BWW Interview: Ginger Costa-Jackson of CINDERELLA at McCaw Hall
Rhyming "Ginger" with "Singer" may be a stretch, but in Ginger Costa-Jackson's case, it might well be appropriate. The Italian-American operatic mezzo-soprano has performed worldwide, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera after participating in the company's prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. A veteran of many international singing competitions and festivals, Costa-Jackson has been featured on The Met: Live in HD broadcasts.
She is also an absolute spitfire, full of spunk and spirit. Born in Palermo, Italy, the multi-talented Costa-Jackson (singing, acting, dancing, violin) is part of a singing family-from her father, mother and maternal grandmother to her sisters Marina and Miriam. Having heated up the stage in the title role of Seattle Opera's recent Carmen, Costa-Jackson is sure to charm Seattle audiences once again when she performs the title role in Rossini's "Cinderella" this month. In addition, she will sing Musetta in Puccini's La bohème, and in Seattle's special presentation Three Singing Sisters with Marina and Miriam.
Erica Miner: Welcome back to Seattle! Wow, what a change-from the ultimate anti-heroine to the ultimate angel of goodness.
Ginger Costa-Jackson: I was thinking about the juxtaposition from Carmen to Cinderella. Obviously very different takes. The commonality is how they choose to deal with their inner pain and childhood scars. Cinderella deals with her childhood abuse and lack of childhood in goodness and forgiveness. Carmen becomes hardened and numbed by the abuse she's received. I won't say selfish, but self-preserving vs Cinderella who stays altruistic throughout her suffering.
EM: The focus is on what she's like on the inside vs how she behaves on the outside.
GC-J: Absolutely. What's cool about this production is the stepfather is an alcoholic [Laughs]. You're not going to see anything dark-it's still very much a family friendly show-it's more the comedy side. He gets up with this raging headache, and the two girls have to get him a gin. "Dad's up, we'll get him his morning drink." So we see he isn't the kindest to his own daughters. That's why my stepsisters in turn are not kind to me.
EM: So he's not so much the buffoon?
GC-J: He is, but he was once a somebody in the world and now he's a fallen man. In this production he has an emporium where he sells all sorts of things that are the final sale, one step above poverty line. For the girls, when the beggar comes in, their fear is because it's so close to what they could be-on the street. Their house is almost in ruins. The father, to cope, takes to drink. He's also a widower, so he has his own pain. He lost a woman he was very much in love with. For whatever reason, he can't bear the sight of me, probably because I resemble my mother, I'm good like her. It shows him a mirror of himself. When he sees me it's like, "I'm not living the life I should be living." He doesn't want to look introspectively at the wrong he's doing. It becomes too much for him. So it's, "I don't want to see you, I don't want to look at you, you aren't my daughter. Clean the floors." [Laughs]
EM: Let's talk about your stepsisters, one of whom is your actual sister. I know you've been asked this many times, but what is it like to perform together as sisters-doubly in "Cinderella"-as you did in Seattle's Così fan tutte.
GC-J: My sisters and I are very close-in age also, just one year behind the other. Marina and I actually have one month we're the same age, 11 months apart. When we were raised, we all shared the same bedroom. We grew up playing make-believe together. I'd always play the boy. We'd go into my mother's linen closet and-
EM: Always the boy. Interesting.
GC-J: Isn't it? I was the eldest and took on the responsibility-if we had to do our ballroom dancing routine I was the man and I'd lift Miriam [Laughs]. We've always played and sung together. Being adults and still being able to play in this world of make-believe is an incredible privilege. I'm very grateful to Seattle Opera to give me the opportunity to work with my siblings. When I'm working with my sisters, there's this sixth sense. I know when they're going to change their notes. When I have a new colleague I really need to look into their eyes; if I'm a 3rd underneath them and harmonizing-how can I accompany them. As the bottom voice I always feel that's my duty-it's so much harder to sing the high notes-to be the person underneath, to make sure everything stays together. As the older sister I felt that.
EM: I've known a number of singers who've played violin as you do. Most of them say it enhances their singing. Do you agree?
GC-J: I once heard the violin was the closest to the human voice-the sense of vibrato. So yes. I played the violin growing up and gave it up only because we couldn't afford violin and voice lessons. But the best thing about playing an instrument, whether violin, viola or cello, is learning to listen to the people around you when you're in an orchestra. We opera singers spend a lot of time rehearsing by ourselves. When we come together to do a play, it's teamwork. You have to be independent knowing what you're doing, but you need to be flexible enough that if your colleague delivers a line with more sweetness or bitterness, you can accompany or respond to that. when your partner says, "Hello," you sing [sings] "Hello back." Or if you hear they're singingpiano, to try to be with them. You have to act through the voice, to be very much aware what your colleagues are doing. There's a sense of teamwork that being in an orchestra or band or a sport, it's very important for an opera singer to bring that to the stage.
EM: You're so multifaceted. You went for a degree in English literature. What made you decide on voice?
