Fulfilling her mother's dreams

Sumi Jo will perform two outdoor concerts here, combining operatic skills with a flair for pop.

Sumi Jo 1 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Sumi Jo 1 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Sumi Jo's has a singing Yorkshire terrier, Cindy. The dog's favorite role is the Queen of the Night from Mozart's The Magic Flute, and "when I'm practicing she'll sing along, but never when I'm on stage," says her fond mistress. She adds: "She's very understanding and has perfect manners." And over the phone from her hilltop home just outside Rome, celebrated coloratura soprano Sumi Jo giggles delightfully. She'll sing with hunky Italian tenor Alessandro Safina at two outdoor concerts at Binyamina's Shuni Fortress on June 20 and the Amphipark in Ra'anana on June 21 in a program that will combine opera arias and duets with Broadway and pop hits. Actually, Sumi Jo's first visit was in 1991, and she sang - yes - the Queen of the Night in a local production of Flute under the baton of Zubin Mehta. She came then with her mother, "and we toured everywhere," but this time mama will stay home in Seoul, South Korea where Sumi Jo was born in 1962. She is the eldest of three siblings, and one of her two brothers is now her agent. These days, she acknowledges that it was all worth it, but as a kid she didn't have it easy. There was no time to play with dolls or run outside with other little girls. Her mother had dreamed of a career as a singer, but war-torn Korea in the Fifties couldn't nurture such dreams. Mrs. Soo saw their fulfillment in her musically gifted daughter and ruthlessly kept her fingers on the piano keys, so much so that Sumi Jo (it's a stage name) has said that she tried to run away from home three or four times. She studied music, voice and piano from 1981-83 at Seoul National University. In '83, she made her opera debut as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro at Seoul Opera and decided to study at the famous National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. She graduated from there with honors in 1985, started winning competitions between concerts or broadcasts on Italian radio, and in 1988 got her major break. The late Herbert von Karajan called her to audition for him in Salzburg. Knees buckling from awe, she sang her heart out and he was impressed. It didn't hurt that she was - and remains - gorgeous. He cast her in his video, Karajan in Salzburg, then in A Masked Ball the following year. She also recorded that opera under his baton, the first of some 50 albums. She won a Grammy in 1993 for the recording of R. Strauss's Woman without a Shadow under Sir Georg Solti. The 1990s opened doors, and Sumi Jo was in demand for all of the great coloratura roles in all the great houses, including the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala Milan. She has sung the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor, played Gilda in Rigoletto and Olympia in Tales of Hoffman, among the rest - not forgetting the ferociously difficult Queen of the Night which she has sung more than 100 times. THEN IT was time for a new challenge, and like Kiri te Kanawa, Placido Domingo and other opera legends, Sumi Jo went crossover. Her first album in 2000, Only Love, sold close to a million copies worldwide, and was followed by The Christmas Album and Prayers in '01. Opera and pop require very different vocal approaches. "Some singers, like [Jose] Carreras and Domingo, used an opera voice and color for pop," she says. "I don't. You don't need to produce a big voice for pop because you have a microphone. But I bring the same intensity to both. "Classical music requires you to sing with the whole body to make that vibrant sound. In opera you're acting and you [have time to] build the emotional content more slowly. In pop, you're not creating a character but singing a song, and you have to put everything [you have] into those three or four minutes." Sumi Jo and Safina met in Korea last year when she invited him to sing in a Bernstein tribute. "He sings well and he looks good," she recalls, "especially for all those lovely West Side Story duets." The two became friends, and Safina reciprocated her invitation for the Israel tour. Crossover aside, Sumi Jo still has an extensive classical schedule. These days she's into recitals more than opera "because I enjoy the comfort of not having to struggle with others on stage," but when a new role beckons, she answers. She did her first Violetta (Traviata) in Toulon last year, and will do Frances in Auber's Fra Diavolo at the Opera Comique in Paris next year, to name just two events on her well-filled schedule. Is Cindy is coming with her to Israel? Of course.