Since debuting in Trieste, Italy, in 1986, Sumi Jo has become one of the most sought-after sopranos of her generation, performing in nearly all the major halls and conquering seemingly impossible vocal heights with graceful ease.
Last year, the 49-year-old celebrated 25 years of singing, and she is looking forward to another 25 _ “obviously not always on the stage but in other ways that I can share and give,” says Jo over the phone while on tour in Sydney.
A UNESCO-designated “Artist for Peace,” Jo will be visiting North Korea in May with a group of Korean-American doctors to provide free vaccinations for children. “In the past, I had about three chances to visit North Korea but they all fell through. I wanted to make the visit not as a musician but as a humanitarian. I really want to help children,” she says.
After her visit was confirmed, Jo received an invitation to perform with the local orchestra. “I said yes, as long as it’s a charity concert. The wonderful thing about music is that it can not only give joy to listeners but also be used for a good cause.”
A Grammy Award winner with more than 50 albums to her credit, Jo also hopes to use her fame to raise awareness about animal protection in her home country. “I’ve always been interested in animal protection ever since I was young,” says the Seoul native, who is herself the owner of three dogs.
“I believe it’s important to care for not only our beloved pets but all living creatures, to allow them to live without being abused.” Jo is currently raising funds to open an education center where people can learn about respecting animals and adopt stray cats and dogs.
Another educational initiative she hopes to pursue is naturally through music. “I want to continue giving more master classes for youths. And if I find talented young singers then I’d like to support them, to help them debut without going through the hardships that I had to endure.”
Looking back at her 25 years, there were many trying moments. Winning the approval and support of classical music greats like the late maestro Herbert von Karajan did not protect her from racial discrimination. “Europe [in the 1980s] was very conservative, and it was nothing short of a miracle for an Asian to play a lead opera role,” she says.
However, she was able to persevere with an iron will. “First of all, I knew myself very well, and knew what I wanted. Everything I’ve accomplished was planned in advance and I followed through with it; it didn’t happen overnight. I am constantly pushing myself to move forward.”
Self-discipline, she says, keeps her going. “Every moment is challenging in a way. I feel responsible to live up to the name ‘Sumi Jo’ _ I can’t indulge in alcohol or fatigue my voice with long conversations, or stay up late or get sick.”
She does, however, always take time for introspection. “I am in constant dialogue with myself.” She thus encourages aspiring singers to find inner peace. “You need to find happiness, leisure and wisdom in order to deliver songs from deep within yourself. Being able to move people’s hearts is the greatest weapon, and no cold-hearted person can touch others.”
Jo has built an extensive career sharing music with audiences. She has interpreted the hallmarks of the bel canto _ and even recently Baroque _ repertoire, but has also reached out to non-classical music fans by singing Korean traditional songs as well as scores for TV dramas such as HBO’s Mildred Pierce. The singer even made a surprise appearance on the talent show Operastar Korea last May.
“I feel it’s important to connect to people outside opera houses. I really enjoy communicating with the younger generation, rather than waiting around in the opera house,” she says. She keeps in touch with fans through social media, and operates her Twitter, Facebook and Cyworld accounts herself.
“It’s one of the few things that I can continue to do wherever I go,” she says. Even at the time of the interview, she was battling jetlag from tours in the UK and Mexico. After performing in New Zealand, the artist will be on the road again for a charity event in Qatar. “I believe it’s my mission to sing wherever I am needed _ to reach out to youths and interact with the public. Music-making itself is a great joy and blessing.”
* Article from Korea Magazine