Five years ago, when the exalted Korean soprano Sumi Jo was shortly to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of her professional debut, her record company invited her to make a recording of anything she liked. ‘Baroque,’ she tells me she answered them immediately, ‘and then I regretted it thirty seconds later.’ Despite the fact that for a long while people had been telling her she had the ‘perfect voice for baroque’, Jo had always been nervous about the form, suspecting that her instrument was in fact more suited to the bel canto and coloratura opera in which she had made her name. ‘It was like travelling into a world that was completely unknown to me,’ she admits, with refreshing candour. ‘But baroque is the basic. Everyone has to do it. At some point, you know, you have to face this journey.’
Now, celebrating another landmark anniversary, her triumphant quarter-century in the profession, Jo is embarking on the next stage of that particular journey: a baroque tour of Asia with the Academy of Ancient Music. ‘It is the very first time I have sung baroque repertoire on tour,’ she tells me. ‘So I am just a little bit nervous!’ Most singers in her position would never admit to nerves at the prospect of singing repertoire that, as she freely admits, is pretty canonical – Vivaldi and Handel form the backbone of her programme – but Sumi Jo is not most singers. Despite her enormous success, all the more extraordinary given her Asian background, she has an openness and humour that is quite disarming. ‘Of course I am looking forward to the experience, but there will be huge technical challenges!’ she laughs. ‘Baroque is so different to the opera and lieder I usually sing. For a start, the pitch is lower – 415 hz. My piano is perfectly turned to 440 hz and I have perfect pitch so this is really very difficult for me.’
She also makes a startlingly frank confession about her feelings towards that titan of baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music one might assume would take centre stage in any baroque tour, and which, indeed, was expected to feature on her baroque CD. ‘I used to play hours and hours a day of Bach on the piano and sometimes, these were really not very pleasant times,’ she admits. ‘I really found him not so friendly. In fact, I almost started to hate him!’ She chuckles, as I try to get my head around this most unexpected of admissions. In the end, though, it was an equally unexpected coincidence that allowed her to finally commune with Bach.
‘In one recording session we included his ‘coffee cantata’ [BMV 211] which I didn’t know at all,’ she explains. ‘I love coffee, and I had no idea that in the period of Bach there even was coffee! It was a big shock. Finally I could find a common ground with Bach! And over coffee, we became so close. It was a visual and virtual meeting with him while I was making the record; a fantastic moment where I could say “hi, hello, this is me – I am recording you with my Starbucks!” That was a significant day for me.’
Nevertheless, despite this eventual meeting of minds and although she hints tantalisingly at an exclusive Bach disc in the future, there is not a single aria of Bach planned for the upcoming tour with the Academy of Ancient Music, which she describes as ‘the most famous and important baroque ensemble in the world’.
‘It is a huge privilege for any audience to see them, and for me to be working with them. I will definitely try and do my best to create a few magical moments.’ She pauses, then lets out a giggle. ‘And of course, I can’t not mention my dresses. I am having new ones made for the tour and they will be something very special!’
Sumi Jo’s commitment to fashion is only one of the many non-musical passions that make her such a unique performer. She adores, for example, sport, having performed at the opening ceremony of the World Cup and the Olympics – ‘which was so fun, to be able to share my passion with millions of people who knew nothing about classic music!’ She loves going to the gym, where she listens to ‘anything but classical music’ on her iPod. ‘Mostly Eighties disco, actually,’ she chuckles. ‘It reminds me of my high school years.’
Jo is also committed to humanitarian and charitable issues, telling me: ‘I am an opera singer but I am also an artist for peace with UNESCO and I work with the Red Cross, PETA and WWF. I know there are things more important than music in the world. Come on! People are starving out there!’
It was the greatest influence in her life, she admits, who shaped her most decisively in this regard. ‘When I met maestro Herbert von Karajan at the beginning of my career, it was a dream come true,’ she says, suddenly serious. ‘He was the king of kings. From the moment I started working with him, on Ballo in Maschera, I was dreaming. Nobody had such an impact on my career, not Solti, Mehta, Levine, Maazel. Karajan really understood who I was. At that stage I was like Alice in Wonderland because Korea is so different in background and culture from Europe, but he recognized that I was young and fearless and he looked after me like a granddaughter as well as a musician. It was my huge fortune to have his support and I have always tried to take advantage of everything he taught me.’
The chief lesson, it seems, was not even specifically musical. ‘He said to me: “you’re a musician, always there will be melodies in your head. In the supermarket, the aeroplane, everywhere. Music can so fill your head and heart that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. But you have to keep your eyes open. You have to open your heart. When the music stops, you have to see the world.” Surely those precious words helped me until now. They are still in my heart.’ She pauses. ‘He was really incredibly wise. It was a beautiful relationship.’
Although Sumi Jo has now fully reconciled herself to singing baroque and is ‘so excited’ about the upcoming tour to Korea, Singapore and China, you can be sure that she has a lot more surprises up her sleeve, from film scores to opera to discs of French 19th century songs and, of course, that hinted-at Bach. ‘It can be hard to achieve the balance, but I like to suspend everything in harmony,’ she explains, then clarifies: ‘I mean, you can’t go with just steak all your life! You have to also have the salad, the pasta, the risotto…’ A quarter of a century on from that first fateful collaboration with Karajan, does she have any intention to slow down, I wonder? This inspires the loudest guffaw of all. ‘No way! This is just the beginning of the next twenty-five years!’© Clemency Burton-Hill