SAN FRANCISCO -- Zheng Cao, a popular and spirited mezzo-soprano who performed regularly with the San Francisco Opera, died after a long battle with lung cancer at her home Thursday night.

She was 46.

Cao, who was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer in 2008, most famously performed in the starring role of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" in 2008. San Francisco Opera director David Gockley stated in a news release that Zheng's 16 appearances with the company were "always warmly received and noticed," and when she rose to the top, Zheng proved it to be a place "where she always belonged."

But Gockley said there was much more to Cao than her voice.

"She infused every life situation around her with a sense of great joy, fun and heartfelt sincerity," he said. "Zheng had so many wonderful relationships with everyone she encountered; they were so heartfelt and beautiful, and she truly touched all of us in the most remarkable way."

When she was diagnosed with cancer, doctors believed she had only months to live. But with treatment, doctors managed to shrink tumors that had spread to her liver, neck and spine, and she lived another three years.

On stage with close friend and mentor Frederica von Stade in a 2011 concert at Herbst Theatre in Berkeley, Cao described how von Stade sang with her at the hospital to aid her recovery. A tearful Cao then broke into "You'll Never Walk Alone" by Rogers and Hammerstein, bringing the crowd to its feet.


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Born in China during the Cultural Revolution, Zheng came to the United States in the late 1980s with few possessions and began to make a name for herself on stage. In 1994, she was named a fellow by the Merola Opera Program, which announced a scholarship in her name after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Cao also worked with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.