Maria Ewing obituary

<span>Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns</span>
Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

American opera singer with a mesmerising stage presence admired for her acting as well as her voice

The American opera singer Maria Ewing, who has died aged 71, excited both acclaim and controversy for her seductive portrayals and frequently idiosyncratic vocal delivery.

Much of her early career was made in the US, initially under the mentorship of the Metropolitan Opera’s music director James Levine, though British audiences will recall more readily the vivid performances she gave of several roles, most notably Rosina (The Barber of Seville), Carmen and Poppea (Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea), the last two directed by Sir Peter Hall, whom she married in 1982.

At her finest, she was a singing actor of the highest calibre, with a richly textured voice capable of remarkable things and a mesmerising stage presence.

Inevitably she will be best remembered for the Dance of the Seven Veils she enacted in Hall’s 1986 production of Strauss’s Salome, in which, as the original dancer if not the composer intended, she removed every last garment, in a performance of smouldering intensity and power. Inhabiting John Bury’s Klimt-inspired sets with her flapper headband and kohl-rimmed eyes – her mobile features were one of her greatest assets – she was the incarnation of the debauched princess.

It may not have been the most penetrating voice to confront Strauss’s orchestral battery, but the sheer range of vocalisation, from the opulent top to a growly bottom, combined with acting of alarming immediacy, confirmed her assumption of the role as one of the finest in the work’s history.

Where, in Salome, her deployment of a technique touching on notes rather than hitting them foursquare not inappropriately anticipated the Sprechstimme mode (a hybrid of singing and speech) called for by Schoenberg just a few years later in Pierrot Lunaire, a similar penchant for cabarettish looseness in her vocalisation sometimes attracted less sympathetic critical notice, especially in her singing of such roles as Carmen and Tosca.

In the former, sung under Hall’s direction at Glyndebourne (1985), she gave a compelling portrayal that resembled less a sex-kitten than a purring tigress. Some found it too contrived, others complained that the vocalism reminded them of the French singer Edith Piaf, but there was no denying that she dominated the stage. In fairness it should be noted that the “night-club inflections” observed on the first night of the 1987 revival were toned down during the run.

The following year Ewing offered Glyndebourne audiences another seductive but forceful characterisation in the form of Poppea, by turns wheedling and haughty. Here the opulence of the voice matched the regality of her portrayal and indeed its strongly sensual component. The other Glyndebourne production of note was that of The Barber of Seville in John Cox’s staging of 1981. Though it preceded her work with Hall, Ewing demonstrated that she was already an accomplished actor, with instinctive comic timing and a display of wide-eyed charm and ebullience.

She may have started her career specialising in Mozartian and lyric mezzo roles, but by this time the voice had developed in size and range. That was evident too in the revival in the same year of Cox’s Ariadne auf Naxos, where she also brought such passion to the role of the Composer that the vocal line in places threatened to fragment.

Ewing was born in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest of four daughters of a Dutch mother, Hermina (nee Veraar), and an African-American father, Norman, who worked as an engineer. After study at the Cleveland Institute (1968-70) with Eleanor Steber, and in later years with Jennie Tourel and O Marzolla, Ewing made her debut at the Ravinia festival in 1973.

Maria Ewing and Peter Hall, the British director, at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, in 1981. They married the following year.
Maria Ewing and Peter Hall, the British director, at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, in 1981. They married the following year. Photograph: Alan Davidson/Rex/Shutterstock

She then appeared in Miami, Boston, Cologne, Chicago and Santa Fe, before making her Salzburg debut in 1976 in the role of Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. Her Metropolitan debut followed in the same year and in the same role. Other roles she took subsequently at the Met included Rosina, Mélisande, Blanche (Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites), Zerlina, Dorabella, the Composer and Carmen.

The role of Debussy’s Mélisande, in which she made her European debut, at La Scala, was one she took exceptionally well, perhaps because of its parlando-style vocalism. A recording under Claudio Abbado of the same composer’s cantata La Damoiselle élue, based on a text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, demonstrates an equal mastery of the idiom in the tender but animated intimacy with which the line is floated. Here her signature permissiveness on matters of notation was fruitfully applied, with unobtrusive portamenti registering as the lamenting sighs of Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel.

In the title role of Rossini’s Cenerentola she was able to deploy her innate charm to a quite different effect from that displayed as Carmen or Poppea. Here she won sympathy with her depiction of a modest cinder girl, negotiating the taxing decoration with both precision and sensitivity to feeling.

Concern had been raised in some critical quarters from an early stage as to the advisability of Ewing, as a mezzo-turned-soprano, throwing herself at heavier roles, not least those of Puccini heroines, with apparent disregard for any deleterious effect on her voice.

By the 1990s these chickens had finally come home to roost. Her Butterfly in the production by Ian Judge for Los Angeles Opera (1991) may have challenged certain preconceptions about the role – this was not the fluttery geisha girl of usual convention – but palpable breaks between registers and defective high notes were recorded alongside, in safer areas of the vocal range, exquisite pianissimos and extremely potent forte outbursts.

Likewise in a 1993 revival of a San Francisco Tosca, her singing of the title role featured vivid colouring of the text and a poignant “Vissi d’arte”, but disquiet was expressed about its generally uneven quality. A 1993 appearance as Salome in San Francisco failed to re-enact the triumph of the original production, though it had been given, with some success, in London, Chicago and Washington in the intervening years.

By 1997 her voice was, by some accounts, as heard in a Fedora in Los Angeles, in virtual shreds. Her career drawing to a close, she gave a recital in 2004 at St John’s Smith Square and in 2008 rekindled old fires, making a glamorous appearance bejewelled as the Queen of the Fairies in an Iolanthe for the Carl Rosa Opera at the Gielgud theatre, London.

Ewing and Hall divorced in 1990. She is survived by their daughter, Rebecca, the actor and director.

• Maria (Louise) Ewing, operatic singer, born 27 March 1950; died 9 January 2022