MUSIC : No-Risk Opera? Not Even Close : Maria Ewing, one of the most celebrated sopranos in opera, leaps again into the role of Tosca, keeping alive her streak of acclaimed performances while remaining true to herself

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

It was the first rehearsal onstage of Puccini's "Tosca." Stagehands had set up the mattress that would cushion Tosca's suicidal leap in the opera's third act, and director Ian Judge worried that it should be closer to the set.

Judge asked his Tosca, Maria Ewing, if the mattress was indeed too far away. "No," the diva replied. "It's frightening. Keep it there."

Ewing is, after all, the same international star who risked removing every one of Salome's seven veils on the same Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, ending her frantic dance totally nude. The one who played geisha Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly" not as sweet victim but a woman obsessed.

"I do what I believe is right," Ewing explains. "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."

It certainly has been for Ewing, who reprises her Tosca for Los Angeles Music Center Opera for five performances starting tonight. She has taken on one difficult role here after another, and not all have been successful. But one thing remains consistent--as fiery opera singer Tosca, child bride Cio-Cio San or crazed young princess Salome, Ewing doesn't forget Ewing.

Ewing does not just sing the role of Floria Tosca--she inhabits it. Her Tosca's passion, rage and despair do not spring entirely from the opera's libretto, as she'd be the first to tell you.

"Actors always talk about what their 'characters' feel," Ewing says. "I get tired of hearing that. It's yourself you're talking about-- your idea and your understanding of the 'character.' Ultimately, its you who comes across."

Reviewers are sometimes critical about her voice, particularly in strenuous soprano roles. But even when they disagree with her interpretations, they nearly always acknowledge her enterprise. And nobody quibbles with her ability to command an audience.

"Tosca," which also stars popular tenor Placido Domingo, has been sold out for months--scalper tickets are going for $250 apiece in the balcony-- and Ewing's calendar is loaded with operas and recitals here and abroad well into mid-decade. She recently ended recitals in Vienna, Paris and elsewhere to find as many as 200 people waiting for her at the stage door.

"She can never be uninteresting on the stage," says Los Angeles Opera general director Peter Hemmings. "You can't take your eyes off her."

Her exotic appearance belies her Detroit upbringing, her outward fragility and vulnerability make her seem far younger than her 42 years, and her tall, lithe body would confound central casting. Not many Salomes could perform the veil dance so convincingly, and few could look so good when the last veil dropped.

"It reminds me of what Orson Welles said about Eartha Kitt--she was like a magnet setting iron filings dancing," says Opera magazine editor Rodney Milnes in London. "I suppose some voice critics find her voice a not technically perfect instrument, but it's a human voice. I think if she gives performances of the sort she gives, who cares. Anyone can sing."

Ewing is rehearsing Scarpia's murder in the second act of "Tosca." Tosca has finally agreed to give herself to the evil police chief to save her lover's life when she spots a fruit knife on the villain's table. Again and again, Ewing and James Morris, who plays Scarpia, go over the scene.

For half an hour, Ewing knifes her Scarpia. And that, says conductor Randall Behr, is why he loves working with the woman. "It's that attention to detail," says Behr, who also served as pianist for Ewing on her recital tours. "We spent a half hour on the stab, which is a non-vocal moment that many other singers take 30 seconds over."

This time around, Ewing is working with Behr and director Christopher Harlan, who assisted Judge on the earlier production. Yet while she may listen to their suggestions at rehearsal, may adjust for prop and exit changes, it is very clear who has the last word.

"You need a director to support you, guide you, and make you feel that what you are doing is in the right direction," Ewing says. "But the best directors know how to suggest things which are pretty much along the lines of what you are doing. If you're not allowed to delve into yourself and your instincts, you have nothing to offer. You become a puppet, being told what to do, how to move and where to move, which is devoid of meaning."

