World renowned opera singer and animal lover Sumi Jo visits the ACT RSPCA in Weston, Canberra. Photo: Karleen Minney
There was a strange, memorable moment on Thursday at the RSPCA's ACT headquarters in Weston when the owners of two of the world's most distinctive voices, Korean soprano Sumi Jo and an Australian kookaburra, stared into one another's eyes. They were nose to beak.
Neither acclaimed songster burst into song for the other, not right then. Sumi Jo is resting her voice before Saturday evening's Voices in the Forest concert at the National Arboretum while the kookaburra, Jason, has been unwell. He's recovering his strength before his imminent release into the wild on Friday. By Saturday, united with another kookaburra to cackle with, he'll surely be back in good voice and making our nation's signature sound.
Sumi Jo, too, her meeting with Jason helping to make her 50th birthday extra special, on Saturday will be taking part in some duets, while doing a great deal on her own with her heavenly voice at that heavenly venue. But it was a venue, she confessed at the RSPCA premises, she'd not yet been to see. She'd bustled along to the RSPCA first. She was keen to see the care it gives to all creatures great and small and especially to dogs. This is because she is, bless her, hopelessly devoted to dogs. More of this virtue of the goddess in a moment.
Next door to Jason's convalescing birds department, Sumi Jo was introduced to a baby possum of indescribable cuteness, yet to be given a name. The diva crooned over it with delight. Would Sumi Jo, meeting this, her first possum, care to give it a name, staff invited? While the cute baby cutely nibbled a wedge of apple with its cute teeth Sumi Jo dubbed it ''Dori'' or ''Dori Jo''. Dori, she explained, is a Korean word that describes a tiny baby's earliest, cute signs of curiosity about its surroundings.
Yet, just as this already besotted Sumi Jo fan had imagined it impossible to adore her any further, suddenly it did become possible. With the discovery of the great diva's deep fondness for dogs, all obstacles to heroine-worship of her were removed.
She'd wanted to come to see an Australian RSPCA, she explained, because she is working hard to get far better treatment of dogs in her native, relatively dog-callous Korea. She was looking for good, better Australian ways to recommend to Koreans. The goodness and kindness she saw being given to dogs (the treats! the toys! the cuddles!) and to convalescing kookaburras and possums at the RSPCA was, she rejoiced, the best possible birthday present she could have had.
She is, standing beside her, surprisingly slender and slight. Those of us familiar with her recorded voice (for a treat, use YouTube to bring you her warbling the Queen of the Night's Aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute) will imagine it must be produced by a very substantial sheila. But, no, she is petite. Very strong winds might, on Saturday, threaten to whisk her off the stage.
Where does her fondness for animals (it's entirely sincere and at the RSPCA she made great hands-on fusses of the most mongrely of dogs) come from?
''My father and my mother they always loved nature and animals … but the most beautiful thing that happened to me is that from when I was a child I always had dogs in my life and I came to realise how precious they are. They are part of our families. They're there when you're sick and lonely. They contribute so many things to humans. So I have three dogs and two of them, the ones I have in Italy, are rescued dogs. And then [in the United States] there is the tiny little one somebody gave to me after a concert in Washington. So I wanted to celebrate my birthday today with some dogs.
''I sometimes think I know dogs better than I know any human beings. Because I grew up with dogs I get so upset and devastated when I hear of badly treated animals and of people ignoring their rights … I always admire this country so much because you know how to protect nature and animals. So I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I'm working for the protection of animals in Korea, but there we are unfortunately very behind. So I want to do something for my country, to talk some sense to them, to tell them why these dogs are so important to our society.''
One idea she'll want to take to Korea from Weston is the way in which, for six years now, the dogs in the kennels there have been calmed with the playing of lightly twanging, melodious music. The results, staff assured us on Thursday, have been quite magical. Pre-music, the dogs used to bark their heads off. Now they are much more serene. How about it, Canberra boarding kennel proprietors?
Why not, I suggested frivolously, given that we had a diva with us, play them some opera? Especially some Mozart? But Sumi Jo, while she says her own dear dogs are so used to hearing her own rather startling coloratura soprano voice around the house and to joining in with her (she swears there's a YouTube video of this) was quick to say that, no, opera is too full of shocks, drama and climaxes. Played to dogs not used to it, she's afraid it will frighten them and rev them up and have the opposite effect to the desired dog-whispering one.
Yes, a terrific soprano's arias rev us all up, man and beast. That's what we love about opera. Saturday's concert, if it is a success, afterwards will leave lots of us sleepless in Canberra.