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Biracial American opera singer Maria Ewing dies aged 71 

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Opera singer Maria Ewing, the ex-wife of theater director Sir Peter Hall and the mother of actress-director Rebecca Hall, died on Sunday at the age of 71 after suffering from a ‘brief illness’. 

A soprano and mezzo-soprano known for her intense performances, Ewing met Hall, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and then director of the National Theatre, while performing at Glyndebourne in 1979 and the pair fell ‘madly in love’, despite Hall being married to his second wife at the time. 

They had daughter Rebecca, who recently revealed how her maternal grandfather’s experience as a biracial man who ‘passed’ as white and raised his children — including Ewing — as white, had informed her directorial debut, Passing, which tells the story about two light-skinned Black women who also ‘pass’.

Rebecca, 39, recently spoke of how her mother’s racial heritage had remained an unspoken mystery in her family for many years. 

Born in Detroit to a Dutch mother and an African American father, Ewing went to school in Detroit before making her debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She went on to become one of the most acclaimed opera singers in the world.

Ewing died of a ‘brief illness’ on Sunday at her home near Detroit, spokeswoman Bryna Rifkin told DailyMail.com. 

Loss of an opera star: Opera singer Maria Ewing, the ex-wife of director Sir Peter Hall and the mother of actress-director Rebecca Hall (pictured together in 2010), has died at the age of 71

Tumultuous marriage: A soprano and mezzo-soprano known for her intense performances, Ewing met Hall, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and then director of the National Theatre, while performing at Glyndebourne in 1979

Tumultuous marriage: A soprano and mezzo-soprano known for her intense performances, Ewing met Hall, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and then director of the National Theatre, while performing at Glyndebourne in 1979

‘On January 9th, 2022, Maria Louise Ewing died of a brief illness at her home outside Detroit, Michigan,’ her family said in a statement. 

‘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. 

‘She was deeply loved, and her loss will be felt not only by her family and friends, but by all those around the world who were touched by her singular voice.’

Born in March 1950, Ewing was the daughter of Norman Isaac Ewing and Dutch-born Hermina Maria Veraar. 

Norman’s parents, John William Ewing and Hattie Norman, were described in U.S. Census records as ‘mulatto’, an outdated term used to describe a child born to a Black person and a white person.

On the 1910 U.S. Census, Norman’s race is listed as ‘mulatto’. In 1920 he describes himself as ‘Native American Indian’.  

Norman married Hermina, who was born in Amsterdam, in Ontario, Canada, in 1938. The couple settled in the U.S. and welcomed four daughters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pankratz, Frances Ewing, and Maria Ewing.

Ewing’s mother sang and her father — an engineer who also wrote and lectured on the plight of the American Indian — was artistic as well, painting and playing piano. Ewing recalled growing up dancing around the room while her father played music.  

Ewing went to school in Detroit before making her professional debut at the 1973 Ravinia Festival in Illinois. She is pictured in one of her early performances in 'Pelleas et Melisande' at the San Francisco Opera House in 1979

Ewing went to school in Detroit before making her professional debut at the 1973 Ravinia Festival in Illinois. She is pictured in one of her early performances in ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ at the San Francisco Opera House in 1979

Stage star: She made her debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro,' and went on to star as Carmen in 1986 (pictured)

Stage star: She made her debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and went on to star as Carmen in 1986 (pictured)

The soaring career of Maria Ewing: Singer’s career highlights revealed

1993: Made her professional debut at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois

1976: Debuted at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera as Cherubino in Mozart’s ‘Marriage Of Figaro’ 

1976: Performed with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

1977: Starred in Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ at the Met

1978: Marked her first European performance at La Scala in Milan, playing Mélisande in Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’

Late 70s: Performed ‘Marriage Of Figaro’ in Chicago, Cologne, and Salzburg, and also filmed it in England 

1979: Was Dorabella in Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ at the Glyndebourne Festival

1982: Played Rosina in a Glyndebourne production of ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’

1984: Sang as Zerlina in ‘Don Giovanni’

1984: Was Poppea in Monteverdi’s ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ 

1986: Premiered ‘Carmen’ in the title role at the Met 

1986: Starred in Strauss’ ‘Salome’ at the LA Opera, where she famously went nude. The production continued to be performed for years and was broadcast on television 

1991: Played Cio-Cio-San in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at The Music Center in LA

1993: Played Katerina Ismailova in Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ at the Opéra-Bastille in Paris  

1993: Returned to the Met as Didon in Berlioz’ ‘Les Troyens’ 

1996: Appeared as Dido in a PBS production of ‘Dido and Aeneas’

1997: Played Marie in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck,’ marking her 96th and final Met performance

‘Music was always a part of my life,’ Ewing told the LA Times in 1992. ‘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.’ 

