Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing dies at 71

Ewing, who was biracial, is the mother of actress and "Passing" director Rebecca Hall.

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American opera singer Maria Ewing has passed away at age of 71 after suffering from a ‘brief illness’.

The singer’s spokesperson, Bryna Rifkin, said she died Sunday in her home in Detroit, The Associated Press reports. 

“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,” Ewing’s family said in a statement.

Ewing is the mother of actress-director Rebecca Hall and ex-wife of theater director Sir Peter Hall, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Born in 1950, the Detroit native was the youngest of four, born to a white Dutch mother and African-American father.

Classical singer Maria Ewing photographed at home in West Sussex, UK 2001. (Photo by Andrew Hasson/Avalon/Getty Images)

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1976 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Ewing, a soprano and mezzo-soprano, would go on to serve up 96 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, concluding with Berg’s 1997 opera Wozzeck

Ewing wed Hall in 1982 and he directed her in multiple performances throughout her career. The two divorced in 1990. In 2017, Peter Hall died at age 87. Their daughter, Rebecca posted a performance clip of her mother on Monday.

Rebecca recently made her directorial debut with the film Passing, which tells the story of Irene, a Black woman whose world is turned upside down when she’s reacquainted with Clare, a childhood friend who is now passing for white in 1920s New York City. The two friends must confront racism, identity, jealousy and more in the film, which is based on the 1929 novel written by Nella Larsen.

Maria Ewing (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Rebecca told theGrio exclusively that reading the novel and directing the film helped her to uncover her own family’s history of passing and white assimilation. She confirmed that her grandfather was Black but passed for white.

“I mean, the whole book was [triggering]. It was huge for me. The book unlocked—it really gave me an access point into the history of my family that otherwise would have remained hidden,” Hall explained. “It was enormous for my family. It remains enormous for my family. At the start of this process, I knew really very little about my grandfather, other than he was probably Black.”

She continued, “But now I know for sure that he was Black, he passed white. Moreover, his parents were Black. So he was raised Black, he was socialized Black. I [now] know things about the Black side of my family that are extraordinary, and things to be proud of that I would never have known had I not gone on this journey.”

Hall spoke to The Guardian last year about how her mother’s mixed heritage helped to inform the film.

“I think in any family that has a legacy of passing, it’s very tricky, because, sadly, you inherit all of the shame and none of the pride,” she said noting that although she was aware of her family history, it was never discussed.

“I was in these fancy private English boarding schools and everyone gets picked up in Range Rovers, y’know? I’m going to and fro in a taxi and everyone looks at my mother and it’s like, ‘Ooooh! Isn’t she exotic!'”

Rebecca also shared her mother’s reaction after watching Passing.

“She watched it in not ideal circumstances, from my perspective, on her laptop,” she said, noting how the pandemic prevented them from watching the film together. “But then she called me and she was very emotional and very proud. She said that she felt that it was like a huge release for her father — of what he could not say — and, in turn, her, and it was like being given a late-in-life gift.”

In addition to her daughter, Ewing is survived by sisters Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing.

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