GC-J: I don't know. Sometimes you wonder, "How did I get in this career?" [Laughs] I began singing because of Miriam. It's wonderful to share the stage with her because she originally was the one who wanted voice lessons, always was listening to opera. My mother was Italian, so of course she played opera in the home. But Miriam took it to another level. She would close herself in her room and listen to Callas and Pavarotti. She would cry listening to the CDs-as a 10-year-old! We all thought she was crazy. At 12 she was singing. I heard her sing high notes and remember thinking to myself, "That sounds like flying." From there I thought, "I want to do this." I was just the older, very studious sister, more interested in school. When I saw her ability it inspired me to want to try that. It's like, when you have a sibling, "Oh, I can do that too." I would go to her voice lessons and asked my mother if I could have voice lessons as well. She was like, [Italian accent] "You know, Ginger, the Lord, he has given you so many talents. I don't know if singing is one of them." [Laughs] It's not like I had a great instrument. I was listening to, [sings in Pop voice] "I can show you the world." It wasn't necessarily very good. But it's about the perspiration, working to achieve something. If you have the desire, really have it in your heart that that's what you want, you will have to drive to have it. Miriam had all this ability from the get-go. I really didn't.
EM: You had to work at it.
GC-J: Very hard.
EM: Sometimes your passion is even stronger than if you didn't have to work so hard.
GC-J: You just require a lot more focus. Anything that's worth having isn't going to come easily.
EM: You've sung Carmen, Cinderella, Rosina, but also less frequently done roles, like the Marchesa di Poggio in Un Giorno di regnoand El Gato. How does it feel to sing those compared to more familiar roles?
GC-J: When it's something that's not as much done, you listen to it, and decide from there. When I'm making my decisions, if I have time in my schedule...I'm a workhorse, one of those crazy people who live to be onstage. I want to be onstage. I'm biting at the bit.
EM: Like Olive Fremstad. She practically died when she wasn't onstage.
GC-J: [Laughs]. This year I think I see my home like two weeks. But I had so many interesting roles offered back to back. Sometimes you need to make the choice to take a couple months off to be a human, not worry about anything like makeup, to eat as much as you want, or just be with your loved ones. But I got offered Donna Elvira, Helen of Troy, super fun. I love these acting singingroles, are very interesting.
EM: Drama, or comedy you can sink your teeth into.
GC-J: Exactly. I told my husband, "Maybe I don't take it, I can stay home with you." He looked at me like, "I know you. one or two weeks in, you're suddenly going to be like, [mock crying] "I don't know what to do." I have all this creative energy. Do I know where to put it? It's like a cow that's not milked! [Laughs] The difference between being in the rehearsal room, with the people behind the table making sure the movements are right-the director, the conductor-then you get onstage and suddenly there's this heightened state of awareness, all the eyes looking at you. The audience has this ocean of energy, it changes your performance from one night to the next. If it's a matinee crowd sometimes they're still waking up [Laughs]. They're enjoying what they're seeing but they're less vocal, easing into it, not in that zone with you right away. By the end of the matinee they're with you. The Friday night crowd are super energetic, happy, they know it's the weekend. We love a boisterous crowd. We want them to clap, to laugh.
EM: Their energy feeds your energy.
GC-J: And when we don't get fed as artists, we-[Laughs]
EM: It can be frightening but also delicious. Wonderful, terrible, everything in between.
GC-J: Yes! [Laughs]
EM: Tell me about being with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the 2008 opening night Gala, then making your debut in Thaïs.
GC-J:My first experience onstage singing and acting was with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in HD broadcast!I was a 21-year-old who came from the Young Artists program. It was my first time on the Met stage. My first legitimate paid job as a singer. I had left home when I was 16 to attend the Music Conservatory in Italy, doing my schooling through correspondence. I never had those performances you do as a student. I'm really grateful, because the opening night Gala originally I played Rosette (Manon)-one of the 3 girls-the "Supremes." We were supposed to have a trio. But because Renée Fleming was doing 3 scenes, it was going overtime and they cut the trio. So my opening night, the very first thing I only had a one-liner. The older guy comes to bother the girls and says, [French accent] "Oh, hello, good morning, Rosette." And I go, "Ah! No!" That was it. My first thing. I had a splendid outfit. We did all the dancing and movement and staging. But I had this incredible opportunity to be onstage-I'll never forget looking out and seeing the enormity and beauty of the stage-and this lavish set behind me with everyone in white powdered wigs. I think I wore the biggest hat ever on the Met stage. I didn't have to be nervous. All I had to say was, "Ah, no!" The second time I actually got to sing-with Alyson Cambridge. We were the 2 slaves in Thaïs. I had some solo lines, but we sing together. It was a beautiful transition for a 21-year-old to go from "Ah, no!" to get used to the shock of how big the stage is, then singing with a partner, to right after that sing Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana all by myself. It became a beautiful year-long transition for me, just an easy one.
EM: Still a trial by fire to go right onto the Met stage.
GC-J:I think when you're young you don't realize. Being a Virgo and a perfectionist I wanted to do it right, but I never had the sense of going to fail. As an older person you're more aware of what could go wrong in the world [Laughs] than when you're young, There's this fearlessness.
EM: Ignorance is bliss.
GC-J:Exactly. The "Ah, no!" was interesting. I was trying to get Lasik surgery because I have very poor vision, and they had told me I had to not wear contacts and keep my glasses, which of course I couldn't onstage. So I made the choice as an ignorant 20-year-old to not wear contacts or glasses, so actually I remember not really singing too much [Laughs] and I think it actually helped! Everything was slightly blurry, so it was like, "Oh, am I on the Met stage? [Laughs] I could be anywhere."
Next, Part 2: Mopping, not Moping
Photo credits: Piper Artist Management, Sunny Martini, Philip Newton