Zheng Cao Dies: Shanghai-Born Opera Singer Dead At 46

Zheng Cao, a Shanghai-born mezzo-soprano opera singer, has died after a long battle with cancer. She was 46 years old.

Cao passed away in her San Francisco home Thursday night, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Cao regularly performed with the San Francisco Opera until 2008, when she made her last appearance in the world premiere of Stewart Wallace’s opera “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” The opera was based on Amy Tan’s novel of the same name.

Composer Jake Heggie, a close friend of Cao, said she spent her last days surrounded by friends and family. At one point, Heggie said, the entire room sang “Voi che sapete,” an aria from Mozart‘s opera, “Marriage of Figaro.” The aria is sung by the pageboy Cherubino, which was one Cao’s signature roles.

Heggie said, “Her breathing completely changed, and she began breathing at the ends of the phrases. So we know she heard that.”

Prior to Cao’s death, the Merola Opera Program created the Zheng Cao Opera Fund in her honor. Cao herself was a Merola fellow in 1994. She and her husband, Dr. David Larson, appeared at the Opera House for the announcement of the fund, as well as a presentation to tenor Yi Li, Tuesday night.

Zheng Cao was born in Shanghai July 9, 1966, shortly before the start of the Cultural Revolution. Her opera career began when she was named an Adler Fellow and expanded when she began making repeat performances at the Opera. It was her role in “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” as Ruth Young-Kamen that was considered to be her biggest assignment. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given six months to live. She survived for three more years.

Zheng Cao is survived by her husband, her parents, and a sister.

[Photo credit: San Francisco Boys Chorus/Flickr.com]