A diva finding many ways to be heard
Destined for opera: Sumi Jo grew up listening to Dame Joan Sutherland's recordings and her career now spans 26 years of international performances.
WORLD-CLASS soprano Sumi Jo sang the voice of the devil in Roman Polanski's movie thriller The Ninth Gate, but, with her lyrical warmth and precision, she really sounds far more like an angel. Her voice is often praised for its agility and she is noted for her remarkable flexibility, which enables her to sing a wide range of classical and popular music.
Jo, who performs in Melbourne on Tuesday , has always felt a link to Australia.
''I have always loved Australia because of Dame Joan Sutherland,'' she says. ''My mother's dream was to become an opera singer, but she could not realise her dream.
''So when she realised she was expecting me, she listened to a Joan Sutherland recording many times and my destiny was decided. I had no choice, my mother pushed me in that direction and I am very grateful to my mother.''
Jo recently celebrated 26 years of performing internationally. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, and studied there before enrolling in the Conservatory of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
She had a recital debut in Seoul and her first operatic role was as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, also performed in Seoul.
''I grew up listening to Dame Joan Sutherland and it's sort of destiny because my first solo recording was made by her husband [maestro] Richard Bonynge,'' she says.
''It's an amazing connection to have. Richard Bonynge wanted to do something for my kind of voice and he knew I grew up listening to Dame Joan Sutherland and he chose me to do the aria that he had selected. It was called Carnaval!
''He told me that when it was released, Dame Joan Sutherland listened to it three times in a row and she loved it so much she wanted me to visit her in Switzerland.''
Jo has sung many performances in large indoor venues, but says she still enjoys the challenge of open-air performances.
''With a piano and no microphone the audience can really hear the human voice and, I think, have a deeper connection with the music,'' she says.
Jo performed at the Sydney Opera House last year in a concert celebrating Australian-Korean friendship, with 2011 marking 60 years of relations between the two countries. She is a cultural ambassador for her country and has performed similar concerts all over the world.
''Wherever I go, I like to sing their music, it is like a gift to them,'' she says. ''For instance, I am singing a waltz in Vienna. Musically, we can change and celebrate more deeply. Music is a true way to connect between us.''
It is that desire to connect that sees Jo reaching out to people who would not ordinarily listen to classical music.
Jo also likes to branch out into popular music, often through films, to get her voice out to a larger audience.
''Classical music is something that tends to have an elite audience … so for a wider public I will sing sometimes for a soap opera or a movie.
''For example, I sang for a film called Eat Pray Love. You can hear my aria when Julia Roberts is eating spaghetti in Rome … I also sang for an HBO drama with Kate Winslet. I am doing all this because it is a way to have my voice heard by this bigger audience. I feel very, very flexible to not just use my voice the classical way, I am also challenging what I can do with my voice.
''In Australia, I have never sung these kinds of numbers so the audience can see me as an international crossover singer and I am excited about that.''
Jo says she hopes other singers will challenge themselves. ''Classical singers live a bit of an isolated life because we are the 'divas' and the 'prima donnas' - you have to think about protecting your throat,'' she says.
''But if you open your thoughts and your mind and have a look around you, you can do a lot more with your music to give a lot to society. That is a message that I would like to send to other musicians - to make use of our talents to make the world a better place and not just beautiful music.''
A UNESCO Artist for Peace, Jo supports human rights causes, women's rights movements and pushes for greater protection of animals.
''Women are often so underpaid and there are so many working mothers and they are having a difficult time,'' she says.
''But at the same time we need to think about animals - we need to defend them because they cannot defend themselves.
''I am working in Korea to give rights to dogs. I love dogs, they are made for human beings - they are the best friends of humans.
''I am also helping the Red Cross in Korea.''
Sumi Jo is in recital at Hamer Hall on Tuesday.