A Voice Rising in the East and West

Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

She spins out her mellifluous tones, fine yet strong, like a silken web over the captivated audience. They have fallen into a trance, all eyes focused on this one diminutive woman standing on the podium before them.

Sumi Jo has triumphed on opera stages in works by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, but now she’s singing “Kum-kang San,” a popular Korean song that evokes the dream of seeing the most beautiful mountain in the world, Kum-kang, in North Korea, just once before dying.

With melodramatic fluidity, Jo stretches out her arms as she releases the final melancholic notes. The music dies down, the audience explodes in a roar. They rise to their feet.


On this Sunday afternoon at the Los Angeles Korean Church, a sprawling, modern building perched on a hill on Eastern Avenue and known formally as Los Angeles Christian Presbyterian Church, local Koreans have packed the pews. They have applauded vigorously for the others on the program--their own church choir and three singers from L.A. Opera’s current season, but from the radiant smiles, the shouting and the standing ovation, it is clear this event really belongs to one person, Sumi Jo.

Renowned in the world of international opera, Jo commands another realm as well--an emigre Korean community that loves music, including Western classical music, and never more than when it’s performed by one of its own.

Her drawing power in both arenas is well-known. In the Southland, she has sung in two L.A. Opera productions to generally fine reviews and full houses, and she assumes the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” there starting this week. In 1995, an aria-heavy recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (sponsored by Samsung and the Korea Central Daily newspaper) sold out, with little or no advertising in the non-Korean press. A “love fest,” wrote The Times in a glowing review. And last year, her recital at the Alex Theatre once again sold out, and once again boasted a majority Korean audience.


For Jo, the idea of a Korean love affair with opera and opera singers isn’t surprising, it’s a given.

Growing up in Seoul in the 1960s, she heard opera daily at home. Her mother was an intense fan who played recordings of classical music in the house from dawn to dusk. Being a thwarted singer herself--in the postwar era, it was impossible to study anything so impractical as the arts--Mal-soon Kim foisted her ambitions onto her firstborn, her daughter, Sumi.

Petite of frame and sunny of spirit, Sumi Jo recalls her upbringing in a voice that’s carefully modulated--well above a whisper but well below normal amplification. She speaks English punctuated with lilting Italian rolls of the tongue--she has lived 16 years in Italy.


“Look, I did everything!” Jo says, sitting in a conference room of the L.A. Opera offices, wearing a light blue twin set, and a navy blue scarf to protect her throat.

“When I was 4, I started taking piano lessons, then classical ballet, figure skating, drawing lessons, then I did Korean traditional instruments, traditional folk dance, everything. I even went to classes for speech. . . .”

Were they her choice?

“No, my mother’s,” she replies simply. “I was a very, very busy child.” Then she adds, “In fact, I was a very unhappy child; sometimes I hated my mother. Other children--they were playing in the yard and knocking on my door, saying, ‘Sumi, Sumi, come out!’ ”

Instead, Jo had to stay inside, practicing piano seven hours a day. At 13, she started to take voice lessons and, as she says, “trying to imitate Joan Sutherland,” one of her mother’s all-time favorites. After a year of relative freedom at university, which she whiled away at discos and on dates, her father, also a classical music buff, sat her down. You can’t waste your life like this, he said. Her parents decided to send her to Italy to study opera.

She arrived in Rome at 19 and enrolled at the Conservatory of the Academy of Saint Cecilia. Not only did she have to cope with a new culture and language, she had to live on her own.

“I was like a porcelain doll,” Jo recalls. “I didn’t know how to clean, I didn’t know how to cook, just how to play the piano, how to sing. It was extremely difficult; I was so young, I grew up a lot.”

Slowly, she came to realize her mission--and to understand why her mother had pushed her so relentlessly. She may have been ill-equipped to live an independent adult life, but she was well-equipped for the rigors of an opera career.

So now Jo was pushing herself. She finished a five-year course in two years, but the next hurdle, getting work, was especially difficult.

“When I started my career in Italy, many directors wouldn’t give me a chance because I was Asian,” she admits. “They were wondering how this Korean girl could interpret Lucia or Gilda [from “Rigoletto”]. Then they realized I could not only sing, I could act. I had something special.”

By her own account, her turning point came when she was cast as Oscar in a Herbert von Karajan-led “Masked Ball,” with the Vienna Philharmonic, which was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1989. Suddenly, everyone came knocking on her door.

These days, Jo maintains a busy international schedule of operas and recitals, having performed recently in Bilbao, Spain, and Paris and at such venues as the Met in the U.S. She has also nearly 50 CDs to her name--several of them solo ventures.

“Your voice is a gift from God,” Jo recalls Von Karajan telling her. “ ‘You have to be very careful; you must sing your repertoire because your voice is very delicate.’ ” She has followed that advice, for while her voice is a warm and agile coloratura, it is not big.

