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Sumi Jo to visit Pyongyang in May

[Herald Interview]

Coloratura soprano shares her belief in power of music to help those in need

The concert schedule of Grammy-winning South Korean soprano Sumi Jo is extremely tight.

Successfully finishing the “Hyundai Capital Invitational Sumi Jo Park Concert” at an outdoor stage in Olympic Park in Seoul last Saturday, she had to fly on Tuesday morning for another concert in Busan, and another in Daegu the next day. After the Korean tour, her worldwide concert schedule is fully booked until the end of this year.

Although music has made Jo an internationally acclaimed opera star, she said the real motivation that keeps the 49-year-old performing powerfully on stage is not the music itself.

“The real motivation comes to me only when I stop doing music and do volunteer work such as assisting the caregivers who take care of disabled children or visiting an orphanage,” Jo told The Korea Herald at a hotel suite in Seoul on Monday. She was back from a visit to her mother, who suffers from dementia, at a hospital in Yongin.

“It’s those small little things that make me go forward. And it is very important for me to share. Music, in the end, is there to share.”

Jo rarely reveals her personal volunteer work to the press, and often makes secret visits without notifying her managers, an official at her agency SMI Entertainment said.

The soprano was excited about her visit to Pyongyang next year. Although she had once performed with the state symphony orchestra of North Korea in 2000 in Seoul, she has never visited Pyongyang before.

“I’m going to Pyongyang in May next year with an association of Korean American doctors who annually visit there to give North Korean children vaccinations,” Jo said.

“I’m going there, not as a South Korean but as UNESCO Artist for Peace. Rather than performing, I will be ‘physically’ helping North Korean children.

“There are starving and dying children in North Korea. Of course music is necessary too, but what North Korea needs now is daily necessities and humanitarian aid,” she said.

Maintaining a ‘voice from heaven’

Jo, whom legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan called “a voice from heaven,” described her job as an unenviable one.

“We, opera singers, are people whose appearances, emotions and even personalities are honestly expressed in our voice. Because our voices directly ‘penetrate the skins and hearts’ of the audiences, top-class singers need to stay fit no matter what,” Jo said. She spoke very softly throughout the interview, seemingly mindful of doing anything that might strain her throat. She drank water from time to time to keep the throat from going dry.

“If I were to be born again, I would never want to do this job.”

To maintain her voice in top form and sing immediately after a 26-hour flight from Rome to Sydney, for example, she never parties with other artists after a performance. She hardly gets a good night’s sleep due to stress. After visiting her mother for several hours Sunday, she practiced Mahler for about four hours for the upcoming Beijing Mahler Festival concerts scheduled Oct. 6-12.

“I get to know the feeling of having a good sleep only when I take an annual two-week vacation. But even during those times, I never get a full rest because I have to deal with all the emails and phone calls.”

So as not to catch a cold, Jo takes vitamin C, ginseng drinks and omega-3, 6, 9 every day.

However, she said she would be the last person who cares overly about her appearance.

“I’m not a person who can sit in a hair salon or at a facial shop for long hours. I don’t have time for that either.”

When asked about her life’s mission, she used a parable.

“I think I’m like a star, a lonely star that shines for a long time. I have to make sure that its sparkle is not changed, stained or darkened.”

More than music

Jo recently released “Libera,” an album marking the 25th anniversary of her international debut. She debuted as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in Italy in 1986.

In the past 25 years, she has recorded more than 50 albums which she describes as “a department store collection.” From Italian operas to oratorio to German lieder to Korean songs to musicals to film and drama soundtracks, listeners can choose an album according to their tastes, she said.

She is currently under an exclusive contract with Universal Music and two more albums are due with the record label.

“I’ll be choosing a marketable repertoire. I want to do Bach whom I still find very challenging. I’m thinking of something like ‘a tribute to Bach,’” she said.

Jo expected that just as she spent the past 25 years on stage, she will be actively performing for the next 25 years as well, “if it is God’s will.”

She said that she will be also thinking about how she will teach next-generation musicians in the future.

The soprano stressed that she is never a person who lives within the boundaries of music.

“I was questioning myself whether I should really live only for concertgoers because, in my 30 years of travel, I realized that there are too many people and situations where music is a secondary thing,” Jo said.

“I was so shocked that I almost fainted when I saw a favela in Brazil, thinking how these people live like this. In Africa, I was invited to a luxurious house of a corporate president for dinner and five minutes away, children were digging out garbage bins to get something to eat.”

Although most musicians’ goal is to show their professional musical ability and techniques to the public and reach the highest level of artistry in music, she said she also wants to help the general public enrich their lives by reaching them with easier classical music.

“Whether you’re a top-class artist, a secondary musician, a member of a choir or an orchestra, you’d better get out of the small space where you do music only for yourself or your pleasure. Music has immense power and so much potential to give.”

Her efforts to turn people’s attention to children and animals include raising money for establishing an education center for protection of animal rights.

A strong advocate for animal rights, Jo donated 150 million won ($125,650) to the Beautiful Foundation and Korea Animal Rights Advocates to help them establish the education center.

“I’m hoping to raise 1 billion won in two years to establish the center. People’s participation is urgent,” Jo said.

To participate in Jo’s fund-raising, you can donate money to Woori Bank account at 1005-301-651573.

By Kim Yoon-mi (