Sumi Jo was the first Asian opera singer to achieve worldwide success
The South Korean singer has made 50 recordings and 10 solo albums
Her mother decided she should be an opera singer before she was born, she said
Korean opera singer Sumi Jo is one of the best-loved sopranos of her generation who has performed at ceremonies for an Olympic Games and a football World Cup.
In a career spanning 26 years, she was the first Asian opera singer to achieve worldwide success and has won accolades and fans all over the world, from a Grammy award to being elected a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
“Everyday when I wake up, I thank God that I can sing,” she says. “Life is such a precious gift so everyday is beautiful to me.”
But the success has not come without sacrifices.
At the age of 19, she traveled alone half way round the world from her native South Korea to Italy to kick start her career in the home of opera, and has been traveling ever since.
Far from her friends and family, Jo said she was one of very few Asians in Italy at the time.
“I went there just because I wanted to study opera but I didn’t realize that it could be that difficult,” she says. “I had to face a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know any Italian and I had to cook and I had to deal with other people.
“The first year I changed my room seven times.”
Jo said a puppy she found in the street became her only companion in Italy.
“In that terrible period no one was there, no parents, no friend, I was completely alone, but she was there and she gave me a lot of joy and she kept me company and she lived 15 years with me.”
Today she owns three beloved dogs and is involved with an animal rights charity in South Korea.
Despite the difficulties, Jo went on to achieve incredible success. She has made more than 50 recordings, including 10 solo albums, one of which won a Grammy award in 1993.
She has performed the title role in at least four operas at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and at most of the world’s major opera houses.
Jo also performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2002 Football World Cup in South Korea.
She has also taken part in pop projects recently, and featured on the soundtrack for the mini-series “Mildred Pierce” starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce.
Jo says she was destined to be an opera singer before she was even born, as her mother had dreamed of being a singer herself and had been thwarted by political upheaval.
“She was born during the Japanese occupation and then she went through the Korean War,” Jo says. “My mother suffered a lot, hunger and misery, but she was unhappy not having cultural stimulation.
“So she always thought if she had a baby girl she wanted to make her an opera singer and here that’s why I’m here. My destiny was already decided by her.”
Jo began piano and singing lessons early, but says she missed out on a conventional carefree childhood.
“I still think that pushing a child too much could also could be quite cruel and unfair,” she says. “For my case probably it worked because, thank god, I had to the talent. I think that children should play more and let them do what they want.”
Devotion to her career even meant Jo missing her father’s funeral, after he died in 2006 while she was in Paris.
“I just wanted to go to Korea right away,” she said. “My mother told me by phone she said, ‘You should stay there to sing for your public because for me you are not a simple a daughter for me. I consider you an artist so you should stay there for and sing for you audience.’
“It was such an incredible moment. I can not tell you. I couldn’t say any words.”
Jo sang at a concert the next evening while the funeral was happening in South Korea, and later released the recording as a DVD dedicated to her father.
“I announced to the audience my situation and everybody stood up and applauded,” she says. “I wasn’t able to assist him at the end, but I have this gift for him so I hope he will forgive me.
At the age of 49, Jo is still working to achieve the balance between work and home life that she craves.
“I somehow realized I have been missing something, my family, my home, my country, but it’s not so easy because I always wanted to do something new, new music, new theater, new recordings, so it’s difficult to have a balance.”
She added: “I wish I could be more happy. Sometimes I see myself sad and lonely, but I think I deserve to be more happy. It means that I need to grow up. I still feel like a beginner even if I had been singing many years.”