RIP Zheng Cao
by Joshua Kosman (via San Francisco Chronicle) – Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, a vivid and dramatically resourceful artist who appeared regularly with the San Francisco Opera and on stages worldwide, died Thursday night at her home in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer. She was 46.
Ms. Cao (pronounced “Chow”) was a notable presence in the cultural and social life of the Bay Area, not only for the vibrancy and beauty of her musical gifts, but for her forceful personality and her ability to gather friends and admirers into her circle.
“Her singing had a direct connection to the person she was, a person with lots of heart, humor and generosity of spirit,” said San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, who worked closely with her both here and at the Houston Grand Opera. “Anyone who knew her personally, she automatically became special in their lives.”
Among her close confidantes and boosters were mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, composer Jake Heggie and novelist Amy Tan. Ms. Cao’s final appearance at the War Memorial Opera House was in the 2008 world premiere of Stewart Wallace’s opera “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” based on Tan’s novel.
Soprano Nicolle Foland, who was a colleague through the Merola Opera Program and as Adler Fellows and became a lifelong friend, said that Ms. Cao had been hospitalized over the weekend, but returned home Monday.
“She had a couple of good days, and went to bed very happy on Wednesday night. But in the middle of the night she was breathing irregularly, and she knew the end was near.”
Friends, family and colleagues came to visit on Thursday, regaling her with music and memories. At one point, the entire room sang “Voi che sapete,” an aria from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” sung by the pageboy Cherubino, one of Ms. Cao’s signature roles.
‘Beloved by everyone’
“I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone as beloved by everyone,” said von Stade, who became a friend and mentor after hearing Ms. Cao sing in the Merola Opera Program.
“She sang an aria by Meyerbeer, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There was this wonderful personality and a great sense of humor, as well as a creamy, sincere quality in her voice. It was a sensational voice.”
Ms. Cao was born July 9, 1966, in Shanghai, right at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. As a result of the Communist crackdown on Western culture, she later recalled, she was 18 and a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before she heard anything from the European classical – or even pop - tradition.
“All the songs that I learned growing up were about Chairman Mao,” she told The Chronicle in a 1998 interview. “But after the Cultural Revolution, everything started to open up. The radio started to play songs from all over the world. That was one way for me to learn English.
“I recorded songs off the radio, wrote down the words, played them over and over. I learned Karen Carpenter songs, ‘Moon River’ from Frank Sinatra. I wanted to be a pop singer. I still want to be a pop singer!”
Instead, Ms. Cao came to the United States in 1988 with two suitcases and $45 to her name, and took up opera at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But her career largely took shape in San Francisco, first as an Adler Fellow and then in repeated performances at the Opera beginning with a 1995 appearance as Siebel in Gounod’s “Faust.”
Suzuki, the patient servant in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” was a signature role, which she sang numerous times at the War Memorial Opera House. She also performed roles in Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” “The Rake’s Progress” by Stravinsky and Virgil Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All.”
Outside of San Francisco, Ms. Cao performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, as well as making concert appearances with orchestras in Philadelphia, Boston, Warsaw and Beijing. She recorded Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and Heggie’s song cycle “Deepest Desire.”
Shortly after coming to the U.S., Ms. Cao signed on as a singer on a Tahitian cruise ship. During the cruise she met Troy Donahue, the teen heartthrob from 1950s and ’60s films. From that chance meeting – “He thought it was refreshing that I didn’t know who he was,” she later said – blossomed a romance that lasted until his death in 2001.
Ms. Cao’s biggest assignment was in “Bonesetter,” in which she created the role of Ruth Young Kamen, the American-born protagonist torn between her Chinese roots and the demands of a new life. It was a triumphant performance, marked by tonal heft and emotional vulnerability.
It was shortly after that opera that Ms. Cao was first diagnosed with cancer, which was already in stage four. The tumors had spread to her liver, lung, neck and spine, and she was given six months to live.
But through a bold series of treatments, she survived three more years, continuing to sing and make public appearances. She premiered Nathaniel Stookey’s song cycle “Into the Bright Lights” with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, substituting for von Stade, who had written the libretto based on her own experience at the end of a career.
She appeared as herself on the CBS soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” in a segment to boost cancer awareness. And in 2010, Ms. Cao married Dr. David Larson, who had been her radiation oncologist, in a ceremony at the mansion of her friends Gordon and Ann Getty.
“What was striking about her was her ability to communicate, not just with an audience, but with everyone involved in a production,” Foland said. “Stagehands, orchestra members, artistic administrators – everyone loved her. She was the kind of person who left a legacy of making people happy.”
Scholarship in her name
In February 2012, the Merola Opera Program established a scholarship in her name to fund the studies of an incoming artist, either a mezzo-soprano or one from Asia or the Pacific Rim. The first recipient, Chinese tenor Yi Li, came through Merola last summer.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Cao is survived by her parents, Sherry and Morris Cao of Oakland; her sister, Dan Cao, brother-in-law Fulai Sheng and niece Keli Sheng of Nyon, Switzerland; her stepdaughter Whitney Larson; stepsons Colin Larson and Jeremy Anderson; and two step-grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are pending.