Sumi Jo who charms offstage performs tonight onstage

SUNDRY STROKES - The Philippine Star

At a press conference organized by CCP’s Irene Rada, Asia’s leading diva Sumi Jo revealed herself as a charming, surprisingly unassuming, modest woman. Her concert tonight at Bonifacio Global City — the first on her Asian tour — will benefit disaster victims: “Music can cure, can heal broken hearts,” she said.

Asked why she has such a powerful voice despite her tiny frame, she replied that power has nothing to do with size; it has to do with training and technique. “I perform with my whole body,” she declared. In jest, she added: “I have two dogs — a German Shepherd and a Yorkie; the bark of each is different from that of the other.”

What does she expect of her assisting artist, pianist Najib Ismail? With an impish smile, she said: “He has first to leave the room” to which Najib replied, “I am shaking,” then she added in earnest, “He is not my accompanist. Together, we create and share experiences. I like a unity of feeling.”

How does Sumi Jo relax? Like  everyone. She goes to market, cooks, watches TV, plays with her dogs. “But my mind never stops thinking,” she concluded. She thrives on challenges, works very hard and is totally honest with herself.

She has had travails and continues to have them. When she enrolled at the Accademia di Sta. Cecilia in Italy in 1983 — finishing the five-year course in two years — she was “far from her friends and family, and was one of very few Asians in Italy at that time.”

“I didn’t know any Italian but had to deal with people. I didn’t know how to cook then but had to. The first year I changed rooms seven times! A puppy I found on the street became my only companion. I was completely alone but it gave me a lot of joy.”

Sumi Jo was destined to be an opera singer even before she was born. Her mother had dreamed of being a singer herself but a political upheaval thwarted her ambition. So she surmised that if she had a baby girl, she would want to make her an opera singer. Thus, Sumi Jo says: “My destiny was already decided by my mother.”

Only three years after her studies at the Academia, she made her debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. In 1988, when Conductor Herbert von Karajan was holding auditions for Un ballo in maschera, he discovered Sumi Jo and declared: “You’ve got a voice from above. This is the voice I can hear once in almost a hundred years.” Forthwith, Sumi Jo sang in the opera with tenor Placido Domingo. Later, with Von Karajan leading her on, Sumi Jo would appear with other world-class opera singers, while the bond between her and the legendary conductor would last until his demise.

Other major  operatic roles came in rapid succession: in Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Royal Opera House, Vienna’s State Opera and Paris’ Theatre National de l’Opera, under the baton of such prestigious maestros as Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Daniel Baremboim, Richard Bonygne, etc.

For Sumi Jo’s outstanding career, she was named The Best Soprano of the Year at the sixth La Siola d’Oro in Italy in 1993, and given the international Puccini Award in 2008, its first non-Italian recipient. In the same year, Sumi Jo had the honor of performing in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and in 2002, in that of the Football World Cup in South Korea.

As already noted, Sumi Jo has reached the top after traversing a lonely road from the start. Having began piano and singing lessons early, she was deprived of “a carefree childhood.”  I still think that pushing a child too much can be cruel and unfair,” she reminisces, “children should be allowed to play more and do what they want. In my case, it worked because I had the talent.”

She missed her father’s funeral in 2006 because of an engagement in Paris. Her mother told her,  “You are an artist so you should stay there and sing for your audience.” Sumi Jo continues missing her family, her home, her country. She says: “It’s not so easy because I have always wanted to do something new, so it’s difficult to achieve the balance between work and the home life I crave. Sometimes I see myself sad and lonely.”

Determination, dedication and devotion to her art however, have doubtless been rewarded.

One wonders what arias from what operas in Sumi Jo’s wide repertoire will be interpreted tonight to enthrall music lovers. The concert’s special guest will be flutist John Raymond Sarreal.












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