The star of mesmerising performances of Carmen and Salome, Ewing was described by one critic as a “theatreviech” (“theatre beast”). She died on Sunday 9 January at her home in Detroit.
“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.
The youngest of four daughters, Ewing was born to a Dutch mother and an African-American father in Detroit, 1950.
Asked by the BBC in 1990 why she became a singer, she responded: “In a way, it was decided for me. My mother was the one to say to me, ‘You have a voice, you should do something about it.’”
“I really had no choice,” she said. “I simply had no choice.”
Ewing made her debut performance in 1973, at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. Three years later, she gave her first performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera, where she sang as Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
After building her repertoire with performances in works such as The Barber of Seville and Tosca, Ewing received acclaim at Glyndebourne in Sussex for her 1978 debut as Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte.
It was there she met Sir Peter Hall, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. They were married in 1982, and Hall would later direct Ewing in the title role of Carmen.
In 1988, Ewing scandalised many when she ended her “Dance of the Seven Veils”performance from Strauss’s Salme – which was broadcast on Channel 4 – nude. Hall had originally suggested she wear underwear.
“But I think that's dishonest and I think it's vulgar,” Ewing later told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. “Nudity isn't vulgar in this context, any more than the nudity we see in most classical paintings.”
Among those to pay tribute to Ewing was her daughter, actor and producer Rebecca Hall, who shared a clip of one of her electrifying performances on Instagram.
Dan Stevens, Hall’s fellow actor and friend from Cambridge University, also paid tribute, sharing a photo of Ewing on Instagram and writing: “I will miss making you laugh. Rest in peace, Maria.”
“In the summer of 1986 I was lucky enough to float above Maria Ewing as she sang Poppea,” opera singer Rebecca Caine tweeted. “It was an incredible learning experience to be onstage with her all night. Rest in power.”
“We are immensely saddened to learn of Maria Ewing’s passing,” the LA Opera company tweeted. “Ms Ewing was a pillar in LA Opera’s history, most memorably when she offered Angelenos a definitive interpretation of Strauss’ “Salome” that won her accolades worldwide. We send our love and condolences to her family.”
The Royal Opera wrote: “We are saddened to hear of the death of singer Maria Ewing Maria performed the title roles in Tosca and Salome with us between 1988 and 1995 and sang both parts with power, tenderness, charisma and vulnerability Hers was a unique stage presence and she will be much missed.”
Hall based her 2021 directorial debut, Netflix’s Passing, on her the experiences of her mother as a light-skinned Black woman who could “pass” as white.
The singer is survived by her daughter as well as her sisters Norma Koleta, Carol Pancratz and Francis Ewing.