Biracial American opera singer Maria Ewing dies aged 71

Biracial American opera singer Maria Ewing dies aged 71

Biracial American opera singer Maria Ewing, the ex-wife of Sir Peter Hall, whose experience of ‘passing’ as white inspired her daughter Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, dies aged 71

  • Maria Ewing, the ex-wife of director Sir Peter Hall and the mother of actress-director Rebecca Hall, has died at home in Detroit, aged 71, it was announced 
  • She was a soprano and mezzo-soprano known for her intense performances
  • Met husband Sir Peter at Glyndebourne while he was married to his second wife
  • Daughter Rebecca drew on her family’s experiences being biracial but ‘passing’ as white to direct film Passing, about two black women who do the same 

The opera singer Maria Ewing, the ex-wife of theater director Sir Peter Hall and the mother of actress-director Rebecca Hall, has died at the age of 71.

Born in Detroit to a Dutch mother and an African American father, Maria went to school in Detroit before making her debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.  

A soprano and mezzo-soprano known for her intense performances, Ewing met Sir Peter, 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 her maternal grandfather’s experience as a biracial man who ‘passed’ as white and raised his children, including Maria, as white, 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. 

Maria died Sunday at her home in Detroit, spokeswoman Bryna Rifkin said Monday.

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 Sir Peter, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and then director of the National Theatre, while performing at Glyndebourne in 1979. Left, the couple in 1981. Right, Maria as the Fairy Queen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe in 2008

Family life: Maria with Sir Peter and their daughter Rebecca Hall in the early 1980s 

‘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,’ her family said in a statement.

Born in March 1950, Maria 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 US and welcomed four daughters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pankratz, Frances Ewing and Maria Ewing.

Norman died in 1968, when Maria was a teenager, and Hermina died in 2004, aged 88.

Stage star: Maria went to school in Detroit before making her debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Above, as Carmen in 1986

Intense: Maria 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, Maria in a San Francisco Opera production of Salome in 1993

Maria graduated from Finney High School, Detroit, in 1968 and made her professional debut just eight years later in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. 

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

She sang 96 Met performances until her finale as Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck in 1997, a span that included a six-year interruption triggered by a spat with Met artistic director James Levine.

She met Sir Peter at Glyndebourne in 1979 when she sang Dorabella in a staging of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at Glyndebourne Festival, directed by Sir Peter and led by conductor Bernard Haitink.  

Passionate: Hall was to write of his marriage to Maria: ‘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

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

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

Jacky and he were divorced in 1981, and in 1982 he married Maria, who that same year gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca.

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. 

But Ewing severed ties with the Met after the company scrapped a contemplated telecast of ‘Carmen’ with her, then broadcast a 1987 performance of the production starring Agnes Baltsa. Ewing responded by withdrawing from appearances at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, where Levine was music director.

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

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

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.

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

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 Maria, 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 said in an interview with Screen Daily. 

It was a long journey to get the film made, with producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, of Significant Productions, initially sceptical 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 colour,’ 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.’

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.

‘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.’

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

But by 1988, he had fallen in love yet again with the theatre’s press officer, Nicki Frei. She became his fourth and final wife when he was 60 and she 30. Sir Peter Hall died in 2017, aged 87.  

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

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.

‘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.

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

Remembered: Rebecca with her mother Maria 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

‘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 sisters Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing.

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