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Ewing’s Acting Strength on Stage and Off

Unaccustomed to the dryness--not to mention the recent temperatures soaring past the century mark--Maria Ewing downs one glass of water after another.

Otherwise, the international opera star concedes nothing to climatic discomfort. Or to any other discomfort. How she handles her imminent divorce from director Sir Peter Hall, much less her two-year-old falling out with the Met, are matters that require a stiff upper lip, so to speak.

And here, in a spacious office of the Music Center Opera, that lip is very much in evidence.

A picture of cool serenity, Ewing might be mistaken for an haute-couture runway model. A chic black jumpsuit emphasizes her slenderness. A small pale face, framed by dark hair drawn back, comes to life in the wide doe eyes and fashionably full sensual mouth.

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Like the Judean princess she portrays in “Salome,” the Music Center Opera revival that opens Tuesday, the singer stands poised midway between wariness and self-possession.

“I was my own person before, during and after the marriage,” she says, denying that the rupture of the Ewing-Hall team affects her career to any extent or that the partnership was central to such breakthrough roles as Salome and Carmen. “Peter never told me what to do onstage. Some directors say ‘Do this or that.’ But the better ones let you understand the character in your own terms. They get you to think.

“Yes, it was enriching to work with him. And we probably will do so again.” At the time they separated, though, Ewing admits to being “too upset” to confront him in a production, so he withdrew from the “Tosca"--her first--scheduled for Music Center Opera next season. (For this “Salome,” two assistants split the directing duties.)

Could they reconsider, now that some wounds have healed?

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“He cahn’t do it now,” says the Detroit-born singer, whose speech somewhat reflects the local accent of Sussex, England, where she resides. “He’s already signed to direct ‘Orpheus Descending’ on Broadway.”

No matter how independent or brainy the lyric-mezzo-turned-dramatic-soprano may seem, she had undeniable mentors and continues to put herself in their hands. The latest, MCO’s Peter Hemmings, “can take credit for the bold idea that I should sing Salome"--quite a gamble, since the role asks for vocal heft and sustaining power. He heard her in some Berg songs “and on the spot it occurred to him.”

Earlier, James Levine acted as Ewing’s guru. “It was 1970 when Jimmy lugged a bunch of scores into a studio, including ‘Carmen,’ which he set down in front of me,” she says, laughing at the image. “I learned it in two weeks. But no one ever could agree on how to categorize my voice.

“How could they? A voice must first reach maturity,” says the 39-year old experimenter. “Besides, I’m a singer No. 1, and for such a person no category is locked in place. As one learns to negotiate the vocal line, one finds new resources.”

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For Ewing, such classifications do not take into account the fact that opera must unify music and drama. “How I sing a role affects how I act it,” she says, “and vice versa. But to dare to live the drama and sing it at the same time requires a sound technique.”

She might have added to the list a lively imagination. For the singing actress shares nothing with a past generation that went in for stock histrionics “or allowed the text to seem silly and ridiculous.”

Her Salome, seen here two years ago, made its impact through stillness. She eschewed the fanciful prancing that others try on, like so many veils. At key moments she stood stock still, her huge eyes eerily transfixed on the prophet Jokanaan, an inner maelstrom barely contained.

“Salome’s sexual obsession, particularly with her virginity, is very twisted,” says Ewing, who bares all in this production. “The G-string idea was no good because it is vulgar and tawdry. The dance (of the Seven Veils) is not a strip tease. Nudity for Salome is utterly honest. The dance is an expression of herself. Just the way (Richard) Ellmann explains it in his biography of Oscar Wilde. Repulsive things have a strange magnetism and a strong link with sexuality in Herod’s madly decadent world. Look at what Salome says when she first sees Jokanaan: ‘Er ist schrecklich’ (He is terrible).

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“The ugly becomes the beautiful to her. And the more she attacks him the more aroused she becomes. I don’t want to purify what is so primitively neurotic and make it seem spiritual. It isn’t.”

Curiously, the singer would never have attempted Salome had she stayed one of Levine’s protegees at the Met, or so she believes. But all that is a moot point since Ewing walked out of her contracts there two years ago because of a disagreement with Levine. She says Levine reneged on a verbal agreement to give her the telecast performance of “Carmen,” He denies having made the promise.

Her Carmen--a complex, moody character--was so removed from the rose-in-teeth cliche that it stirred much controversy in New York, dividing critical and public opinion. With Hall as director she first did the role at the 800-seat theater in Glyndebourne, where the same concept was well received. Now she will get a new production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden next season.

Meanwhile, dropping the Met has not cut into her career. In fact, New York’s loss has become Los Angeles’ gain. And even though two of the significant men in her life are gone--Maria Ewing keeps pushing for artistic excellence.

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“What’s most important to me--high standards and loyalty--is here. It’s a myth that everything good happens at the Met. There are only so many singers and they can’t be in all places. Making the right choice, in this case, is easy.”


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