Even before you arrive at the Ferragosto Italian Street Festival you begin to see its positive impact on people and community. Colorful green, white...
“Singing Tchaikovsky in Russia feels something like getting to record a session with Paul McCartney in Abbey Road Studios, or playing Aida at La Scala” admits rising opera soprano Marina Costa-Jackson. “It feels like history in the making.”
Marina sings the role of Liza in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades). She offers Liza’s heart-rending aria "I am worn out by grief" (Akh! istomilas ya goryem) as one of the concert pieces. “I couldn’t believe the cheers and warm response of the audience,” Marina said in a Skype call home to Utah from her hotel in Volgograd.
She and sister, Ginger, beside her in the video chat, jest about who got the most applause as the pair appeared together in a cultural exchange concert sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera, the U.S. State Department, and the Russian government. The concert was the first in a series beginning in the Tzaritsyn Opera, Volgograd, and moving to the Bolshoi in Moscow, where the singers will perform for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The tour ends in the Throne Hall of the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg.
Both singers are in their mid-twenties, but retain the playfulness nurtured by the warm Sicilian soil of their childhood. From infancy, the children of Walt Jackson and Emilia Costa frequently traveled with their parents from Salt Lake City, Utah (Walt’s home town) to Palermo (Emilia’s ancestral abode). Italian is the children’s mother tongue, which made kindergarten in the U.S. interesting, but served the singers well in the opera world.
Ginger is a seven-year veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a young artist, and features frequently in its Live in HD broadcasts to theaters worldwide. While Ginger has appeared in opera houses from New York to San Francisco, and from Switzerland to Spain, Russia is the farthest she’s been from home to-date. Her voice, luminous gold-green eyes, and exotic looks make her “the world’s gypsy-of-choice” as Carmen (Opera Today). Ginger lives with her newly wed husband, Spencer Burk, in Rochester, New York.
No less desirable, Marina earned a place at Philadelphia’s prestigious opera school, the Academy of Vocal Arts, in 2012. She lives in Pennsylvania with her Sicilian husband, Davide Biondo, while she completes her four years of study.
But wait! There is another Costa-Jackson. The third, and youngest sister, Miriam, has taken time off from singing to start a family. She and her husband, Michael Swan, have produced a would-be tenor (or baritone) named for the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Jude has already made his stage debut (Miriam sang Gershwin’s “Summertime” to the infant in a 2014 Utah concert). Jude, at 3-months-old, appears in a YouTube sing-along with his mother (watch out Justin Bieber)!
Public acclaim always seems to follow the Costa-Jacksons. Each recognized for her unique beauty and talent, the sisters laugh about a family memory: “Marina always got noticed at the Capo (Palermo’s open-air market)” Emilia relates. “Men would call out: ‘I meravighi dû mari!’ to her. (‘How beautiful the things from the sea!’) They enticed her to come close and taste fresh shrimp for free. We learned it was advantageous to send Marina to buy bread or gelato. The store owners always loaded her up with extra helpings, just because!”
Life doesn’t always give handouts. “Our dream,” relates Ginger, “would be for the three of us sisters to appear together professionally in something like Mozart’s Così fan tutte” (Dorabella, Fiordiligi, and Despina). “Or, maybe we’ll start a Utah-based, family opera company, or sing together for a record label.”
The Costa-Jacksons began acting on their dreams the year Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Miriam, age 10, had caught the opera bug, and begged for lessons. She soon outgrew the tutelage of her first teacher—a member of their church. Then, the Costa-Jacksons asked Mormon Tabernacle Choir soprano, JoAnne Ottley for help. She guided the family to one she called “the Mother Superior of voice teachers in Utah,” Betty Jeanne Chipman. By 2003, the Utah Italian Community held a fundraiser to help the family send the girls to Italy to continue their vocal training.
That is, Ginger and Miriam trained. Marina, “being a middle child,” just wanted to dance. She took ballet lessons in Palermo, while her sisters studied with Maria Argento Rancatore, the mother and teacher of renowned soprano, Desirée Rancatore.
It wasn’t until three years later that Marina found her desire to sing. “I watched the way our family in Italy reacted to Ginger and Miriam singing, and really wanted to move people like that with my voice.”
In 2004, the General Director of the Utah Festival Opera, Dr. Michael Ballam, invited Ginger and Miriam to become the youngest opera singers the company has hired. Marina accepted a non-singing role. Ballam’s connection with Utah State University also lead to Miriam, and finally Marina, earning scholarships to study voice at that institution.
Ginger was the first to break into professional opera. Her nonnini and aunt in Palermo had scraped together an inheritance for Emilia, which became the seed money for Ginger to make a tour of international singing competitions in Italy. Ginger relates, “It was after a competition in Rome, in which I didn’t place, that Lenore Rosenberg of the Met’s Young Artist Program, invited me to audition for James Levine at the Met in New York.” The maestro and Rosenberg afterward invited the 19-year-old to enter the program.
Marina is also realizing great success. This year the Giulio Gari Foundation announced Marina Costa-Jackson as the first place award winner of its vocal competition.
The Costa-Jackson singing tour of Russia is under the batons of famed opera directors John Fisher (La Scala, Welsh National Opera), and Constantine Oberlin (Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia of Russia). The singers appear with other Metropolitan Opera artists and Russian singers, giving master classes and concerts. The Russian contingent talks about having the three sisters returning to do Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier—the Costa-Jackson dream come true?