive—she’s not very trusting of anyone.”
Ewing’s Carmen doesn’t live her life calmly, but she also doesn’t live it imprecisely. If she was fiery, it was only to fuel the smokescreen she needed to throw up around her persona in order to survive. We see her at her most vulnerable when she sees her fate dealt in Act III’s card aria. While New York gossip columnist Liz Smith likened Ewing’s performance to James Dean “trying out a nightclub act,” the subtle stoicism in this performance serves as a screen onto which we’re able to see with minute clarity Carmen’s simultaneous fear and acceptance of death.
Claudio Monteverdi: “Speranza tu mi vai” from “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (1643)
Ewing’s major break with the Metropolitan Opera came in the wake of her 1986 “Carmen” at the house (the same performance that prompted Smith’s scathing review). Despite being promised a telecast of the production’s revival by her longtime friend and mentor James Levine, this didn’t come to pass—a common problem between Levine making offers that never made it to either the Met’s or singer’s management. In response, Ewing withdrew from her future commitments and told the New York Times:
“The Metropolitan has every right to arrange its artistic affairs as it pleases, but James Levine was under an obligation as a colleague to do the things we had discussed, or to talk to me and tell me otherwise. I cannot work with a man I cannot trust, and I cannot work in a house that he is running in this fashion.”
This prompted speculation, some of which found a home in Johanna Fiedler’s gossipy history of the Met, Molto Agitato:
“Offstage, Ewing had always been elusive. Although she was African-American, she never associated with the other black singers, who, however different, seemed to feel a kinship for one another. Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman, for example, gave joint recitals, even though they did not socialize. Ewing became even more remote and regal after she married Peter Hall.”
Setting aside the fact that Norman and Battle sang together because spirituals were both central to their repertoire in a way that they weren’t for Ewing’s, a better response to this takedown lies in Ewing’s own performance of Monteverdi’s Poppaea Sabina. Depicting Poppaea and Nero as master manipulators absolutely corrupted by absolute power makes for a compelling opera. But modern scholars are now able to clearly read the unreliable narrative of the ancient histories formerly taught as fact—something to keep in mind if rereading Fiedler’s baseless and racially cringey skewering of Ewing.
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Francis Poulenc: “The library of the Marquis de la Force” (Act III, Scene ii) from “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (1957)
It’s very easy for Fiedler to simply write off Ewing as Black in Molto Agitato, but that phrase “Although she was African-American” is doing some heavy stand-in work for a much more complicated legacy, one that Ewing herself struggled to make sense of throughout her life. Born to a Dutch mother and mixed-race father, she had grown up believing her father to be of Sioux heritage. She later learned that he was in fact Black and passing as white. She recalled her aunt, whose heritage was more evident, only visiting the family at night with the curtains closed. On her “Desert Island Discs” interview, she also remembered a moment in which her father got into an argument with their neighbors, who told him: “Why don’t you die, n****r?” It was the last she heard on the matter, though when her father died three months later, Ewing noted that the same neighbors were “devastated.”
In that sense, it’s strangely fitting that the Met (which Ewing returned to for several productions in the 1990s) would share this scene of Ewing from their 1987 production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” At this point in the opera, Ewing’s Blanche has fled the convent where she had taken orders as a nun and returned to her aristocratic father’s house. Her father has died—a victim of the French Revolution—and she is now a servant to his former servants. When she’s found by Mother Marie, who tells her she will be safer if she rejoins her sisters, the inherently fearful Blanche objects: “Never before have I been so tired,” she sings. “I just want to be left in peace…I want people to leave me alone.” In Ewing’s performance, it’s not hard to see part of her family history revealed in this moment; parts that speak to profound loss and the deep-seated desire to be at peace.
Dmitri Shostakovich: “Akh, ne spítsya ból’se, popróbuyu” from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1934)
Going back to Ewing’s “Desert Island Discs” interview for one last exchange, Sue Lawley broaches the topic of Ewing’s marriage to Peter Hall, despite a 20-year age gap between the two: “A lot has been said in the past about this element of his becoming a father figure, the father that you lost. Is there some truth in that?” Ewing responds definitively: not at all, but Lawley presses: “Well, then, being in need of a male mentor, as it were? You moved on from Levine…”
I bring this up not to bury Lawley, but because it’s a moment that is incredibly instructive for the context of women working in opera, even as late as 1999 when this interview was recorded. Despite what was, by all accounts, an intense and passionate love affair between Ewing and Hall, there is an inherent need to thread the needle between this, the early loss of her father, and her early support from James Levine (who was only seven years older than Ewing). Rarely is it enough for a woman to stand alone. Though, as Shostakovich’s Katerina sighs: “It was better when I was single. We were poor, but at least we were free.”
Richard Strauss: “Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen” from “Salome” (1905)
In an interview with Rebecca Hall, Sam Jones offers one of my favorite descriptions of Ewing’s Salome: “She looks like a human about to explode onstage.” Some remember the performance solely for the Dance of the Seven Veils, in which Ewing unapologetically stripped nude. Norman Lebrecht called the practice “cavorting naked as never intended,” and an act that “did not turn the strippers into vocal stars. Maria Ewing, when she flung off the last of Salome’s veils and exposed her pubic regions to the Covent Garden public, failed to achieve a higher fee or more recordings.”
This misses the point, especially for a role like Salome where nudity is a key factor of the story and the music. (As Hall put it: “Oscar Wilde created extraordinary, sick tenderness, and Strauss responded.”) In Ewing’s performance, it’s not about shock value or a pre-social-media iteration of clickbait. It’s an extraordinarily vulnerable moment in which we see Salome, much like Carmen, finding survival through whatever means are available. Which is why she goes to pieces once she gets everything she wants.
Or does she? This moment can be read as a breakdown for Salome. But it can also be seen, especially in Ewing’s performance, as one of total liberation: liberation from her teenage sexuality, from her stepfather’s lecherous predation, from an exhausting structure of society, gender, and power. Here, in Strauss’s opera, it’s the apotheosis of a particular liberation that Ewing brought to each of her characters, and one that each character gave Ewing in turn. ¶