Born in 1962 in Seoul, South Korea. Education: Studied at Santa Cecelia, Italy, early 1980s. Addresses: Record company--Erato Records/Atlantic Classics, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 27th Fl., New York, NY 10104, website: http://www.erato.com.
An international opera star since her work with legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan in the late 1980s, Sumi Jo has earned almost universal praise for both her recorded and live performances. While her reputation rivals that of any diva, she has maintained the respect and affection of her peers with her straightforward professionalism and charming personality. A favorite with the public as well, Jo has also branched out into more popular offerings, such as Only Love in 2000 and The Christmas Album, released in 2001. Regarding her decision to go beyond the opera world, Jo told David J. Baker of Opera News in October of 2001, "The main thing is, I don't want to lead my life just doing Gilda or Lucia or Queen of the Night. I want to make a different choice and challenge and discover a new personality."
Jo was born in 1962 in Seoul, the capital and largest city of South Korea. She endured a rather difficult relationship with her mother, who ordered her to practice the piano for up to eight hours every day. "My mother was a sort of frustrated woman," Jo told Opera News in October 2001. "She wanted to be a singer, but in the situation of Korea with the war and everything, she couldn't continue. And she had a really hard time being only a housekeeper or housewife. It was not her dream." Instead, Jo's mother focused her ambition on her musically gifted daughter. Jo's father, a businessman, also helped with her future career by insisting that his daughter learn English and French. At times, the pressure was too much for Jo to bear. "Three times, I tried to escape from home," she continued, adding, "I think I'm very fortunate, but I regret so much I never played with dolls.... This is all the consequence of my childhood, my lost childhood."
At the age of 19, the young pianist and vocalist asserted her independence by traveling halfway around the world to audition for a place at the Academia di Santa Cecelia, a renowned music school in Rome. Her arrival in the capital--at 3:00 a.m., alone, and without the ability to speak Italian--was an inauspicious introduction to her new life. Jo asked a cab driver to take her to the only place she knew in Rome, the Piazza Spagna featured in the movie Roman Holiday. "You don't speak any language, you are completely alone, but I was so happy because I was free, out of my family, and I was young," she told Liane Hansen of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday in December of 2001. "I had, you know, lots of hope in the future.... It was like a dream."
Like Audrey Hepburn's character in Roman Holiday, Jo was enchanted with life in Rome and quickly established herself as a star student at the academia. Her audition alone set her apart from the other students. When the accompanist for the auditions was suddenly taken ill, it looked like the auditions for all 50 applicants would be delayed. Jo modestly offered to serve as the pianist, telling David J. Baker of Opera News, "I started to play for all the singers, and I knew every aria, all the songs that these students had to sing. The professors, they were just shocked. And of course I had a [grade of] ten-plus, perfect. I had to accompany myself!"
Jo completed her studies at Santa Cecelia in 1985 and made her operatic debut the following year as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her big break came in 1988, when she was summoned to audition for legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. A giant in the classical music world, Karajan's career dated back to the 1920s. As the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and a conductor at the annual Salzburg Festival, he intimidated most singers, and Jo was no exception. "My legs were trembling and I was so scared," Jo later admitted to Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio's Morning Edition in July of 2001. "Because usually I really enjoy to perform.... And I just wanted to impress him. And so I just, you know, sing with all my passion and all my--how can I say? I mean, I wanted to show my art to him."
Karajan was greatly impressed with the young soprano, not only for her superb voice but for her unassuming personality as well. Among all those that worked with the contentious Karajan, Jo was one of the few that experienced his warmer side. "He could be very, very nasty. I can confirm about that," she told Stamberg. "But normally he's a really nice and kind and wonderful person." In 1989 Karajan asked Jo to sing at the Salzburg Festival in Verdi's Masked Ball; however, he died suddenly one week before the performance. Jo was heartbroken, but went on with the program. It turned out to be a breakthrough in her career: the last soprano to be discovered by the great Karajan. Soon she was in demand by opera houses around the world.