In fact, it was her mother that urged her to pursue her talent.

‘My mother was the one to say to me, “You have a voice, you should do something about it.” I really had no choice. I simply had no choice,’ she  told the BBC in 1990.

Ewing’s father died in 1968, when she was a teenager. Her mother died in 2004, aged 88.

Ewing sang in high school, and attended a summer music camp that would change her life. There, she worked with James Levine, who went on to become the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera.

After she graduated from Finney High School in Detroit in 1968, she followed Levine to Cleveland and eventually to the Met.

Ewing and made her professional debut at the 1973 Ravinia Festival in Illinois, with Levine conducting.

She spent the next several years travelling, performing in D.C., Boston, Santa Fe, Houston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, according to Contemporary World Musicians by Clifford Thompson. 

In 1976, she made her debut at the famed New York Metropolitan Opera, where she sang the part of Cherubino in Mozart’s ‘Marriage Of Figaro’. 

Ewing was on a roll, performing with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall just days later.

She continued to play Cherubino, and at one point in the ’70s, she spent 18 months touring for ‘Le Nozze di Figaro,’ performing in Chicago, Cologne, and Salzburg. She also filmed the role in England. 

She also starred as Blanche de la Force in a new John Dexter production of Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ in 1977.

In 1979, Ewing’s career led her to love when she met performed as Dorabella in a staging of Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ at the Glyndebourne Festival, which was directed by Sir Peter Hall and led by conductor Bernard Haitink. 

Hall fell ‘madly in love’, despite being married to his second wife, Jacky, at the time. 

He and Jacky were divorced in 1981, and on Valentine’s Day in 1982 he married Ewing, who that same year gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca. 

Intense: Ewing in Rossini's opera 'The Barber of Seville' at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1982. She sang 96 Met performances until her finale as Marie in Berg's Wozzeck in 1997

Intense: Ewing in Rossini’s opera ‘The Barber of Seville’ at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1982. She sang 96 Met performances until her finale as Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck in 1997

Racy: Hall directed Ewing in 1986 in the title role of Strauss' 'Salome' at the LA Opera, in which she stripped to fully nude at the end of the 'Dance of the Seven Veils.' Pictured, Ewing in a San Francisco Opera production of 'Salome' in 1993

Racy: Hall directed Ewing in 1986 in the title role of Strauss’ ‘Salome’ at the LA Opera, in which she stripped to fully nude at the end of the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils.’ Pictured, Ewing in a San Francisco Opera production of ‘Salome’ in 1993

They lived together in England, thought hey travelled the world for work. 

Four years later, her husband directed her at the Met where she sang the title role in a new staging of Bizet’s ‘Carmen.’

‘Far from the usual attempt at a fiery sexpot, her Carmen was easily bored, even sullen, her come-hither being a challenge to men to awaken her interest,’ critic Mary Campbell wrote of the performance. 

Hall also directed Ewing in 1986 in the title role of Strauss’ ‘Salome’ at the LA Opera, in which she stripped to fully nude at the end of the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils.’ 

Ewing made the choice to go naked herself, pushing back against her husband’s wishes that she wear a G-string for modesty. 

‘But I think that’s dishonest and I think it’s vulgar,’ Ewing told a BBC Radio 4 show. ‘Nudity isn’t vulgar in this context, any more than the nudity we see in most classical paintings.’

The staging traveled in 1988 to London’s Royal Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and a telecast of the production was released commercially on DVD.

. Pictured, in 1981

Hall and Ewing were together for ten years, but by 1988, he had fallen in love yet again with the theatre’s press officer, Nicki Frei. He and Ewing split (pictured in 1981) 

Family life: Ewing with Hall and their daughter Rebecca Hall in the early 1980s

Passionate: Hall wrote of his marriage to Ewing: ‘We were together for ten years of passion, highs and lows, excitement and despair. It was a turbulent life, gloriously happy and acutely miserable.’ Pictured, the couple with Rebecca and his daughter Lucy

‘Maria Ewing, who ventured the title role in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” for the new Music Center Opera on Thursday night, is a Theaterviech,’ Martin Bernheimer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, using a German word for ‘theater beast.’ 