Talk to Sir Peter Hall, her ex-husband and the man who directed her in "Carmen," "Salome" and other operas in the U.S. and abroad. "She defines what an operatic performer is," Hall says. "She fuses great acting and great singing. You usually get one or the other--sometimes you get neither--but it's very rare to get the two things together."

The soprano offstage still seems onstage--dramatically dressed in black jersey and jeans, her dark hair pulled back off her pale face, her full, sensual mouth layered in lipstick. Her exotic features reflect a Dutch mother and a father who was part Sioux, part black and part Scottish.

She was born and raised in Detroit, where her mother sang, and her engineer father played piano, painted, wrote and lectured on the plight of the American Indian. Her father's piano selections included both ragtime and his own Sioux-inspired compositions, says Ewing, and "we'd all dance around the room when he was playing.

"Music was always a part of my life," Ewing explains. "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."

Encouraged in her singing at school, teen-ager Ewing went to summer music camp, where she met and worked with conductor James Levine, today artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera. She followed Levine first to Cleveland, where he was then assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, and, several years later, to the Met.

With and without Levine, she performed in operas, gave concerts and made recordings everywhere from San Francisco to Milan. During one 18-month period in the '70s, she played the page Cherubino in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" on opera stages in Chicago, New York, Cologne and Salzburg and filmed the role in England.

While she will be back at the Met next season singing Didon in Berlioz' "Les Troyens," it will be her first performance there since she broke off relations with both Levine and that institution in 1987 over casting and other agreements with her. "When things happen, they happen for a reason," she says of that earlier split. "The time that has been spent apart has been a very productive time, a very healthy time."

She also expects to be working again soon with ex-husband Hall, former head of England's National Theatre. Ewing and Hall met when he directed her in Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" at England's Glyndebourne Opera Festival in 1978. They fell in love, were married on Valentine's Day, 1982, lived in England and worked together in the U.S. and abroad.

Ewing, who still lives in England with their 10-year-old daughter Rebecca, is nothing if not direct, and that goes for talk of her personal life as well as her professional one. She and Hall decided mutually not to do "Tosca" together in Los Angeles in 1989 because of its timing, and she readily admits "it was all too emotional." Hall, in turn, says today that "one of my great sadnesses is that we were doing 'Tosca' just at the time we split up."

Hall will re-create their "Salome" for San Francisco Opera with Ewing next year and says he hopes to work with her on a production of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," which she recently recorded. "I'd love to work with Peter again," Ewing says. "The divorce is finished and out of the way. Peter and I loved each other very much, and that doesn't die. What is left takes a different shape--we are very, very good friends."

Ewing credits Los Angeles Opera's Hemmings with what she calls the latest "interesting turning point" in her career. It was Hemmings who suggested she sing "Salome" after hearing her sing Berg songs in London, and it was also Hemmings who suggested she try "Tosca."

Hemmings, in fact, recalls that while both Ewing and Hall were excited at the prospect of her doing "Salome," "every one else said it was a crazy idea. (They said) she hadn't the quality or sound of voice for the part. I disagreed. Fortunately, in the event, everyone proved wrong."

Hall couldn't agree more. "What she did with her emotions and body and voice were absolutely one," the director says. "I just finished directing a video of that in London with her, and to actually watch her go through the disintegration of Salome is in close-up quite frightening."

It was onstage also very erotic, and Ewing would hardly deny her sensuality. Conductor Simon Rattle once called her interpretation of Ravel "easily the most X-rated Sheherezade you can imagine," according to the Times of London, and that, the writer noted, was just in the concert hall.

Ewing, who once referred to the emotional release of singing as "almost orgasmic," says that "singing for me is a very physical thing. It's something you feel through and through your body. It's a very sexual experience."

Add that to the inherent sexuality of young Salome herself, dancing for stepfather Herod. "This is a very complex girl whose sexual obsession is something she can't even fathom," Ewing says. "At (the end of her dance) she is reaching out to something, and it is the most intense passion imaginable. Nakedness is the only pure expression of that."

