Why jazz doesn't give her the blues

Soprano Maria Ewing ditches the coloratura in favour of her favourite Broadway tunes
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The Independent Culture

Maria Ewing's latest choice of venue - the Pizza Express Jazz Club - is far from the anomaly it seems to be. The celebrated soprano, who for years graced the stage at Glyndebourne and, as Salome, performed a notoriously erotic dance of the seven veils at Covent Garden, these days increasingly doubles as passionate jazz singer.

She's certainly looking forward to performing Broadway, Hollywood and Jazz: an Evening with Maria Ewing in "this famous little room. It's only 100-odd feet. I love the intimate setting; it's like being with your friends." Intimate or not, though, Ewing denies that jazz is an easier option than performing at the huge, operatic venues: "One would think that singing for thousands of people would be more intimidating," she says, "but it's not the case. This intimacy is exposing."

Ewing has performed with the world's great orchestras and has collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yet, even now, she retains what she describes as "a core of shyness. The moment you set foot on stage you have a huge responsibility - to have prepared well, to know what you're doing and to live the lyric of the song. The important thing is to tell your own personal story. We are all on the same journey when it comes to matters of the heart."

On the menu at the Pizza Express Jazz Club are tributes, among others, to Bernstein, George Gershwin and Henry Mancini, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. In Ewing's vocabulary of emotion, tragedy is stalked by irony - something she is expert at communicating. She says she has chosen songs that are close to her heart, a heart that, at 53, has suffered the turmoils of what she calls "rough waters". Once married to Sir Peter Hall, the theatre director and founder of the RSC, for whom she quit America in 1980, Ewing came to be more famous for their marriage than for her singing. Now divorced, she describes their relationship as one of great creativity - a creativity that lives on in their genes (their daughter, Rebecca Hall, last year won the Ian Charleson Award for the best newcomer in a West End play, Mrs Warren's Profession).

Ewing has always accepted her parallel music talents. She was keen to develop her classical ability, but also relished Dave Brubeck's music "alone in a room when I was eight." Years later, she became the first artist to perform a programme of Broadway hits at the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park, where she sang a programme of popular operatic arias as well as numbers by Gershwin and Noël Coward. "This other style has evolved and I take it seriously. I do it because I love it so much."

By Maureen Isaacson

Maria Ewing will be accompanied by her trio, James Pearson (piano), Matt Holme (drums) and Jeremy Brown (bass); for tickets to Broadway, Hollywood and Jazz: an Evening with Maria Ewing, call the Pizza Express Jazz Club box office, 10 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7439 8722; www.pizzaexpress.co.uk/jazzsoho.htm) Wed to 31 May, £20