‘She is, in fact, a prime and wondrous example of the rare breed. She is a lovely, frail, seemingly nervous young woman blessed with a devastating pout, hypnotic eyes and a searing mind. She also happens to command a rather soft, slender and reedy mezzo-soprano that thins out a bit at the extended top.’ 

Sexuality certainly played a part in her performances, and Ewing herself described singing as ‘almost orgasmic.’ She explained: ‘Singing for me is a very physical thing. It’s something you feel through and through your body. It’s a very sexual experience.’

Her other performances over the years included ‘Don Giovanni,’ ‘The Barber of Seville,’ ‘Tosca,’ Bartok’s Bluebeard’s ‘Castle,’ and Ravel’s ‘Sheherazade.’ 

The latter was described by conductor Simon Rattle to the Times of London as ‘easily the most X-rated Sheherezade you can imagine.’ 

Ewing was known to be a perfectionist. 

Passionate: Hall wrote of his marriage to Ewing: 'We were together for ten years of passion, highs and lows, excitement and despair. It was a turbulent life, gloriously happy and acutely miserable.' Pictured, the couple with Rebecca and his daughter Lucy

Passionate: Hall wrote of his marriage to Ewing: ‘We were together for ten years of passion, highs and lows, excitement and despair. It was a turbulent life, gloriously happy and acutely miserable.’ Pictured, the couple with Rebecca and his daughter Lucy

‘I do what I believe is right,’ she told the LA 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.’ 

However, that led some to describe her as difficult to work with.

‘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 instance in which she said what she thought ultimately led to Eweing severing ties with the Met for several years. 

The company has contemplated a telecast of her performance in ‘Carmen,’ but scrapped it in a favor of 1987 performance of the production starring Agnes Baltsa.  

‘The Met has no manners,’ Ewing and Hall told the Chicago Tribune.  

The spat led to a six-year interruption of Ewings performances with the Met, and she also withdrew from appearances at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, where Met artistic director James Levine was serving as music director.  

Country living: Ewing outside the quaint cottage she owned in Sussex in the late 1980s

Country living: Ewing outside the quaint cottage she owned in Sussex in the late 1980s

Family history: Rebecca Hall spoke of how her mother's racial heritage had remained an unspoken mystery in her family until recent years. Pictured, mother and daughter together

Family history: Rebecca Hall spoke of how her mother’s racial heritage had remained an unspoken mystery in her family until recent years. Pictured, mother and daughter together

How Maria Ewing’s experience as a fair-skinned biracial woman led daughter Rebecca to direct Passing 

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing as Clare and Irene, two light-skin Black women who both 'pass' - intentionally and unintentionally - as white in 1920s New York

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing as Clare and Irene, two light-skin Black women who both ‘pass’ – intentionally and unintentionally – as white in 1920s New York

Director Rebecca Hall revealed how her family’s own complex biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white.

Hall, 39, is the daughter of white British director Sir Peter Hall and Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing, 71, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent.

Like the characters in Passing, Hall’s maternal grandfather, Norman Isaac Ewing, spent his life ‘passing’ as a white man and raised his children, including Ewing, as white.

‘He was almost definitely African American. I say he passed for white; there was no language for that within even my family… it was mysterious even for [my mother] and complicated for her,’ Hall told Screen Daily

It was a long journey to get the film made, with producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, of Significant Productions, initially skeptical about Hall’s suitability to tell the story. 

‘I was a little hesitant because what we do as a production company is champion filmmakers of color,’ Bongiovi told Variety. ‘Our mission is to lift up underrepresented voices. 

‘So I told her, “I don’t know if it’s right for a Caucasian woman to tell a story about Black women who can pass. 

‘And when she told me that her [maternal side of the family] is African American but have been passing for generations, I almost fell off my chair. I was like, Wow, this actually makes her such a perfect filmmaker to tell the story.’

Hall said her mother was ‘incredibly moved’ when she saw the film for the first time.

‘There were a lot of tears,’ she said. ‘She said that she felt her father would have been released by it on some level because he was never able to talk about it. This has given our family an ability to not feel like there’s something that’s hidden.’

