Sumi Jo first took the notoriously persnickety Italian opera world by storm two decades ago. Such was the hubbub over her performance as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in Trieste that the Korean singer, then in her 20s and barely out of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, caught the notice of the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. In his words, she possessed “a voice from heaven.” The maestro immediately cast her as his Oscar in his 1988 production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”
Since then, the lyric coloratura soprano, whose South Korean heritage remains very close to her heart, has been constantly in demand, bringing her silvery, feather-light, effortlessly agile voice to all the major opera houses around the world and bagging a “Best Opera Recording” Grammy in 1993.
Jo excels in the music of the late 18th century and the 19th century, from Rossini and early Verdi to Offenbach and Thomas, standing out in fiendishly difficult roles such as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” and the ultimate bel canto role of Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Tentative forays into other areas have been successful, most unexpectedly an album of Broadway songs, a common temptation for classical singers but one that rarely ends up as anything more than an embarrassing, little-heard hybrid of pop and classical. Jo’s “Only Love,” on the other hand, was a hit, topping the classical music charts and going on to sell 800,000 copies.
In conversation, Jo is soft-spoken, quick to laugh, and disarmingly frank about her extraordinary skills, even if the kind exterior hides a determination to succeed. The Japan Times caught up with her by telephone in advance of her Japan tour.
What was your first opera encounter?
My mother wanted to be an opera singer but unfortunately she was not able to do that. She told me that when she was pregnant she had already made up her mind that her child would be an opera singer. She listened to opera recordings for hours while she was pregnant, so maybe I can say my first opera experience was then.
You studied music first in South Korea, then moved to Italy.
I entered the very prestigious Seoul National University. I had a scholarship there. My first year at university was a disaster, because I fell in love. I didn’t spend much time studying music. But my family decided to send me either to America or Italy so I could continue my music study. Otherwise, I’d be married and my mother’s plans would have failed.
What was the move like?
Everything went really well. The thing that I liked the most was the complete freedom. I was alone with only two bags in a country with a completely different culture and language. At that point I really started studying — not only music, but life.
And a year after you graduated you were working with Herbert von Karajan. How did that come about?
I had already made my international debut with “Rigoletto” in Trieste, and I was so good (laughs) that all the newspapers were writing about me. And so one day I was cooking spaghetti in my apartment and the phone rang and it was the secretary of Maestro von Karajan. He told me that Maestro von Karajan was expecting me in Salzburg in two days.
What was your impression of him?
What I really admired about him was his power, his passion to live, his incredibly blue, shining eyes. He looked like nothing on this earth.
And he told you that you had “a voice from heaven.”
Yes, he told me that and I didn’t know what to say.
Was it always your intention to be a coloratura singer?
It’s the way it turned out. I studied as a mezzo soprano. No high notes then. When I went to Italy, my teacher there told me I should be a coloratura singer and I could do all these high notes. My teacher was a mezzo soprano and she wasn’t able to show me how to do the high notes, so I had to discover it all for myself. But I wanted to prove that I could do it, and after three months I could sing the Queen of the Night.
Which singers did you look up to?
I loved Maria Callas, her charisma, the way she presented herself. She was a prima donna. But I never loved the way she lived her life. Musically, my main influence was Joan Sutherland. She was my idol. I met her once. She was so natural, so happy. She has two kinds of life, professional and personal, and she keeps them separate. The problem is a lot of prima donnas bring their stage personalities into their personal lives. I do that sometimes. I’m a prima donna when I drive. On the road I want to be first.
What is the appeal of the bel canto repertoire for you?
The fascinating thing is that you can really play with your voice like an instrument, but at the same time you can portray psychology and emotion. It’s not only fireworks. I don’t think I belong in the category of coloratura who only have agility. I am definitely not that. I’m a lyric soprano, and I use coloratura only when necessary.
A lot of European and American critics have this image of Asian musicians as people who are technically perfect and are very cold. I don’t think I belong in this category. Some reviewers said I was cold. When I read that, I was so angry. I think I sing with a warm heart.
What other problems have you encountered as an Asian musician?
I had some problems at the beginning. Several directors didn’t want to work with me. They were not sure if I could interpret certain roles. Every time it happens, I try to understand, but I’m also a little disappointed. But this kind of thing has happened less than three times.
What are your favorite roles?
Heroines in Italian melodrama. Unfortunately they all die. I love mad scenes. You can show your musical technique, you can show your emotional range, you can show your skill as an actress, and after the long aria, there is a lot of applause, and then you can rest (because your character is dead).
What is the most difficult role?
Definitely the Queen of the Night. It’s very short and intense. I don’t enjoy that role. I suffer.
And your proudest moment?
I feel particularly happy when I sing for Koreans who live abroad. If you live far from your native country, like me, your heart is in your country. And when I see a Korean artist or a Korean athlete, I have tears in my ears. It’s not nationalistic. I just miss my country.
Sumi Jo performs works by Verdi, Handel, Vivaldi, Bellini, Dell’Acqua and Ahn Jung Jun, among others, at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, March 17 (6 p.m.), and at Grand Cube Osaka, March 21 (2 p.m.), accompanied by pianist Vincenzo Scalera. Tickets are 7,500 yen and 9,500 yen. For further information and to reserve tickets online, visit www.samonpromotion.com
See related story:
Meet Asia’s next generation of opera stars
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.