All singers experience highs and lows in their careers, but San Francisco mezzo soprano Zheng Cao has faced unique extremes.
At 44, persistence, determination and what must be called medical miracles have enabled her survival against great odds. At the same time, triumphs on the stage have made her world-famous.
The singer, featured in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s concert series this weekend, came to the U.S. from Shanghai as youngster determined to become an opera star with $45 in her pocket and an English vocabulary consisting of “Merry Christmas.”
She reached her pinnacle in 2008, in the title role of San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” set to Amy Tan’s novel.
At the same time, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Tests showed stage-four malignancy spreading from the lungs to liver, lymph nodes, spine and elsewhere, in addition to 24 tumors in her brain.
On the day she received the diagnosis, her first visitor was her mentor and friend, mezzo Frederica von Stade, The City’s beloved “Flicka.” When Cao told her she thought her life was over, she says, “Flicka’s response was, ‘That is not acceptable,’” and they engaged leading oncologists to begin an organized fight against the clusters of deadly cancers and a desperate attempt to save her voice along with her life.
Intensive radiation therapy and experimental gamma knife treatments resulted in an unexpected complete remission, enabling Cao to resume her career. A couple of weeks ago, Cao married Dr. David Larson — one person on her medical team — as they both realized remission may be temporary, and the future will be what she calls “a constant battle.”
In yet another turn of events all in one month, the Philharmonia Baroque concerts organized to showcase Flicka before her retirement had to find a last-minute substitute when she withdrew for personal reasons.
The replacement, suggested by Flicka: Cao, who accepted the assignment, she says, “with tremendous admiration for Flicka, my mentor, my very treasured friend.”
In concerts Friday in San Francisco, Saturday and Sunday at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, March 8 at Center for Performing Arts in Atherton and March 9 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Cao will sing Nathaniel Stookey’s song cycle “Into the Bright Lights,” to text by Flicka, and arias from operas by Gluck and Handel.
Philharmonia Baroque Music Director Nicholas McGegan is conducting the concerts, which also include French baroque ballet suites by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Féry Rebel.
It will be a fitting showcase for Cao, who in 1994 won a place in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola training program, and in 1995 became an Adler Fellow, going on to frequent appearances in the War Memorial Opera House for the next decade and a half. Among roles for which she received acclaim are Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” and Baba the Turk in “The Rake’s Progress.”
While singing in San Francisco and elsewhere, she lived in Santa Monica, engaged to the actor Troy Donahue, whose fame in the 1950s diminished in later years as he fought alcoholism and poor health. Cao remained by his side until his death in 2001.
IF YOU GO
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Featuring mezzo-soprano Zhang Cao
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $30 to $90
Contact: (415) 252-1288, www.philharmonia.org
Note: Concerts are also in Berkeley, Atherton and Walnut Creek. Additionally, Cao will appear at 2 p.m. March 13 in a chamber music concert at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F.