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A Voice Rising in the East and West

Sumi Jo has found celebrity in her native Korea, on the international stage and among an emigre community eager to applaud one of its own.

May 23, 1999|SCARLET CHENG | 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."

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