In the meantime, she continued to perform elsewhere.

In 1991, she played geisha Cio-Cio-San in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at The Music Center in Los Angeles.

‘Maria is an astonishingly strong actress,’ conductor Randall Behr said at the time. ‘We saw the determination, the steel … she presented it from her first moment of rehearsal.’

At the Opéra-Bastille in Paris in 1993, she played Katerina Ismailova in Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.’ 

However, her career was winding down. In 1992, she told the LA Times: ‘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; 

She did eventually return to the Met, starring as Didon in Berlioz’ ‘Les Troyens.’

Of her time away from the Met, she said: ‘When things happen, they happen for a reason. The time that has been spent apart has been a very productive time, a very healthy time.’

In 1997, she played Marie in Berg’s ‘Wozzeck,’ marking her 96th Met performance.

Meanwhile, Ewing’s marriage to Hall came to an end. The couple was together for ten years, but by 1988, he had fallen in love yet again with the theatre’s press officer, Nicki Frei. 

He and Ewing divorced in 1990, but remained friends.

Hall later wrote of his marriage to Ewing: ‘We were together for ten years of passion, highs and lows, excitement and despair. It was a turbulent life, gloriously happy and acutely miserable.’

He and Frei went on to marry, when he was 60 and she 30. He died in 2017, aged 87. 

Since the 1990s, Ewing has stayed largely out of the spotlight, although she remained supportive of her daughter Rebecca, turning out to support her cinematic endeavors.  

Rebecca has starred in films that include Woody Allen’s ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ Ron Howard’s ‘Frost/Nixon’ and ‘The Awakening.’ Her directing debut ‘Passing’ was released last year.

Speaking last year, Rebecca revealed how her family’s own complex biracial history inspired her to direct the film. 

She said of her maternal grandfather, Norman: ‘He was almost definitely African American. I say he passed for white; there was no language for that within even my family… it was it was mysterious even for [my mother] and complicated for her.’

‘I then dug a little deeper, and it became very clear that he was white passing. And more than that, it was likely that his parents were also both white passing. And I started thinking more and more about the legacy of passing in a family.’

Rebecca first starting her family’s heritage when she was in her mid-20s.

I went through a stage of really bringing it into a room and being surprised by the reaction that I got and also confused by the reaction, which varied,’ she told Screen Daily. 

Radiant: Since the 1990s, Ewing has stayed largely out of the spotlight, although she remained supportive of her daughter Rebecca, turning out to support her cinematic endeavours

Radiant: Since the 1990s, Ewing has stayed largely out of the spotlight, although she remained supportive of her daughter Rebecca, turning out to support her cinematic endeavours

Ewing as the Fairy Queen in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe in 2008

 Ewing as the Fairy Queen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe in 2008

Remembered: Rebecca with her mother Ewing Ewing and Leslie Caron, Sir Peter's first wife, at his funeral. Sir Peter Hall died in 2017, aged 87. He was married four times

Remembered: Rebecca with her mother Ewing Ewing and Leslie Caron, Sir Peter’s first wife, at his funeral. Sir Peter Hall died in 2017, aged 87. He was married four times

‘Some people would be accepting, and a lot of people just would laugh and find it hilarious. And I’d always be like, ‘What does that say about you that you find that so funny? What’s funny about it? Because I look like an English rose and that’s funny to you because you have an absolute idea about what blackness is?’ 

‘All these things start to percolate and you’re like this walking paradox.’

In a separate interview, Rebecca described her grandfather’s ‘passing’ as something that was ‘known and not known.’ Adapting Passing for the screen was a way of processing her own complicated family history.

‘I don’t think that I really had language for passing. It was such a difficult area of conversation in my family,’ explained Rebecca in an interview with Variety

‘It was a question of, maybe my grandfather and maybe his parents [were Black], maybe this, maybe that, maybe it was something else, we don’t really know. It wasn’t framed as this choice.

‘I don’t think I understood the truth of [passing] until I read the book. And then I had a context for it that made sense and slotted everything together in relation to all of the snippets of information I had about my family.’ 

Hall said her mother was ‘incredibly moved’ when she saw the film for the first time.

‘There were a lot of tears,’ she said. ‘She said that she felt her father would have been released by it on some level because he was never able to talk about it. This has given our family an ability to not feel like there’s something that’s hidden.’

Ewing also is survived by her sisters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing.



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