ZHENG CAO – A Conversation with A Miracle Artist

Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao premieres song-cycle, “The Bright Lights”, Friday night at the Herbst Theatre

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

ZHENG CAO performs this Friday night, March 4th, with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at the Herbst Theatre. A glorious mezzo-soprano, she is best known to San Francisco audiences for her performances as “Suzuki” in the 2006 and 2007 productions of Madama Butterfly starring Patricia Racette and in 2008 as “Ruth” in the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter based on the novel by Amy Tan. Under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, Zheng will sing the U.S. premiere of the song cycle Into The Bright Lights composed by Nathaniel Stookey and with lyrics by renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (“Flicka” to her friends and fans). Her selections will also include the arias “Scherza infida” from Handel’s Ariodante and “Che faro senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The PBO presents Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Caractères de la danse and Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. The performance will be repeated on Friday and Saturday in Berkeley at the First Congregational Church; Tuesday, March 8th, in Atherton at The Center for Performing Arts; Wednesday, 3/9 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek; and Sunday afternoon, 3/13, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Last weekend, Zheng Cao and I had a Bluetooth-to-Person phone chat. She was on her way to Whole Foods to get some mercury-free fish oil tablets. Zheng Cao is a cancer survivor. Fish oil works on your mood, the ability to learn, and supports cardiovascular and bone health. Back in 2009, Zheng Cao was given a six-month death sentence. The cancer was throughout her body, in stage-four malignancy, along with two dozen tumors in her brain. A medical team went to work on her. Today, Zheng Cao’s story sits in the file marked “Miraculous”. This June she travels to China where she will be the featured soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. She’s a newly-wed. I reminded Zheng about throwing myself at her following the press conference for the 2008 Season of San Francisco Opera. Her performances as “Suzuki” in the previous two seasons were vocally and theatrically daunting. They are fresh in my mind and will stay in my heart forever. And as she strolled through the market the other day – I was honored to tell her so.

ZHENG CAO, Mezzo-soprano

Sean: At the press preview for Bonesetter’s Daughter you sang an aria from the opera which captivated everyone. The event was held in the Grand Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House and in that lofty and elongated marble hall your voice was simply Heaven-sent. When the meeting was over and just as they were rushing you out the door to get on with rehearsal, I cornered you like an impetuous fan and rhapsodized about your previous performances as “Suzuki” in Madama Butterfly which I saw at least three times.

Zheng: That is so kind. Thank you.

Sean: Tell me about your concerts coming up this week with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I’m curious about the arias you will be singing and the new piece you will be introducing, Into The Bright Lights.

Zheng: I’m really enjoying singing it. I have to say, it’s very Flicka. I am relating so much to the piece.

Sean: How does it relate to the person you know?

Zheng: She has been thinking about saying farewell to the stage. But with the invitations coming for her to sing, she’s more like – “Well, OK, maybe another two or three years.” The song cycle has the sentiment, ‘The time has come’. And I say to myself, “It’s time to think about other things.” It sort-of sets the tone for the whole song cycle and I know how hard it is. When Flicka asked me to sing this concert for her – and she was so sad she had to withdraw – she said, with the fact that I’m fighting lung cancer and in some ways maybe my career will get cut short – she said, “You can add another layer to this kind of sentiment”. She said, “I can sing Cherubino one more time.” The role of Cherubino, of course, is Flicka’s signature role. Later on in her life, when she was about 45, she quit singing the role. She passed on her buckle – the one that she carried with her all over the world – to me when I made my debut in San Francisco as “Cherubino”. We just feel that all these things add a sentiment to us – just Flicka and me, you know? She loves to sing Cherubino, I love to sing Cherubino. The whole dynamic becomes very funny. I’m just so thrilled I get to do five performances of this concert.

ZHENG CAO – as “Suzuki”. Photos, Terrence McCarthy

Sean: Into The Bright Lights is a cycle with four songs. Is this the debut?

Zheng: It’s the U.S. premiere. The last time they did it was in Canada.

Sean: This is an amazing honor for you, isn’t it?

Zheng: Oh, absolutely, in every way! And I have to tell you, Sean, almost two years ago –when I got diagnosed and was very sick and in the hospital – they didn’t know where all these tumors came from and wanted to do a biopsy on my lungs. Flicka – of anybody in the world – was the one who begged the doctor not to do a biopsy on my lungs, going through my vocal cords. She said, “You’ve got to save the vocal cords. She has one of the world’s best voices.” And now, I say, “How ironic that I get to save her concert two years later.”

Sean: When did all this happen?

Zheng: April 17th, 2009. I call it, “Doomsday”.

Sean: What alerted you to it? How did you know it was time to find out what was going on?

