Since 2011 mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson has sung the title role in twelve different productions of Bizet's Carmen. She will star in yet another this month for San Diego Opera. Then it's on to rehearsals for nine performances of Bizet's masterwork at Seattle Opera. Is the singer tiring of Carmen? Not even close. She loves the character's sense of freedom and empowerment, and works with each new director to make her performance even more convincing.
Costa-Jackson was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at nineteen. Her musically inclined parents made musical training a high priority for her and her sisters Marina and Miriam, but they couldn't have anticipated how well that would turn out. Later this year Marina will play Mimi in Los Angeles Opera's La bohème, and Miriam, the youngest Costa-Jackson, will play Clorinda with Ginger in the title role in Seattle Opera's production of Rossini's Cinderella.
While with the Lindemann program for three years, Ginger was often called on to cover for cast members, but never had to replace someone for a public performance. 'Mezzos don't cancel. Tenors cancel, sopranos cancel, but mezzos rarely do.' That's not necessarily because of temperament. 'When you're sick, your vocal chords become thicker, and they have to stretch like an elastic band for high notes. So even if mezzos have a little cold, they can still sing their range.' Sopranos with a cold, on the other hand, worry about cracking on the high notes because of the lost flexibility.
Since none of the mezzos she covered for ever cancelled, Costa-Jackson's first public appearance at the Met came as Rosette in Massenet's Manon. 'It was a Renée Fleming gala. She included a scene from Manon with a trio of young girls. The director decided the show was running too long. Guess what got cut, my singing part. So all I had to say was, 'Ah, no!' But that was actually great, because as a twenty-year-old I remember I walked out on stage, I had this corsage and the biggest hat, at least they said at that time, that had ever been on the Met stage - huge. And when I walked on, it was this massive audience. I'm very grateful I didn't have to sing that first time. I was just getting used to like, whoa the Met! It was awesome. But what I actually consider my debut, because I sang' (she laughs), 'was Thaïs. And I was one of the slaves, Myrtale, always in a duet with one of the other girls. In my third role, Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana, I got to sing by myself. So, it was this really cool transition to, "You're singing at the Met!"'
Other exciting moments have followed. 'At Glimmerglass in my first Carmen, I was on stage dancing, castanets in hand in the first act, and the tenor says, "Bugles are sounding. I have to go". And I get into this mad rage. "Ah, I'm so stupid to think I could possibly be falling in love with you. Take your garbage! Here's your hat and your sword." Afterwards on stage I remember thinking of the thrill of it and how real it was. I wasn't just standing and singing. I've always been more interested in the acting part than the singing', she laughs, 'and that's what I loved. I feel like the singing is part of the acting.' It increases the emotional impact of the story.
A less thrilling moment came in another performance of Carmen. Don José 'Throws me down'. (She sings his aria quickly and softly.) Her skirt had a single hook which broke as she fell against a chair. 'I spent the entire aria trying to get the skirt hooked. When he finishes his aria, he has his head on my shoulder, and I whisper in his ear, 'My skirt broke. My skirt.' And he's like, 'what? What?' So I had to spend the rest of the scene holding my skirt up as I sang.' (She stands to demonstrate.) Even opera has its Janet-Jackson moments. But the show must go on.
Costa-Jackson's upper range is becoming stronger, but she prefers parts in the mezzo range that includes so many of the roles she most enjoys. 'I like the strong female leads, the sometimes jaded women. They're not naïvely just falling in love, believing whatever a man tells them.'
She seems to welcome the chance to break loose and pretend to be someone with a personality and life different, except for the empowerment part, from her own. She says she was a nerd when young, at one point thinking of becoming a college professor. 'I never dated. Guys didn't ask me out. First I was too geeky, and then I was too intimidating. So it's funny. Off stage now, I'm this married woman, but they always want to cast me as an independent free woman, I guess because of my exotic look. I'm just now getting to play Cinderella, a good kind angelic girl with a personality I think is like mine.' She laughs. 'But I'm working, and that's always good.'
Costa-Jackson married Navy-Doctor Spencer Burk six years ago, and they now live in Pensacola, Florida. With an occasional exception, such as a Carmen in Tokyo, he attends all her performances. This time he flew with her to San Diego and stayed long enough to visit Naval Air Station North Island where they bought some of the essentials for the rehearsal weeks. He'll return for the performance next weekend. Burk's support means a lot to her as she copes with a nearly continuous travel schedule. So does a close relationship with her sisters. Ginger is eleven months older than Marina and about two years older than Miriam. They all shared a room growing up, and the agent they also share knows the sisters enjoy traveling and singing together in pairs or as a trio. And they have, twice in Russia at major musical events and often in the United States. If Ginger has an audition that didn't go so well, other family members can sympathize, but when she calls a sister, 'There's a different level of understanding'. She knows it's happened to them too.
'I'd love to do operas with both of them, Così, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffmann or The Marriage of Figaro.' In the latter, later this year but without her sisters, she'll play the amorous young boy Cherubino who is attracted to Susanna and the Contessa, parts that could be played by Marina and Miriam. 'But it would be kind of strange to be a boy and fall in love with your sister.' She laughs. That's not the only possible complication. Miriam once played Micaëla with Ginger as Carmen. 'It's interesting to share a tenor when he kisses both of you.' Again she laughs. 'Which one is better?'
Does she feel sorry for Micaëla because Carmen steals Don José from her? 'No. Because I saved her from a creep. He's murdered before - over a card game! He would have murdered her too. I saved her!'
Carmen is so strong a character it's not easy to accept that she would die without more of a fight at the hands of her rejected lover Don José as the opera ends. Costa-Jackson has a convincing view. Tarot cards have predicted death. 'She believes it's inevitable, what's supposed to happen happens, and that's part of her freedom. It doesn't matter what my choices are, she's telling him, "We're done. It's over!"' She's defiant. 'She looks down at the knife and says, "If you're going to do it, do it".'