Ginger Costa-Jackson is opera’s latest, sexiest Carmen

A smoldering Ginger Costa-Jackson plays Carmen. Photo by Sunny Martini for Seattle Opera.

A word to begin about a word that has fallen into disfavor: “Gypsy.” It once referred to a group of itinerant Roma and Sinti people who most likely migrated centuries ago from the Indian subcontinent into eastern Europe; the term is currently considered an ethnic slur. Still, the concept of a “gypsy” (a wily character of uncertain ethnicity, occult talents and loose morals, shall we say) was well-understood by 19th century Parisian audiences, and so Carmen (originally a novella by Prosper Mérimée) became the central figure in Bizet’s opera. The current production at Seattle Opera favors “Bohemian,” which I consider a cop-out.

Rather a flop in its original form, Carmen was revised to great acclaim but Bizet, alas, died before the new and improved verion could make its debut. Today, almost 150 years after its première, Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory, no doubt due to the sexiness of its title character.

She knows exactly what she’s doing, this fiery seductress, as she works her wiles on the straight-laced soldier Don Jose in Act One. (Debut performance last night; runs through May 19th.) When it comes to l’amour, that rebellious bird, her song warns,“Prends-garde à toi!” “Ya better watch out.” After a private serenade, he’s putty in her hands, though he does turn jealous and violent at the final curtain.

Carmen is being performed at Seattle Opera by Ginger Costa-Jackson, a fiercely talented mezzo who sang at McCaw Hall last season alongside her sister, Marina, in Così Fan Tutte. The two singers will be joined by a third sibling, Miriam, also an opera singer, in November (“The Three Singing Sisters”), and Ginger returns, solo, in La Cenerentola (performed as “Cinderella”) in October and then, in May of 2020, she sings Musetta in La Bohème.

How did this happen to come about, one might wonder: three gifted singers raised in Palermo (the capital city of Sicily)? Their parents were both singers, though not professionals; they were barely teenagers when they moved to Salt Lake City and Ginger, a straight-A student, contemplated a career in academia. But then, but then. Miriam became seriously interested in opera and the family returned briefly to Sicily so she could continue her voice studies at the music conservatory in Palermo.

Then all three girls entered and won a series of singing competitions, and, 12 years ago, it was Ginger who received an invitation to join the Young Artists Program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Carmen was the role she was born to sing, it seems; she’s performed it a dozen times in houses all over the world.

Seattle Opera loves spectacle; Seattle audiences do, too. Maestro Giacomo Sagipanti provides a vigorous baton, and stage director Paul Curran has filled the stage with scores of villagers, soldiers, cigar-factory workers, street urchins, smugglers, and, yes, “gypsies.”

But was Ginger Costa-Jackson’s hip-swivelling, skirt-hiking, dusky-voiced seduction of the hapless Don Jose who won the night. No slur intended.

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