ZHENG CAO (Ruth) and NING LIANG (LuLing)
Photos, Terrence McCarthy

Zheng: I had this pain on Opening Night of Bonesetter’s Daughter. It wouldn’t go away. I fell on stage Opening Night. The pain never left me. For several months, I kept traveling and performing. Then I knew this was not an injury pain. I went to the doctor and said that the cervical vertebrae on my spine, my neck, was really bothering me – can she do something to help me? She ordered an MRI. What we would find out was not really about my spine, but about the shadow on my lungs.

Sean: How are you doing?

Zheng: Today, I’m doing great. Each day is different. It means the world to me that I am able to perform again, to sing again. You know? The fact that I almost lost it all. I don’t take anything for granted anymore – with my voice, with my health. Everything. I am thrilled I am able to do these performances.

Sean: Did you go through chemotherapy?

Zheng: I went through radiation and then gammanized for my brain. Then I was lucky enough to be on this drug called Tarceva. I felt I had been given another chance for life. I went from having only four or six months – to living. And singing!

Sean: I have loved your work for so long. And right now, I’m feeling overwhelmed by this opportunity to talk to you and the chance to see you perform this concert.

Zheng: Overwhelmed – that word has popped-up in my life many, many times.

Sean: There’s another bit of irony going on with your concert. It’s all about the myth of Orpheus. Tonight I’m seeing Marnie Breckenridge in the Philip Glass opera Orphée at the Herbst Theatre.

Zheng: Omigod, Marnie! She is great.

Sean: We did our interview over at the Conservatory of Music. I had the best time. It was like talking to a pillar of fire. She is so ready to sing the role of “La Princesse” and I’m feeling like a kid anxious to go to the circus. And here you are —

Zheng: — Yes! I’m going to sing the aria from Orfeo ed Euridice. Omigod! Marnie and I must be, like, channeling!

Sean: For weeks now, I’ve been steeped in the Underworld and with Orpheus – studying the 1950 avant garde film by Jean Cocteau and now the 1762 “reform opera” by Gluck. There is an arrangement for every vocal-category of Orfeo’s aria, “Che faro senza Euridice”. Which one will you be singing?

Zheng: I’m singing with conductor Nicholas McGegan. He wants to do the original version of it.

Sean: I think that’s the “Vienna version” in Italian.

Zheng: The copy he gave me was very old. It’s a shorter version than the one I learned from a Mezzo Anthology.

Sean: So, speaking of pants roles, you’ve done your share. What if a production of Orfeo suddenly came calling?

Zheng: I’m actually taking a break from opera. I have a few issues with the bone pain. This is exactly what Flicka meant – I feel I’m good enough to sing. But for opera – with my stamina, and the chemotherapy, and all the treatments – this would not be an ideal time. My doctor and everybody have been telling me to not exhaust myself. I should really just be pacing myself and learn what’s my limit. Everything is like a new challenge.

Sean: As a vocal coach, I always ask the singers I interview to tell me about their practice sessions. What do you notice these days?

Zheng: Everyday my energy is different. Everybody – including San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra – they know I’m a cancer patient and that I’m in treatment. They’re all very understanding. They know there will be days at a rehearsal when I may say, “Look, I can only sing two pieces today. That’s how much energy I’ve got.” But, again, everybody has been so understanding. I went to Vancouver, Pittsburgh – doing “Cherubino” – and feeling the challenge. They may say, “It’s a Chorus rehearsal today, you don’t need to come. Save your energy.” So, I’m really grateful to them.

ZHENG CAO – as “Cherubino”. Photo, David Bachman

Sean: Can you share the sentiments of Into The Bright Lights with me?

Zheng: It starts with: The time has come. I said to myself, “It’s time to think about other things. What else, what else, what else,” I cry. “What else, except to sing.” In the cycle, she talks about her whole day, how she prepares for a show. You wake up in the morning, first thought, “Did I sleep enough?” Second thought, “Do I have any voice in my throat?” That’s what singers do everyday when they have a show. The last part is that she’s backstage. She’s part of the music. That’s what she most loves. That’s the moment that defines us. Right before you go out, before you step into that bright light. Once you step into it, everything else in life fades away. It’s just you and the music.

Sean: Yes, I know. That’s some profound stuff you’re singing about. Given everything that’s going on, how do you manage to maintain your composure through it all?

Zheng: Honestly, I have cried many times during rehearsals. But, on stage, we know our job is to deliver the music. Our job is to touch others – knowing that we have been touched already. You just give. We always say – for example, with Madama Butterfly – is that you let other people cry. You don’t cry. You deliver.

Sean: I’m totally sure there’s going to be a huge amount of love and support flying over the footlights right at you. And then? After this concert – what?

Zheng: Knock on wood – I’m traveling to China to sing the Mahler Third. That will be in June. It’s still in the air, but – if it does all work out – I will be doing the Mahler Third with the Berkeley Symphony. That’s in May. For the time being? It’s pretty amazing.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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