Hubert Burda Media

Fathom of the Opera

From a strict musical upbringing, to her dynamic personality, opera singer Sumi Jo shows Lydianne Yap why her star shines bright, despite being an Asian in a scene dominated by Europeans.

Last September, at the open-air La Fantasia concert in Seoul, highly acclaimed Korean soprano Sumi Jo did something very unconventional for an opera singer of her stature: She invited Yang Yoseob, lead vocalist of popular Korean boy band Beast, to share the stage with her.
Not everyone thought this was a good idea — especially Jo’s most ardent fans. Widely known for her interpretations of the bel canto repertoire, it was understandable why they had reservations towards her bold decision.
Held at Seoul’s Olympic Park outdoor stage over the course of two days, the performance drew an audience of over 20,000 — many of whom were fans of the suave Yang. The pair sang a duet, titled “Person, Love”, a beautiful song about precious and unchanging love.
“17-year-old girls — all the teenagers — came to the concert,” shares the 51-year-old songstress, in Korean-accented English. “And an amazing thing happened after,” she says with a laugh. “I got huge compliments like ‘Wow Ms Jo, I’ve never heard classical music in my life but that was so amazing. I think next time I’ll go for a classical concert!’” Clearly, Jo succeeded in her attempt to bridge the gap between what is traditionally seen as vastly different genres in the music scene, ie classical opera and pop. “I seduced them,” murmurs Jo, gesturing suggestively with a coy smile playing at her lips. “It worked perfectly. They went crazy.”
Aware that opera has long taken on the image of being tailored for distinguished, older audiences, the prima donna endeavours to make her music more relatable and accessible to people, especially the younger set. In order to do this, Jo changes her repertoire frequently to suit the crowd and tries to collaborate with other artistes whenever the opportunity arises. “I have to let people know that I can easily sing songs that [they] are used to — but in a different way,” she explains.
She goes on to point out that in this day and age, relying solely on talent and technique is no longer enough to sustain the attention of faithless audiences. A singer needs to have charisma, be cognisant of her fans’ preferences and entertain them onstage as well.
“It’s not enough to just be a good performer,” remarks the leading lady. “So I try to be an artist; a complete artist,” she adds with a flourish. With her expressive and emotive personality, it is not difficult to see why the petite songbird is one of her generation’s most sought-after sopranos with numerous awards and accolades under her belt. Listening to her speak is an experience in itself. Jo’s entire body engages in the conversation as she punctuates statements with dramatic actions and wild gestures.
The entertainer, who compares her vocal range to that of Mariah Carey, goes on to acknowledge that there is plenty of Asian talent out there, but it’s not easy for them to make it on the international stage without the right help. So approximately five years ago, Jo started conducting master classes to help groom gifted individuals. To date, the master classes have been held in countries, including Japan, China and the Philippines. “Sometimes I do it free of charge, sometimes not,” reveals the Rome-based soloist. “I not only teach them technical and musical lessons; I give them hope and inspiration.”
Refreshingly candid about her journey of self-awareness over the years, the world-famous coloratura divulges she never used to be so selfless. Up until a few years ago, the operatic luminary worked hard solely for the furtherance of her personal glory. “I wanted to be remembered as the most successful Asian opera singer in music history,” she admits. “But at a certain point, you understand you need to give back what you received,” notes Jo, by way of explaining her involvement in the master classes.
Surprisingly, the bona fide performer’s road to fame and success was not an easy one. Having grown up in the shadow of her mother’s unfulfilled dreams of being an opera singer, Jo was groomed for the stage from the tender age of four. “She was not happy about her life and she used to say: ‘You know, Sumi, when you are a grown-up, you are not going to only belong to a man; just married with kids. It’s not a good life for you,’” she says, relating her mother’s daily mantra.
“‘You will be one of the most important opera singers. You will travel all over the world. You will lead a completely different life from mine.’ It was like that three, four times every day.”
Needless to say, her learning schedule was punishing. Jo attended English, Mathematics, drawing, classical ballet, piano and Korean traditional instrument classes. She recalls how her mother used to lock her in the room if she failed to practise the piano eight hours a day. “It was too much,” she reminisces, a hint of weariness creeping into her voice.
It got to a point where the young Jo ran away from home twice — once when she was nine and again when she was 11. “It has not been easy to understand why she pushed me so much, desperately,” she reflects. “But it was good. In the end, I’m very happy about my life and completely satisfied.”
Till today, her mother is still her harshest critic. Jo shares of an incident where her mother lamented that the final high note of one of her performances was weak. She went on to question Jo about what she ate before going onstage. “Two bananas,” replied Jo. “And my mother was right. It wasn’t enough. I was hungry.” The artist follows a strict diet in order to preserve her voice. A pescatarian, she avoids meat and foods that are too cold, hot or spicy. But her weakness, she confesses, is kimchi. “I love kimchi. When I see it, I just faint. The smell…” she sighs dramatically, mimicking a fainting spell.
Despite that, she manages to stay disciplined by reminding herself that her body is her instrument. That is not to say, however, that the star would not have it any other way. “In my next life, I definitely do not want to be a singer,” she declares. “I want to drink. I want to smoke. I want to eat chocolate as much as I can.”