23 February 2013
Zheng Cao, 46, Shanghai-Born Mezzo Who Became Bay Area Favorite, Has Died
Shanghai, China, July 9, 1966 — San Francisco, CA, February 21, 2013
The mezzo made her mark at San Francisco Opera in the 1990s as an artist of charm, ingenuity and brilliant musicality, establishing herself as a Bay Area audience favorite in opera, concert and recital. Whether the music was by Mozart, Puccini or Jake Heggie, Cao invested her performances with passion, integrity and style, singing with infectious joy and freedom. Throughout her career, Cao was praised for her commitment to the characters she played; in a 2001 interview with OPERA NEWS, she explained, "If I don't feel connected to a character, then I am empty onstage. And that's not good news for the audience."
Cao received her bachelor's degree from Shanghai Conservatory before emigrating in 1988 to the U.S., where she studied on scholarship at American University. After a year, she transferred to the Curtis Institute, where she earned her master's degree. Cao was a semi-finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions (1992) and participated in the Merola Opera Program (1994) before making her professional opera debut as an Adler Fellowat San Francisco Opera in 1995. At San Francisco Opera, the company that was to remain her artistic home, Cao's roles included Siébel in Faust (her debut in 1995), the Kitchen Boy in Rusalka (1995), Cherubino (1998), Idamante (1999), Baba the Turk (2000), Anna Hope in The Mother of Us All (2003) and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, her most frequent assignment, which she sang at SFO in 1997, 1999, 2002, 2006 and 2007. The pinnacle of Cao's SFO career came in September 2008, when she created the leading role of Ruth Young Kamen in the world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan. It was to be Cao's last role for the company: before the year was out, Cao was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, the disease that she battled for the rest of her life. Cao resumed performing on a limited basis after her diagnosis. In spring 2010, she sang Cherubino for Pittsburgh Opera and Suzuki at Vancouver Opera; in 2011, she appeared at a gala honoring her friend and mentor Frederica von Stade.
Away from San Francisco, Cao appeared at Houston Grand Opera, where she created Magali in the world premiere of Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes in 2008, as well as San Diego Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Washington National Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Pittsburgh Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the New York City Opera tour, Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Saito Kinen Festival, among other companies. A close colleague of composer Jake Heggie, Cao appears on several recordings of his music, including The Faces of Love, Passing By and Flesh & Stone. Heggie dedicated his three-song cycle Before the Storm to Cao in 1998. In February 2012, the Merola Opera Program established the Zheng Cao Opera Fund, which annually sponsors one incoming Merola participant, either a mezzo-soprano or an Asian/Pacific artist.
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