The way Ginger Costa-Jackson tells it, she wasn't even the best singer in her family. That was her younger sister, Miriam, a child prodigy. Ginger didn't take up singing until she was 17. By then, her voice was so balky that her voice teacher cut their first lesson short and ordered her to see a doctor — something had to be wrong with her vocal cords.
Five years later, Jackson was singing for the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where she has been employed ever since. In baseball terms, it's the equivalent of jumping from the high school junior varsity to the Major Leagues, only more unlikely.
Ginger Costa-Jackson, by way of Italy and Sandy, is a rising mezzo-soprano star. At 25, she is still a kid in a profession where women don't hit their prime until their mid-40s.
She plays secondary roles at the Met and covers lead roles. She sang the lead role in "Carmen" at last year's prestigious Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. She recently made her debut in the San Francisco Opera in the role of Nancy T'ang in "Nixon in China." She played Lola at Barcelona's Gran Teater del Liceu, Marie in "Moise et Pharaon" at Carnegie Hall and on and on it goes. She has sung in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Spain, Germany, France, Englandand in front of live TV audiences with millions of viewers.
A sampling of the reviews:
"The Carmen was Ginger Costa-Jackson, a ravishing mezzo-soprano from Italy, just 24, who easily conveyed the allure and willful recklessness of Bizet's Gypsy temptress. Her voice has dark, rich colorings and considerable body." – New York Times
"Giinger Costa–Jackson brought a sultry fierceness and a husky vocal timbre to the title role [Carmen]." – Wall Street Journal.
"You sat up and looked twice when Ginger Costa-Jackson, a mere slip of a woman who closely resembles Angelina Jolie, started to sing Miriam, Moses' sister. She has an extraordinary, rich mezzo. …" — Berkshire Fine Arts.
"Ginger Costa-Jackson already delivers star power and a very well-sung Carmen. With careful development I could see her becoming the world's gypsy-of-choice in short order. Physically, she is slim, beautiful, and muy caliente. Her dark-toned mezzo is able to suggests a sexy huskiness in the low range all the while retaining a cleanly focused placement, witness her ringing, zinging top notes." — Opera Today.
This is all heady stuff for young performer, but Jackson makes a point of saying, "I didn't do this to become famous; there's another reason I'm doing this."
In her youth, she was a self-described geek. Intense and focused, she played the violin, earned straight A's and never dated. She wore glasses and no makeup and pulled her hair back tightly against her head, covering both ears. She topped off the look with a dowdy wardrobe. She didn't allow herself to stop at her locker between classes at Alta High — that might make her late — so she carried all her books in her backpack all day long.
"I didn't care what people thought," she says. "I was there to study."
Her father, Walt, who sang in quartets at BYU, met his wife, Emilia, while they were both teaching at the Mission Training Center at BYU. Emilia, who had studied opera, had emigrated from her native Italy at the age of 20 after joining the LDS Church. She spoke only Italian in the house and her children didn't speak English until they began school. Walt and Emilia raised three daughters — in order, Ginger, Miriam and Marina — and all of them pursued the arts. Ginger was a violinist, Miriam an opera singer and Marina a ballerina. They eventually settled in Sandy, where Walt taught high school seminary classes.
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.
The beauty and the voice are a strong combination. Her calling card is a powerful, rich, deep soprano; it has caught the ear of opera's aficionados since she began singing. It is unique in the profession. Some would call it almost an alto.
"Because of my voice, I tend to get certain roles," she says. "I'm the bad girl, the boy, the witch, the vixen."
She hopes for more success if for no other reason than it will allow her a forum for her faith and to do many things, such as start a conservatory in Utah and sing on stage with her sisters. Miriam still studies the art and Marina, who gave up ballet because she grew too tall, is studying voice in Philadelphia. According to Ginger, "she's on the Met's radar."
"There have never been three sisters on the same stage in opera," she says. "And we're all different voice types — I'm a mezzo, Miriam is a high soprano and Marina is a fuller-sounding soprano." On Aug. 11, the three sisters will perform in St. George at the Green Valley Spa conference center in a benefit for children's autism (ticket information is on their website).
In many ways, Ginger's has been a lonely climb in the world of opera. She left home at 17 and entered an adult world when she was still developing. She had to grow up fast and missed out on a normal teenage experience. But it's a tradeoff for practicing her art. That's what drives her. On Sunday, she sang in a local LDS Church meetinghouse that left many in the congregation in tears.
"At the end of the day I'm going to go where God wants me to go — sacrament meeting or my own home or the stage," she says. "It's all the same. Of course I love performing. I'm a stage animal. I love acting. Afterward, when I can talk to people and know I affected their lives and that my music somehow touched someone, that's amazing."