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An angel visits Maui

An angel’s voice soars in the MACC on Tuesday when coloratura soprano Sumi Jo appears with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, at the start of a rare neighbor island symphonic series.

A native of Korea, Jo quickly took the operatic world by storm after she left her homeland to study in Italy. At age 23, she began a conquest of the top Italian opera competitions, leading to her professional debut the following year, which got the attention of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, of the Berlin Philharmonic. He cast her in Un ballo in maschera opposite Plácido Domingo, and soon she graced stages of the Vienna State Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and virtually every top opera company in the world. She stands now at the pinnacle of her career and of the opera world.

Ms. Jo spoke with MAUIWatch from Honolulu, where she is preparing for her HSO concerts. Her responses were unusually candid and human for a classical diva. We began with her childhood, when she first studied classical music at the behest of her mother.

SJ: When my mother was a young lady, she always wanted to be an opera singer, but her dream could not come true because there was the Korean War, and it was an impossible situation. So she always wanted to have a daughter and for this daughter to become a singer. And she succeeded.

MW: Did you ever feel pushed?

SJ: A lot! (she laughs) My mother was inspired by the mother of Maria Callas, and my childhood was very much like hers. All the passion and love for music [my mother] had poured toward me. So I had to play eight hours a day, and if I don’t finish, she didn’t open the door of my room. She was quite strong.

MW: I have always had the impression Korean women are very strong.

SJ: Yeah, we can say that (she chuckles). Thanks to these strong Korean women who believe what they are doing, so now Korea is very developed and has become one of the strongest countries in the world.

MW: Your parents sent you to study in Italy, which was a remarkable journey for a 19 year old Korean girl. What was it like?

SJ: It was a trauma for sure. Then there was no internet and no facilities to communicate, so I felt very lonely. I had to learn a new way to live alone, and I had to learn the language, and I suffered quite badly. But I wanted to be strong and compare with other singers, so I worked hard, and I was very lucky to meet great teachers and nice people. So let’s say it went very well!

MW: You have recorded and performed a number of Korean songs. What is your relationship with traditional Korean music?

SJ: My parents raised me listening to classical music. But after I went to Italy, when I could I would find Korean music, and started listening to pansori and folk songs, and when I heard traditional instruments like gayageum I would start to cry. So I realized that those sounds make me deeply moved. I could really feel that kind of music belonged to me. If you are a musician, you feel it and you understand so deeply.

MW: I love the sounds of gayageum and ajaeng… Jo interrupts.

SJ: I play gayageum! I learned for three years. My mother taught me. When I was a child, I played gayageum, and piano and guitar, and I did Korean traditional dance and classical ballet. And I did drawing. I was a busy kid (she laughs).

MW: May I ask how the rehearsals are going for the concert?

SJ: The rehearsal went very well. They played with great accuracy, and they know how to accompany a singer, so I had not even one difficulty. I think it’s going to be a beautiful concert. We have songs that can show the fireworks of voice, yet somehow it’s very light? And lots of colors, so people are going to enjoy it very much.

The show features an arduous number and range of songs, including Delibes’ Flower Duet, which is one of the loveliest songs in the opera repertoire. Honolulu mezzo soprano Maya Hoover joins Jo for the Delibes and for Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman

MW: How did you choose the program?

SJ: I have a wide repertoire, and I select it for where I am going. Every country and city has different taste and different way of listening to music. For Hawaii, I chose opera and operetta that people will really enjoy. It’s like a voyage to Europe, because Hawaii is so far from there. I wanted to create an atmosphere of Paris, like Paris is coming to you, Vienna is coming to you. So it’s magical. We can go together and be there together with music.

MW: Funding for music has shrunk, especially in schools. Why would you say that music is important?

SJ: Music has a power to make everything shine. Our lives are full of struggle and pain and every day we have to face difficulties, and it’s not so easy to survive. But somehow the good music, not necessarily classical, but good music, will give you a light and give you a sense of your life, and show you the beauty of our existence. So if you teach a child to listen to good music, they will grow into an adult who can face life with more appreciation of the beauty of life. Unfortunately in Europe too they have cut the funding for music. It’s a disaster, economic crisis everywhere, so we have to be patient.
MW: Have you been to Maui? Do you get some time after the show?

SJ: It is going to be so exciting, I have never performed there. I have been there as a tourist, but this time I fly from Honolulu the day of the performance, and right after the performance I fly back, because the next day I fly to Europe. That’s the singer’s life, the next engagement is waiting.

The show is part of a series of neighbor island performances during the symphony’s season, with one more Maui show on March 11, 2016. This is an exceptional chance for the people of Maui to hear unparalleled world-class classical music. As Jo says, music is a way to bring light into our lives, at least good music is. This is incredibly good music, so let’s show the symphony we are ready for illumination.

Sumi Jo with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
Blaisdell Concert Hall, 10/24 7:30 PM & 10/25 4:00 PM, $34-$92
Maui Arts & Cultural Center, 10/27 7:00 PM, $34-$82

For Maui Event Details CLICK HERE.

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About Stephen Fox

Stephen Fox
Stephen Fox is an academic, journalist, and musician living on Maui. Fox holds a doctorate in Cross-Cultural Psychology from Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand and a master’s in Community and Cultural Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, along with a BA in music from Manoa. He teaches currently at UH Maui. His academic research primarily focuses on the psychological benefits of participation in traditional ethnocultural arts. Musically, Fox has composed an extensive list of film and documentary scores and has performed in rock and world music with masters from a number of cultures. As a journalist, Fox writes primarily about music, and fondly recalls interviews with jazz icon Herbie Mann and The Door’s Ray Manzarek shortly before their deaths. He has also interviewed dozens of other artists who are still alive.

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