In March, mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao was the unexpected star of a concert series in the Bay Area for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra that symbolized her renewed life as an operatic singer and as a survivor of stage-four lung cancer. Only a month before, Cao had been asked by her mentor, the beloved San Francisco mezzo Flicka (Frederica von Stade), to sing in her place in what was to have been von Stade’s farewell performance. To refuse Von Stade was unthinkable, because it was von Stade, said Cao, who “saved my life and my voice, by my side at the hospital for two years” as she underwent treatment for the tumors which had spread from her lungs to her brain. Von Stade describes Cao’s voice as “liquid gold and best of all it pours out of a soul that is the most gracious, courageous, warm and generous I’ve ever known.” Cao’s performance and her medical and personal triumph over cancer were the subject of a CNN profile by Sanjay Gupta on April 7 and a December 22 story by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America about Cao’s marriage last year to the radiation oncologist who removed 24 tumors from her brain, David Larson.
Cao was a 1988 graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music who came to the U.S. on a full scholarship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1995, the San Francisco Opera awarded her an Adler Fellowship and has provided her with a home ever since—a highlight was Cao’s performance as the lead, Ruth, in the opera based on Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter in 2008. “Journey of the Bonesetter’s Daughter” about the making of the opera was shown on PBS on Mother’s Day, May 8. The conductor Seiji Ozawa has championed Cao since early in her career and selected her as a soloist for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, giving her such choice roles as Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Marguerite in Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” at the Saito Kinen Festival. Many other orchestras in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have featured Cao as a guest artist, and she joined a world tour of former Summer Olympics Cities, performing as one of China’s cultural ambassadors for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Cao continues to undergo treatment, while carrying on a busy performance schedule and speaking out publicly about the importance of early diagnosis of cancer.