As mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson recounted her preteen amusements with her two younger sisters, her current career on the opera stage seemed only too logical.“Our family lived modestly, so we three girls shared a room together. We were our own source of entertainment, singing songs together after watching the Lawrence Welk show on television or after watching an old musical we borrowed from the local library,” Costa-Jackson explained. “We really loved all those musicals, and we would make our own costumes and make up our own dances to do along with the songs. Sometimes we would even make up our own songs.”
This was all innocent play until her youngest sister Miriam got serious about singing at age 12 and decided she wanted to take voice lessons.
“At first, she was just my annoying little sister struggling with voice lessons,” said Ginger, who eagerly explained that her mother named her after the film star dancer and singer Ginger Rogers. “But when Miriam quickly improved, and I heard what an opulent sound she was making, I thought it was time for me to start voices lessons too.”
All three sisters—Ginger, Marina, and Miriam—followed that siren call to the world of opera, and Ginger is in San Diego preparing to sing the title role in San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Bizet’s Carmen that opens at Civic Theatre on Saturday, March 30.
Because she was born in Palermo, Italy—to an Italian mother and an American father—the family spoke Italian at home, so she had the advantage of being a native speaker in the primary language of opera. And although she grew up in the U.S., she recalled her family’s regular visits to Italy.
“We would get together every summer in Palermo, and I remember everyone in this large family of aunts and cousins sitting around large tables eating, and then everyone would sing together late into the evening, sometimes to a guitar and other times just a cappella.”
In her late teens, Costa-Jackson kept returning to Italy, either to take voice lessons at Palermo’s Conservatorio di Musica Vincenzo Bellini or to enter various vocal competitions. A judge of one of these Italian competitions just happened to be the Director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Program. She was so impressed with Costa-Jackson’s singing that the young vocalist was invited to participate in this prestigious program that both trains young aspiring vocalists and casts them in small roles in Metropolitan Opera productions.
“Of course studying with so many great coaches associated with the Met was a great advantage, but I really appreciated the ability to observe great singers like Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson both from a seat in the house and from behind the scene backstage.” Costa Jackson’s debut on the Met stage was singing Myrtale in a new production of Massenet’s Thaïs with both Fleming and Hampson.
At age 23, Costa-Jackson was invited by Glimmerglass Opera to sing her first Carmen. “This was the first time I sang a lead role on stage, and I was so glad it was at Glimmerglass, because unlike most companies, we had a couple of months to rehearse the opera. I was drawn to Carmen like the proverbial duck to water.”
After that Glimmerglass Carmen debut, Virginia Opera signed her for Carmen in 2014, followed by companies in Seattle, Mexico City, and Tokyo. It has become her signature role, and San Diego Opera will be her “lucky” thirteenth Carmen. So she has had ample opportunity to reflect on the persona and motivations of Bizet’s notorious gypsy.
For starters, she thinks too much has been made about Carmen’s amoral character.
“Carmen is a survivor. A dark-skinned woman and a member of the nomadic Roma people, she was an outcast in European society. She had no options for survival other than cheap labor in a cigarette factory, or smuggling, fortune telling or even prostitution. But she was not defeated by any of this, exuding a joie de vivre, an infectious laughter that communicated her intense will to live—something that drew everyone to her.”
When Carmen premiered in 1875, the social realism of Bizet’s opera shocked many Parisian opergoers, and the press was scandalized by Carmen’s character and her onstage murder by her jilted lover Don José. Bizet anticipated verismo, the Italian trend of writing operas on sensational contemporary topics, by almost two decades. Given the current women’s movement, I asked Costa-Jackson if she could imagine a telling of Bizet’s opera in which Carmen doesn’t get killed.
“There was a Carmen production in Florence, Italy, not that long ago, in which she kills Don José in self defense in the opera’s last scene, a change that was tied to a recent scandal that had rocked that city. But this does not belong to the time or world in which Carmen actually lived. I think she is better seen as a martyr to the #MeToo cause: she dies because the man she left now stalks and kills her because be cannot accept her independence.”
Because Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the entire repertory and even occasional operagoers have probably seen it more than once, I asked Costa-Jackson why she thought people kept coming back to see another Carmen production.
“You can’t beat its pure show business allure and gripping music from start to finish,” she answered without a breath of hesitation.
San Diego Opera’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” opens March 30, 2019, at the San Diego Civic Theatre, and continues with performances on April 2, 5, and 7, 2019, in the same venue. The cast includes Robert Watson as Don José, Scott Connor as Escamillo, Sara Tucker as Micaëla, with stage direction by Kyle Lang and orchestra conductor Yves Abel.