Ewing did initially conclude Salome's dance with what the Los Angeles Times' Martin Bernheimer called a "golden postage stamp." But she later discarded it both here and elsewhere, calling it "vulgar" in one interview. "Wearing a G-string is like a tease and in no way is this dance a tease," she says today. "She is in her own world in that dance. She is not doing it for anyone else."

And neither was Ewing. "It wasn't about me thinking I'm now going to dance for you, I'm now going to display myself for you. It was far more personal.

"I'm not really performing it for anybody. If people react positively or negatively to what I do, they have the right. But it isn't because I'm trying to force any ideas on anyone. It means something to me, whatever it might be, and that is my own business at that moment. It is mine. It is my moment."

From her dance in "Salome" to her pouting in "Tosca," little in Ewing's repertory is left to chance. It all starts matter-of-factly with learning notes and looking up unfamiliar foreign words in dictionaries, Ewing says, "but it is also very intensely analytical at the same time. You've got to know the music inside out. You'd be surprised how often people don't, including conductors."

Ewing talks several times of her intolerance for people who aren't similarly prepared or disciplined. Even as a girl, she says, "I knew that this profession required hard work. Nobody had to tell me that. And the only thing changed is that I got better at it. I know more about music and about life, but basically I'm the same person I was at 17. "

To record "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," for instance, she brought in a Russian tutor and went through the score word by word, writing things out phonetically if she had to. The process wound up taking three months and, she says, "It nearly drove me insane learning the piece because the music is very very difficult and I had never sung a note in Russian before."

She had not sung dramatic soprano roles either until the prodding from Hemmings. While her Salome and Tosca have brought both her and Los Angeles Opera considerable attention, some question the riskiness of putting her voice through what one major critic calls such "vocal torment."

Ewing, of course, doesn't see it that way. "I sang lyric mezzo parts, but in your early 20s, that was the right thing to do. Then my voice naturally progressed as it should. I did Carmen at 35, Salome at 36. I sang those roles at the right time."

At the New York Times, John Rockwell called Ewing's Tosca "the most gripping in my experience. . . . Ms. Ewing commands this role." She didn't have an ideal Tosca voice, wrote Bernheimer in this newspaper, "and yet it hardly matters. . . . Her solutions to some of the inherent problems may alarm some purists. Never mind. She is exciting." Yet Ewing's shift to soprano singing strikes Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer as "one of the more colossal missteps."

Ewing wouldn't know what they all think, however, as she says she hasn't read reviews since she was in her early 20s. "I can't read reviews," she explains. "It doesn't mean I'm above it. I'm not. I just work too damn hard at what I do and I know if it is good, bad, indifferent or whatever."

She does seem aware, however, that to keep singing well on into her 50s, she has to think about pacing. She takes care to rest her voice, she says, and not sing every day. She tries not to talk right before a performance and to minimize conversation the day before. "The voice is fragile," she says. "It's a strong muscle but it has to be looked after."

Ewing has plans with the Los Angeles Opera through 1996, according to her London-based manager, Martin Campbell-White, and Hemmings says he plans a reprise of her "Salome" here. "Demand far exceeds supply," Campbell-White says. "Maria is not one of these artists who will jump into any old performance just to earn some money. She needs to feel right in a production."

Besides recording "Tosca" in England later this year, she also talks of a second "crossover" album there, possibly in conjunction with a TV program in January. She was pleased with the 1990 "From This Moment On," a collection of Cole Porter, Gershwin and other ballads that she sings in a style reminiscent of Judy Garland. The next recording, again with pianist Richard Rodney Bennett and London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, would feature songs from Burt Bacharach to Billy Joel, she says.

Ewing says she'd also like to one day take on the title roles in both Bellini's "Norma" and Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."

"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," she says. "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 theater is about."

Tom Lutgen in the Times library assisted with the research in this article.

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