Q+A with soprano Sumi Jo

Text Stephen Fox

Vocal vibrations will soar to highest heights at the Blaisdell this weekend, and again at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on Tuesday, when coloratura soprano Sumi Jo appears with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra (HSO) for the start of a rare inter-island symphonic series.

A native of Korea, Jo quickly made a name for herself in the operatic world after leaving her homeland to study in Italy. At age 23, she began a conquest of the top Italian opera competitions, leading to a professional debut the following year that landed her the attention of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, of the Berlin Philharmonic. He cast her in Un ballo in maschera opposite Plácido Domingo, and soon she was performing with the likes of the Vienna State Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and virtually every top opera company in the world.

Jo spoke with Summit from Honolulu, where she is preparing for her HSO concerts, beginning with her childhood, when she first studied classical music at the behest of her mother.

Sumi Jo [SJ]: When my mother was a young lady, she always wanted to be an opera singer, but her dream could not come true because there was the Korean War, and it was an impossible situation. So she always wanted to have a daughter and for this daughter to become a singer. And she succeeded.

Summit [S]: Did you ever feel pushed?

SJ: A lot [laughs]! My mother was inspired by the mother of Maria Callas, and my childhood was very much like hers. All the passion and love for music [my mother] had poured toward me. So I had to play eight hours a day, and if I don’t finish, she didn’t open the door of my room. She was quite strong.

S: I have always had the impression Korean women are very strong.

SJ: Yeah, we can say that [laughs]. Thanks to these strong Korean women who believe in what they are doing, now Korea is very developed and has become one of the strongest countries in the world.

S: Your parents sent you to study in Italy, which was a remarkable journey for a 19-year-old Korean girl. What was it like?

SJ: It was a trauma for sure. Then, there was no Internet and no facilities to communicate, so I felt very lonely. I had to learn a new way to live alone, and I had to learn the language, and I suffered quite badly. But I wanted to be strong and compare with other singers, so I worked hard, and I was very lucky to meet great teachers and nice people. So let’s say it went very well!

S: You have recorded and performed a number of Korean songs. What is your relationship with traditional Korean music?

SJ: My parents raised me listening to classical music. But after I went to Italy, when I could, I would find Korean music, and started listening to pansori and folk songs, and when I heard traditional instruments like gayageum I would start to cry. So I realized that those sounds move me deeply. I could really feel that kind of music belonged to me. If you are a musician, you feel it and you understand so deeply.

S: I love the sounds of gayageum and ajaeng.

SJ: I play gayageum! I learned for three years. My mother taught me. When I was a child, I played gayageum and piano and guitar, and I did Korean traditional dance and classical ballet. And I did drawing. I was a busy kid [laughs].

S: May I ask how the rehearsals are going for the concert?

SJ: The rehearsal went very well. They played with great accuracy, and they know how to accompany a singer, so I had not even one difficulty. I think it’s going to be a beautiful concert. We have songs that can show the fireworks of voice, yet somehow it’s very light and colorful, so people are going to enjoy it very much.

S: How did you choose the program?

SJ: I have a wide repertoire, and I select it for where I am going. Every country and city has different taste and different way of listening to music. For Hawai‘i, I chose opera and operetta that people will really enjoy. It’s like a voyage to Europe, because Hawai‘i is so far from there. I wanted to create an atmosphere of Paris, like Paris is coming to you, Vienna is coming to you. So it’s magical. We can go together and be there together with music.

S: Funding for music has shrunk, especially in schools. Why would you say that music is important?

SJ: Music has a power to make everything shine. Our lives are full of struggle and pain and every day we have to face difficulties, and it’s not so easy to survive. But somehow the good music—not necessarily classical, but good music—will give you a light and give you a sense of your life, and show you the beauty of our existence. So if you teach a child to listen to good music, they will grow into an adult who can face life with more appreciation of the beauty of life. Unfortunately, in Europe too, they have cut the funding for music. It’s a disaster; economic crisis is everywhere, so we have to be patient.

S: Do you get some time to enjoy Hawai‘i after your shows?

SJ: I performed here in 2008, I think? It is going to be so exciting to perform on Maui; I have never performed there. I have spent time here as a tourist, but this time I fly from Honolulu the day of the Maui performance, and right after the performance I fly back, because the next day I fly to Europe. That’s the singer’s life; the next engagement is waiting!

The show features an arduous number and range of songs, including Delibes’ “Flower Duet,” which is one of the loveliest songs in the opera repertoire. Honolulu mezzo soprano Maya Hoover will join Jo for the Delibes and for Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” from The Tales of Hoffman.

The show is part of a series that includes neighbor island performances during the symphony’s season. This is an exceptional chance for the people of our islands to hear unparalleled, first-rate classical music. As Jo says, music is a way to bring light into our lives, at least good music is. And this is incredibly good music.

Sumi Jo with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave., Honolulu
Sat., Oct.24, 7:30pm & Sun., Oct. 25, 4pm
$34–92, all ages

Maui Arts & Cultural Center, One Cameron Way, Kahului
Tues., Oct. 27, 7pm
$34–82, all ages

Purchase tickets to all three


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