A voice from above

Stage mothers have been blamed for much – from imposing punishing practice schedules to vicariously living out their own dreams of fame through their children. Acclaimed Korean soprano Sumi Jo can blame – and thank – her mother for the success she enjoys today. Rosemary Desmond asked Sumi to share the story of her difficult childhood and the long road to fame.

Sumi Jo’s mother used to lock her daughter inside when she left the house, so Sumi could not play truant – or just play outside, like any other child. Her mother, Kim Malsoon, had other ideas. An amateur singer and pianist, she had been prevented from pursuing a singing career due to the political uncertainties in Korea in the 1940s and ‘50s. So, she transferred her ambitions to her daughter Sumi. Now with 50 recordings, including 10 solo albums to her credit, 55-year-old Sumi is known as one of the greatest exponents of the bel canto (beautiful singing) repertoire, gracing operatic stages from Milan’s La Scala to the Sydney Opera House. But if Sumi had been given the choice, she would have worked with animals and lived what she calls a ‘normal life’. Sumi understands why her mother did what she did – but sadly, 76-year-old Kim Malsoon now has Alzheimer’s and does not even recognise her famous daughter.  “My mum is a tough woman,” Sumi said. “She was a traditional Asian housewife but she had enormous dreams, that were impossible to achieve, of becoming a prima donna. “She grew up under Japanese occupation and went through the Korean War so for a young girl, it was really impossible. “I’m laughing now but I had a quite terrible childhood, because of her obsession to make her child into a singer.  “When I was four years old I started to play the piano and I played eight hours a day for many, many years and she used to lock the door until I finished that exercise.” At the age of six, Sumi’s mother enrolled her in singing lessons. Sumi was also tutored in drawing, figure skating, classical ballet, playing traditional Korean musical instruments, speech and languages, including English, French and Latin. 

“But I wanted to be a veterinarian, that was my dream. I will do that in my next life – that is what I want to do!” Sumi said, laughing.

She is now an animal rights advocate in Korea where she helps with education programs in schools and the building of animal shelters.

“In Korea, we still need to improve the welfare of animals, especially for dogs and cats,” she said.

Sumi made her international operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1986 in the northern Italian city of Trieste. It was no mean feat for an Asian-born singer.

“In Italy, they had never seen someone from Asia singing opera. But then I started to win international singing competitions and my singing was quite remarkable, so they gave me a big role in a big theatre in Italy.

“I must say I felt quite lucky and after meeting with Maestro (conductor) Herbert von Karajan, everything changed. I’ve been lucky but several times they didn’t give me a job because stage directors didn’t want me to play roles because of my Asian face and figure.

“I was a bit disappointed but I understood their decision. It was OK.”

Von Karajan described Sumi as ‘a voice from above’. Many others agree.

Sumi continues to learn new music and produce new recordings. With little time for relationships in her busy life, she likens the creative effort involved in making her albums to having children.

“Each one is like giving birth,” she said.

“My favourite (album) is called Only Love, which sold over one million copies. It’s not a classical album but has Broadway musical songs.“Another is Journey to Baroque because it was the first time I tried tosing Baroque music. I never liked Baroque music because to be able to sing it, you must have a certain technique and style. But I tried and it turned out beautifully. 

“Next year I am doing a tour in Europe and Asia with an Italian Baroque ensemble – but we are still working on it. The ensemble will be playing original instruments from the period of Mozart, Vivaldi and Handel, so it’s quite interesting.”

Sumi maintains ‘home is where the heart is’ as she is always travelling.

“When I am in London, London is my home. When I am in New York, New York is my home. I love people.

“I also love cooking pasta and salads. I love gardening. I love going to the cinema. I love playing with my dogs – I try to live a normal life, but it is quite rare that I cook or I go to the cinema because my day is full of rehearsals, study and training. My professional life comes first.

“I have three dogs. The tiny one is a Yorkie but she is 17 and she cannot travel any more. Her name is Cindy Crawford and she is a ‘singer’.

“I also have two big dogs – Italian shepherds. I take them to Italy and sometimes I go to Portugal but they don’t (like) travel. They hate music.

“When I start to sing, they escape – I don’t know why. They don’t understand their ‘mummy’ is an opera singer – they don’t care. It’s a very sad situation,” Sumi said with a laugh.

In July, she heads to Australia for her Mad for Love tour and will share the stage with Argentine-born baritone José Carbó, who now calls Australia home.

“I love Australia, I can’t wait to come back again,” she said.

This article by Rosemary Desmond orginally appeared in the June-July-August 2018 edition of 50 Something magazine.

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