Before Karajan's death, Jo made her first recording of Masked Ball, which turned out to be the maestro's last. The debut marked the beginning of her prolific and versatile career as a recording artist. In 1992 she shared a Grammy Award for her work on Die frau ohne schatten, a Richard Strauss opera that won for that year's Best Opera Recording. Among the other highlights of her early recordings was 1995's Carnaval!, in which Jo collaborated with conductor Richard Bonynge on a collection of little-known arias from French operettas. "Sumi Jo has the sweet tone and range suitable for these sugar plums," wrote Vivian A. Liff in the American Record Guide in January of 1995, "and is also able to tackle easily most of the technical challenges." Indeed, some of the arias were so tricky that some listeners refused to believe that Jo had recorded them without some assistance. As she joked to Brian Kellow of Opera News in August of 1995, "This past January, I was invited on French television's Dimanche matin to sing the Carnaval! live. The French thought the recording was a mechanical trick, so I said, 'No, no. I'll do it for the public.' And I got a standing ovation."
As a concert artist, Jo took on a number of challenging soprano roles, including one that became her signature role, Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die zauberflöte. She performed the role "more than one hundred times," as she recalled to David J. Baker of Opera News in October of 2001. "In the last three years, I realized my voice is getting more round and lyric, but without losing the high notes. I'm singing Queen of the Night and not losing even one F and gaining a lot on the dramatic side. After five years, I started enjoying [the role] very much, and I can be more nasty than before."
Jo's recorded performances also benefited from her years of experience. As Vivian A. Liff wrote in American Record Guide in November of 1997 of Jo's release, Bel Canto, "Hitherto she has been judged the possessor of a sweet-sounding, small-scale instrument used with considerable technical facility but sparing variety of expression. Now she reveals interpretive depths that could indicate a lyric soprano of far greater potential."
In addition to aiming for a broader audience with Bel Canto, Jo released a number of albums for the nonclassical market, including Only Love, a collection of well-known romantic pop songs, and a holiday-themed release, The Christmas Album. While some reviewers carped at Jo's recording of Only Love, which included such fare as renditions of "Send in the Clowns" and "I Still Believe," The Christmas Album was hailed as a welcome addition to the usual holiday releases. In November of 2001, Ralph V. Lucano of American Record Guide called the release "a classy, thoroughly delightful program" with Jo "in pure, true voice." Jo herself described the making of the album as "something very, very natural," as she told National Public Radio's Liane Hansen. "It's something familiar, something that we do the music together as a family."
by Timothy Borden
Sumi Jo's Career
Trained as pianist and soprano; made recording debut under Herbert von Karajan; released Only Love, 2000, and Prayers, 2001.
Sumi Jo's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Opera Recording (with others) for Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten, 1992.
- Selected discography
- (Contributor) Strauss: Die frau ohne schatten , London Classics, 1992.
- Carnaval! , London Classics, 1995.
- Virtuoso Arias , Erato, 1995.
- Masked Ball , Deutsche Grammophon (reissue), 1996.
- Sumi Jo Sings Mozart , Erato, 1996.
- Bel Canto , Erato, 1997.
- Italian Songs , Erato, 1998.
- La Promessa , Erato, 1998.
- Les Bijoux , Erato, 1999.
- Only Love , Erato, 2000.
- The Christmas Album , Erato, 2001.
- Prayers , Erato, 2001.
- American Record Guide, January/February 1995, p. 241; March/April 1997, p. 186; November/December 1997, p. 258; May/June 1998, p. 245; January/February 1999, p. 243; July/August 2000, p. 251; November/December 2001, p. 282.
- Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2000.
- Opera News, August 1995, p. 10; October 2001, p. 30.
- "Herbert von Karajan (Conductor)," Bach Cantatas, http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Karajan-Herbert-von.htm (February 13, 2002).
- "Sumi Jo Biography," Erato Records, http://www.erato.com/Artists/Pages/SUMIJOBIO.HTM (February 12, 2002).
- Morning Edition, National Public Radio, July 17, 2000.
- Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, December 23, 2001.