Classical Music in Pop Culture: Sumi Jo

by: Raine

Before I begin, I would like to ask you watch and listen to the Youtube examples I have posted. You don’t have to watch the entire video, but please do watch the times that I have pointed out. I will give you things to listen for. I don’t expect you to like opera by the end of this post (although I hope you will!), but I do hope that you’ll understand classical music better.

Classical music was born in the West, evolving from Western sacred and secular music. But it did not remain in the West. Today you’ll find classical music all over the world, mastered by people of every culture. It’s AMAZING how it has become a bridge across nations.

Spoken language interferes minimally when creating music. Classical has a language all its own based in Italian terminology, musical gestures and music notation. If you sit me in a room with a Chinese man who speaks as much English as I speak Chinese (which is none), we can hold a rehearsal and put on a good concert. It would be difficult, but this is why I LOVE music. Words aren’t needed, not even in the process of creating it.

This holds true for performers of any type of music. Even when combining musical genres (like they did in You’ve Fallen For Me,) musicians can understand each other despite the differences in style and performance practice. But, because I’m a classical musician and a K-drama addict, I’m going to focus on a Korean talent in the classical world.

Now we know the names of the greats: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. Many of us know contemporary performers such as Joshua Bell (violin), Yo Yo Ma (cello), Vanessa Mae (violin), Itzak Perlman (violin), Lang Lang (piano), and Luciano Pavarotti (tenor). They come from all over the world and all walks of life.

Let me add one more to the list. She is a brilliant woman who hails from South Korea. She is an internationally known musician and she exemplifies what is most beautiful about music: it IS the universal language.

This powerhouse musician has built her career on her talent, hard work and collaborations with artists from all over the world! Do you know how many language and cultural barriers have to be crossed in order to do this? It is difficult to do, but music can bring people together as nothing else can. This Korean artist has the drive and talent to work all of her life connecting with people as humans rather than as members of a society.

Her work has resulted in some of the most exquisite music-making I have ever heard.

Who is she?

Coloratura soprano Sumi Jo.

Drama lovers may recognize her from the first episode of Dream High. She was a mentor to Suzy’s Go Hye-mi, training the talented 17-year-old for a career in opera.

I admit, when I first heard Delibes’ “Flower Duet” in a K-drama I almost hyperventilated from excitement. When do you hear an internationally acclaimed soprano singing a staple of operatic repertoire on television besides on PBS?

Give me a moment, I’m going to squee. Then I will regain my composure and continue on.


Continuing on.

The reason I was so excited to see Sumi Jo on a K-drama is because she is not only an internationally acclaimed singer, but she is the BEST of the best. The cream of the crop. La crème de la crème. She’s performed in over ten countries (O_O) and worked with major headliners of the classical world. This woman has classical swagger.

She came from a home where music was highly valued. Her mother, an amateur musician, put her into lessons early and the child sometimes practiced up to eight hours a day! Can you imagine put that amount of time into ANYTHING when you’re six years old? This kind of dedication is often found in prodigies, which Sumi Jo most definitely is. She went through arts schools growing up and made her professional debut in college.

In August of 1986, when she was only 24, she was unanimously awarded the first prize in the Carlo Alberto Cappelli International Competition at Verona. It is one of the world’s largest competitions and is only open to first prize-winners of other major competitions.

First of all, vocal maturity is usually achieved in one’s thirties. She was 24 when she won this. No wonder her voice is powerhouse now at the age of 49. Secondly, the amount of work and talent that goes into winning a prize adorned in that much prestige is mind-boggling. She had to work her way into the world-wide opera circuit, take home some first-prizes and ONLY then could she go on to win over an entire panel of extremely picky judges who placed her first in the Cappelli Competition. Sumi Jo, you are amazing.

(Please just listen to this whole clip. It’s about 3 minutes. This is Sumi Jo as the Queen of the Night [the evil mom] in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Basic premise: The Queen is handing her daughter a knife to kill the queen’s enemy. I know that opera may be hard to digest as a non-musician. But listen for this: how sharp every single note is, the clarity of the sound, the ENDINGS of words and melody lines. Each note she sings is like a bell. When the music is as fast and as jumpy as this song is, it is RIDICULOUSLY hard to do what this woman does.)

(Suzy and Sumi Jo)

We lucky K-drama viewers got a taste of her in Dream High. She and Suzy sang the “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé by Délibes. He lived during the 1900s when Europe was obsessed with everything from the “Orient”  and tragic love stories. Lakmé is one such tragic love story that takes place in India. The “Flower Duet” is sung in the first of three acts and its about two women collecting flowers by a river.