“I’m doing just what suits [me],” she explains. “I’m not doing Butterfly, I’m not doing Tosca, which require heavy, lyric voices. A singer cannot sing everything.”

Instead, she has become known for her Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” and, more recently, for Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” In Detroit last November, the Free Press said her Lucia possessed “high notes picked like ripe cherries from the treetops.” Another critic complimented a “voice . . . perhaps too beautiful” for a character who goes mad, like Lucia.

Jo is equally popular in her native country, where she’s known not just for recitals and opera roles but from appearances on television and in advertisements. In February 1998, she was invited to sing at the inauguration of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

Still, she considers her hometown audience to be the toughest to please of any she’s encountered in her travels.

“If [performers] don’t give the maximum, the audience can leave, they can boo,” she says. “The Korean audience can be hard, especially in Seoul.”

“For myself,” Jo says with a laugh, “it’s more scary to perform in Korea than at the Metropolitan. They eat spicy food, so they are very . . . pshooo!”


Demographics go some distance toward explaining Jo’s dual box-office power in Los Angeles. The Korean com munity here is estimated at 600,000--outside Korea, it is the largest such metropolitan population in the world. But it’s not just numbers that work to Jo’s advantage.

Kunjin Kim is the publisher of the Korea Central Daily, one of two Korean-language newspapers in L.A. and a co-sponsor of Jo’s Sunday church concert. The paper’s participation, he says, reflects the fact that “music is a very important part of every Korean’s life. [The] Daily extensively covers musicians and musical events.”

“All Koreans,” he adds, consider Jo’s “beautiful coloratura voice a cultural treasure.”

H.J. Park, music critic of the Central Daily’s rival, the Korea Times, acknowledges Jo’s star power here and says he believes it is influenced by her standing in Korea. “The community in L.A. has a strong tie with Korea,” he says. “They follow closely the news and happenings [there].”

“Sumi Jo,” he continues, “has been active in Korea for the past couple of years, singing not only the Western opera repertoire but also Korean lyric folk songs, which made her very popular.”

L.A. Opera recognizes the potential in Jo’s Korean connections. “Lucia di Lammermoor” has been promoted, as usual, in various English-language print and broadcast media, but the company is also making a concerted pitch outside that base. It joined forces with the Korea Central Daily, which in addition to its role in Jo’s community concert, has published ads for “Lucia,” helped L.A. Opera assemble bilingual brochures and posters, and is even offering its readers discounted tickets to the final performance.

“We have known for some time that the Korean community had a great interest in Western classical music,” says Maryanne Horton, L.A. Opera’s sponsorship development manager, “and that Sumi Jo sold out [her] Pavilion recital largely on word of mouth.” Thus, when the company applied to the American Express Performing Arts Fund for audience development dollars, it targeted the Korean population in its proposal. Last year, L.A. Opera was one of 13 organizations selected for the program, and American Express underwrote the Sunday concert that not only brought Jo--but also L.A. Opera--to the Los Angeles Korean Church.


At the end of the Sunday event, Jo sits exhausted in the church courtyard. She has patiently given autographs to a stream of fans pushing everything from promotional fliers to business cards in front her face.

Taking a quick break, she acknowledges her Korean support. “It was a great pleasure to be here,” she says. “I was very happy to sing for this audience.”

Of course, she also looks forward to her downtown engagement, and the role of Lucia, which she attacks with relish and her own spin. “I’m a very fragile but passionate Lucia,” she says. “In those times, it was impossible for a woman to make such choices--marry a man who’s the enemy of her family--and everyone is plotting against her. I make it clear that the men--her own brother, even the chaplain--make her crazy, not herself.”

A trace of a smile crosses her lips. “I’m a specialist in mad scenes. I live my life very normally, but on stage I can do anything I want!”

It’s particularly fitting that the conductor for L.A. Opera’s “Lucia”’ is Richard Bonynge, whose face--along with wife Joan Sutherland’s--decorated the Jo household when she was growing up. Sutherland was also the chief interpreter of Lucia for almost three decades. Jo has worked with Bonynge in the past.

“When I first met [him],” she gushes, “he seemed so familiar, like a neighbor!” (Jo’s mother, who has flown in from Seoul to L.A., is, of course, in seventh heaven.)

Just as Sutherland was held up as a role model to her, Jo is aware of becoming a role model for others. “I’ve heard that Japanese and Chinese students at Juilliard tell each other, ‘If Sumi Jo can do it, why not me?’ ” she says. .

Part of the legacy of her upbringing is a belief in the power of music. “When I was a child I thought music could resolve everything,” Jo says. “Now I know that’s not true. But I can sing beautifully, I can give a little bit of happiness, so perhaps I can be something of a guide--that’s my ideal. . . . I think that I’m a missionary through music.”


“Lucia di Lammermoor,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., opens Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., continues Saturday, 2 p.m., and June 2, 5, 8, 11 and 13, 7:30 p.m. $25-$137. (213) 365-3500.