Interview: Sumi Jo

The renowned Korean colouratura soprano on life, music and the future

Singers come and singers go, but even as a student, Korean colouratura soprano Sumi Jo proved herself indispensable to the vocal arts. When Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia faculty found themselves holding auditions without a pianist, Jo stepped in and accompanied all 50 hopefuls including herself – earning a perfect score. ‘It was bewildering, but I wanted to focus on this [as] an experience of music, rather than a strict audition, and that helped me deal with unexpected problems throughout my career,’ she says. ‘It’s more fun to go with whatever happens.’Her mother, on the other hand, had a plan. 

The Japanese occupation and Korean War crushed her own dreams of vocal stardom and she was determined her daughter would have what she lost. She played Joan Sutherland records throughout her pregnancy and fixed Jo’s destiny. But although Jo has spoken of her childhood ‘lost’ to eight hours of daily piano and vocal study, today she sees positives. ‘It did pressure me, but it saved me time I might have spent finding what I might want to do with my life,’ she says. ‘I spent my young years honing my talent. If I hadn’t had any musical talent and my mother’s dream did not align with my interests, it wouldn’t have worked out, but luckily it did.’ However, she cautions other stage parents, explaining that music learned young is heavy on technique and light on understanding. ‘Emotions and feelings can never be replaced if children pass those years without them,’ she says. ‘Let children enjoy joyful moments when they are young.’ 

Jo knows all about rapid maturity. At 20 she left Seoul National University’s music programme to study in Rome; speaking neither Italian nor English, she found life abroad overwhelming. ‘I was in no way ready to live in a foreign country, I had no mother around to help me with food, finances, driving,’ she says. ‘If I got sick, I would have to be sick, recover, and do all of my work alone. I failed [my] driving test three times,’ she recalls. ‘On the other hand, it was incredible to see the world of music I had always dreamed of, and I was excited to work on my art. All my experiences were fresh and vivid.’Few experiences come brighter than being known as Herbert von Karajan’s ‘last soprano’. 

Often seen as tyrannical, the legendary conductor showed Jo a softer side. ‘I liked his childlike spirit under his incredible charisma,’ she says. ‘He and I were like a playful grandfather and granddaughter.’ Von Karajan cast her as Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Salzburg Festival, but died shortly before her debut, and being his last vocal discovery propelled her onto the international stage.Jo’s stunning lyricism and vocal flexibility defied imagination, and she rapidly proved her worth. Her record Carnaval! (Decca, 1995) is a collection of French operetta arias that required such technical prowess many believed (falsely) the recording had been artificially enhanced. 

And although her light, colouratura voice is well suited to comic roles, her incredible range easily folds in Verdi and Puccini. But her signature character is The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In Act II, the diabolical royal sings a fiendishly difficult aria with a two-octave range and a series of stratospheric Fs that Jo handles with an eerie ease. ‘It’s extremely challenging, obviously,’ she says. ‘But its duality – strength and darkness on one hand, but sadness and caring as a mother on the other – is universal.’To Jo, music is too. Her voice is featured in the 2010 film Eat, Pray Love, the HBO drama Mildred Pierce (2011) and in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), and she is particularly proud of her crossover record Only Love. ‘I think it helped audiences that weren’t familiar with classical music extend their appreciation of music,’ she says. 

A UNESCO Artist for Peace, Jo also works with animal and human rights organisations. ‘Music crosses all borders and is a wonderful vehicle for communication,’ she says. ‘As a musician, I want to try to make a better world and society. ’Even her Shanghai concert is for someone else, entitled Mad for Love: Sumi Jo’s Tribute to Joan Sutherland, whom she first met in utero through her mother’s records, and later through Sutherland’s conductor husband Richard Bonynge, with whom Jo regularly collaborated. 

The connection was intense, particularly for her mother, who ‘appreciated all the suggestions Maestra Sutherland provided me, which she anticipated would help me throughout my whole career,’ she says. Jo dedicates this love-themed aria selection to Sutherland and to all lovers on Valentine’s Day. Her favourite? ‘I love singing “Vocalise”, by Rachmaninov,’ she says. ‘I feel like I am dreaming...’ Here’s to the dreamer in all of us. 

Mad For Love: Sumi Jo’s Tribute to Joan Sutherland is at the Shanghai Concert Hall on Friday 14 February.