Doug Robinson: Her rise in opera world started with lackluster music lesson

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Following a family discussion about the law of consecration one night — dedicating everything to God, including talents — Ginger went to her bedroom and prayed to become an opera singer after deciding that talent would provide the best forum for touching people spiritually. She promised God that in return she would use her talent for His purposes.

"I was studious," she says. "I knew with God's help, if I put my mind to it I could do it."

She announced her intention to her mother, who was doubtful. Ginger herself says her voice sounded like "a boy going through puberty." That summer the Jacksons traveled to Italy to visit their mother's homeland. Ginger, now 17, took voice lessons from a renowned instructor, Maria Argento Rancatore. After 10 minutes of listening to Ginger's voice crack and sputter, Rancatore stopped the lesson and told Emilia, "I can't continue this lesson because there's something wrong with her vocal cords. She might have nodes. You need to go to a doctor before I will teach her." The doctor said she was fine and the lessons resumed. Two weeks later Ginger auditioned for a conservatory in Palermo, Sicily.

"I don't know what possessed me to do that then," she says.

The family couldn't afford the conservatory, but because Ginger had been born in Italy, she was eligible for government funding if she placed in the top nine. Three hundred people auditioned; she claimed the ninth place. "A miracle," she calls it. "They could hear there was potential there. They could hear a darker color in my voice."

She dropped out of high school and stayed in Palermo for two years (Miriam and Marina also stayed for a year to study voice and ballet, respectively). Walt cashed his retirement fund to help pay for private lessons, as well.

The lessons were expensive, so Ginger made the most of them by recording each session and listening to them again in her bedroom. She'd put on the headset and listen to her cassette tapes for hours, repeating the crucial vowel sounds over and over. "I'd do breathing exercises until I hyperventilated," she says.

Homesick, she returned to Utah for six months and enrolled at BYU, but found the program wanting and returned to Italy. She immediately began to enter the world of opera competitions, matching notes with women in their 30s. She won three out of five. It was after one of her losses that she was approached backstage by Lenore Rosenberg of the Metropolitan Opera, who offered to fly her to New York for a private audition with the Met.

She auditioned for James Levine, the acclaimed music director of the Met. "I think he had a headache because he sat down and leaned his forehead into his hand and never looked up — not once," recalls Jackson. She sang two songs and thought she had failed. She was boarding a plane when she got a call from Rosenberg informing her that she was being invited to study in the Met's Lindemann young artist development program. Normally, three to five students are chosen annually from a nationwide contest that follows an "American Idol"-like format over the course of several months. Jackson was given a shortcut.

In her second year she began to get stage roles with the Met at the age of 21. She made her debut with Rene Fleming, the famous American soprano. She has worked steadily since then. She marvels at the turn her life took. She began singing at 17 and by 19 she was with the Met. Now she is dreaming big.

"I hope to get main roles in all the main opera houses," she says. "I have to work up the ladder. I'm covering main roles now, so they know I'm good enough for them."

She has seen a change come to her craft. The performances are filmed live, with cameras in the performers' faces and little margin for error.

"You need to be an actress," she says. "You're in the movies now. They don't want you heavy. You've got to be slender and have the look."

As for Ginger, her sisters made her undergo a makeover when she was living in Italy. She has been transformed into an exotic beauty, with a full mouth, large luminescent green eyes, raven hair and a long slender build.

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