Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao died on Thursday night at her home in San Francisco at the age of 46 after a long battle with cancer. Cao was born in Shanghai and had an international career. However, San Francisco was very much her home; and she had a close relationship with the San Francisco Opera, beginning with her summer in the Merola Opera Program in 1994, followed by her tenure in the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship Program in 1995 and 1996. Over the course of that relationship, she performed in sixteen San Francisco Opera productions, most notably in the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Stewart Wallace’s opera based on the novel of the same name by Amy Tan, which remains one of the most memorable of the premiere productions I have seen in the War Memorial Opera House.
My own awareness of Cao began in the fall of 1995. I had just returned to the United States after four years at a research laboratory in Singapore and was working at a new research laboratory in Palo Alto. This was my first time living in the Bay Area; and my awareness of the San Francisco Opera had been sporadic, based primarily on seeing performances while on business trips. The very first production I saw as a Bay Area resident was Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Cao had made her debut earlier in the season as Siebel in Faust. I cannot remember which of the Valkyries she sang (probably Schwertleite, since that would have fit her vocal range); but I do remember that the stage director had her sitting on a rock, wiping the blood off of her shield, and looking for all the world like a German Hausfrau! Here she was, at the beginning of her career and already coming across like a seasoned trouper.
After that “first contact” I encountered her several times in San Francisco. If The Bonesetter’s Daughter made the deepest impression on me, I also enjoyed her performance as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, her appearance in the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series as part of her Adler Fellowship, and my last opportunity, when she sang the United States premiere of Nathaniel Stookey’s Into the Bright Lights with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas McGegan in March of 2011. At that concert she also sang two arias by George Frideric Handel, “Scherza infida” from Ariodante and “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo, as well as “Che far senza Euridice” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo de Euridice.
Cao was first diagnosed with cancer shortly after her performances in The Bonesetter’s Daughter in the fall of 2008. The cancer was already in Stage 4. She had tumors in her liver, lung, neck, and spine; and she was given six months to live. By virtue of extreme therapy, that prognosis was proven wrong, which is why she was so warmly received at her Philharmonia Baroque appearance. In her legacy the Merola Opera Program has established a scholarship fund in her name to support the studies of either an Asian artist or a deserving mezzo.