Sumi Jo still challenging herself after 25 years
By Lee Hyo-won
In 1986 a small-framed Asian woman took the world by surprise as Gilda in Trieste, and within five years she had played parts a soprano could only dream about on the most prestigious stages — the Salzburg Festival, La Scala, New York Met, Vienna State Opera and Royal Opera.
After a quarter-century of captivating audiences with flighty coloratura, Sumi Jo continues to challenge her voice anew. For the 25th anniversary of her debut the lyric artist will showcase Baroque music, meaning she will have to drastically tame the agile vocal runs and leaps she is famous for.
“I am so nervous. I never sang Baroque live in Korea before,” Jo said over the phone, Monday, while packing at her Italy home. She will be visiting other countries before giving homecoming concerts in Seoul and Gyeongsang Provinces in May.
“My voice is high-pitched and marked by fancy technique, but Baroque music requires a more refined and restrained treatment,” she said.
But perhaps she should revel in pleasant anticipation than worry; in 2006, Jo released a recording of period pieces, “Journey to Baroque” (Warner Classics), opposite the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra.
“Here is one of the most delightful singers of our time... There is a delicious coolness about the Korean soprano’s singing,” Gramophone Magazine said about the recording.
The upcoming concerts will showcase tracks from the recording such as Vivaldi, accompanied by another top ensemble, the Academy of Ancient Music.
Richard Egarr will conduct the group, which has been praised as “the most venerable period band in Britain” (The Independent).
“I am very excited to tour with the Academy of Ancient Music, which is a world-class ensemble. While studying the period, I was struck how Vivaldi is truly an absolutist when it comes to capturing his era.
“But his pieces, such as ‘Nulla in Mundo pax sincera’ (In This World There Is No Honest Peace), really speak to us today — think of the situation in Libya, for example. It really inspires me to turn back to my own life,” said the soprano.
It’s difficult to believe, she says, that she’s been onstage for 25 years.
“I really can’t believe it at all. It feels like just yesterday that I boarded a plane with only a couple of bags. Time flew by so quickly. I kept a daily journal and I really did lead a crazy life, flying from city to city.”
The globetrotting continues for the singer, who will be making stops in Toronto and Moscow before coming to Korea.
“I was lucky — I met Karajan. But it was still difficult, being an Asian woman.”
It’s become something of a myth how Maestro Karajan fell in love with Jo’s voice, calling it “blessed by heaven.” She collaborated with the late conductor in his last ever opera recording.
But support from one of the era’s most respected musicians, she said, did not protect her from racial discrimination and other hardships. Jo explained that she shied away from fully revealing this in her autobiography, “I Lived for Art, I Lived for Love.”
“Europe was at the time very conservative, and it was nothing short of a miracle for an Asian to play a lead opera role. I’d really like to write about it now, like a confession. Perhaps I can take some time off this summer to work on my writing,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Grammy Award-winning singer has been taking part in pop projects. In addition to making a special appearance in the hallyu-fueled TV series “Dream High,” Jo featured on the soundtrack for the U.S. miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Rachel Evan Wood. She sang the drama’s theme song while four other pieces, including Jo’s signature Queen of the Night aria, appeared in the episodes.
“I didn’t get to see Kate Winslet. I missed the New York premiere because I was performing in concert, as usual. But it is such a fun, exciting project,” said Jo.
The HBO series will air on Korean cable channel Cinef beginning in June.
Jo and the Academy of Ancient Music will perform at the Seoul Arts Center, Seocho-dong on May 6 and 7. She will continue the tour at the RAUM, Yeoksam-dong, on May 9 and at the Gyungnam Culture & Arts Center, South Gyeongsang Province, on May 10.
Tickets cost from 50,000 to 250,000 won. Call 1577-5266 for more information.