Favorite Things | Bel canto

Find out what opera singer Sumi Jo listens to when she wants to relax.


INTERVIEW  SAM L. MARCELO

For 30 years, South Korean lyric coloratura Sumi Jo has been enchanting audiences around the world with a voice that belies her tiny frame. The Grammy Award winner, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan, returns to the Philippines this February for a one-night tribute concert to Maria Callas at Meralco Theater.

Sumi Jo
Sumi Jo

“Callas is the diva who focused me,” said Ms. Jo in an e-mail interview with High Life. “It may sound awkward but her tragic life as an opera singer captured my imagination.” Like Callas, Ms. Jo is known for portraying the titular character in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the unhinged bride who stabs her husband to death and wanders the stage in a bloodstained nightgown. Lucia’s mad scene features “Il dolce suono,” an aria that unleashes the full force of a soprano’s vocal prowess. Described as “both fiendishly difficult and meltingly beautiful,” the aria is one of Ms. Jo’s signature pieces along with “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and “Adele’s Laughing Song” from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

Praised as the “voice from above” by Maestro Herbert von Karajan, Ms. Jo recently crossed over into K-pop territory, collaborating with the lead singer of a Korean boy band. Music is music for Ms. Jo, who enjoys listening to Debussy as much as she does Beyoncé.

Do you still have to deal with butterflies in your stomach prior to performing?

I get nervous just before I get on stage, regardless of the type of performance. It’s gotten easier with more experience. During my early years, it was about maintaining my emotions, keeping my mind as calm as possible, and trying not to forget my lines. Now, I think more about the audience’s happiness.

You had to give up a ‘normal’ life to pursue a career in opera. Regrets?

My passion for music — specifically singing — has allowed me to come this far. Long flight hours and fatigue have never been problems for me at all. That’s all just pre-preparation for my singing on stage. Sharing a moment with the audience is such an extraordinary and irresistible experience.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in classical music?

Many of my friends joke about how difficult it is to become a singer. It’s quite true, I think. But I’d rather choose a life in which I can pursue what I love rather than work for something else. This is basic advice: If you decide to do it, give it your best.

Why is classical music beautiful?

Defining ‘beautiful’ is so difficult. Simply put, ‘beautiful’ makes me experience extraordinary emotions. Things that are considered to be beautiful cease to be so when they no longer provoke feelings. ‘Beautiful’ does not come easily.

Sometimes, it requires such painful effort. Classical music contains such a rare aspect of ‘beautiful,’ made a long time ago by genius composers and musicians who expressed the extraordinary feelings and emotions of their time. Once you understand that, you become part of classical music and truly feel its beauty. It’s never too late to appreciate classical music. Start today.

What do you listen to when you’re not performing?

Like most people, I choose songs based on my mood. I like various genres: jazz, smooth songs — I do not mind famous pop stars such as Beyoncé either. For classical pieces, I listen to Debussy during nights. K-pop sometimes refreshes me, too. In short, uncomplicated music seems to be what I listen to when I have time to relax.

You’ve performed in the Philippines before. How do we compare with audiences around the world?

Filipinos are quite good singers. Koreans love mostly vocal music and are very good at it, like you. The Japanese, on the other hand, lean toward instrumental music. Korean audiences are difficult for me since we share the same consciousness, the same philosophy, and the same mother tongue. Mentally, I have to be prepared to sing for Korean audiences. Italian and French audiences are also challenging. People in both countries love arts and music, and they all appreciate someone singing for them.

But beyond that, you have to face their judgement about various aspects of what you sing — technique, musicianship, manner, and language ability, among other things. That’s what you have to prepare for, mentally and physically.

Who is on your wish list of musical collaborators?

There are many talented musicians in the world. Some, I have already worked with multiple times. And some who are new to me. Regardless of who I work with, the music we make will help people experience joy.

There is political unrest in South Korea right now, and around the world. In your opinion, what is the role of an artist such as yourself — and art, in general — during times like this?

I do not know much about politics but I do know that the world is not at peace. I also know that artists are global citizens with a responsibility to make this world a happier place. I will do my best to make it better, as much as I can.