Here is why this song is super cool. The libretto (lyric) speaks of flowers floating down the river, following it wherever it may lead. Both soprano voices sing flowing lines that weave in and out of each other just as a pair of flowers floating on a river would move: moving apart and converging, leading and following, mesmerizing and unpredictable. The music mimics the lyric. The singers have conversation between them, solo lines, and then back to the flowing river, the duet.

This is a clip from Dream High at 2:50. It is Sumi Joe singing part of the duet with Suzy.

Here is a video of Sumi Jo singing the entire duet with Ah-kyung Lee. They are singing in French. Another awesome feat of opera singers, they have to be able to sing in at least four languages. (1:15 is when the famous part of the duet starts and the part that is featured in Dream High. You can listen as far as you’d like. If you do listen all the way through, notice the contrast between the solo parts and the duet parts.)

(Yes, opera singers like them some tacky dresses. Just go with it. Sumi Jo is on the right in the red dress.)

You can hear the care that she takes with every note. She worships music and I worship her. She is not a Korean woman singing Western music. She is a talented human being pouring her heart out through the language that we all speak.

The woman is a goddess.

“What is beautiful about classical music is that it does not matter who you are or where you are from. All you have to do is come together and make it.”Raine

Related Posts

Classical Music in Pop Culture: Introduction, Libertango, Immortals

13 responses to “Classical Music in Pop Culture: Sumi Jo”

  1. I found out about Jo Sumi when I saw her on a great Korean talk show called W1n Win. She’s seriously inspirational. She’s also a linguistic genius. Have you heard her speaking in English or Italian? Her accent is perrrrfect. And classical musicians/singers seriously amaze me because of the crazy discipline and dedication that goes into honing their skills D:

    Anyways, here are the links (with Eng subs) to her appearance on W1n Win. She’s an incredible woman, with the strength, confidence and perseverance that only a world renown Coloratura soprano can have. Her interview is incredibly entertaining, peppered with funny anecdotes and romantic reminiscences, but it’s also filled with pain and sadness T__T

    Part 1/5
    Part 2/5
    Part 3/5
    Part 4/5
    Part 5/5

    • I can’t believe you know her! Yay! I’m going to watch these links tonight after I finish teaching.

      I still can’t get used to “Jo Sumi” because in the classical music world it’s always “Sumi Jo” haha.

    • 😀 I’ll share more interesting stuff like that as I continue this. And ask a million questions!

      BTW, are you not on cause your teaching the booger-pickers?

  2. Raine! I bow down to you^^
    I love Sumi Jo, and I’m going to go against a lot of people here, but have you heard her version Agitata da due venti? I know a lot of people consider it Bartoli’s specialty, but I really really like Sumi Jo’s version a lot.

    Also one of my favourite from hers is Schubert’s Ave Maria, though I might have a bias towards that song since it has always been my favourite piano piece, it’s my anxiety lessening song 😛 But what I really love about her is how she performs it like the song has gone into her soul and then she’s just expressing her soul to us in song.

    • The phrasing that professional singers have never ceases to amaze me. The beginning and middle and end of each sound is planned, careful and yet so fluid and effortless. And she really does emote beautifully. The pianist is kick-ass.

      AND OMG you know Bartoli??? HAHAHA that woman makes me LAUGH and gape in awe. The thing about Sumi Jo singing is…her face doesn’t do that THING that Bartoli’s does! Haha. But yes, Sumi Jo is very good. It’s that coloratura showing through.

      But I do like Bartoli’s heaviness but its just voice type. But she’s also ridiculously accurate. But then again, Sumi Jo has this sweetness to her voice that is so lovely…

      Oh which opera goddess to choose?

      (Any readers who want to see Bartoli and her faces and her amazingness

      • I think that’s why I had a certain sticky point with Dream High when they were “teaching” Suzy that in singing a person has to emote, express with every fiber of their being the song they’re singing. She should have known that being classically trained, and suposedly Sumi Jo’s protege, emoting is not something that’s present only in pop music, every opera singer worth their salt knows how to express their song making it theirs as they share it with us.

        • Oh, I had a LOT of musical points to pick with Dream High. It was fab though:D

          1) A lot of the training they were getting is rather elementary. Kids in a MUSIC highschool would be way past that. Like teaching a class about perfect pitch and relative pitch rather than doing aural training to improve it. Sam-dong should’ve learned about that in passing. Teaching aa’ba form. SERIOUSLY. That is NOT what a special class would focus on.

          2) Deafness…I’m not even going there. I’m just going to tell myself its k-drama land. Even though Soo-hyun and Sam-dong’s dilemma ripped my heart in two.

          3) You don’t get handed a song and suddenly have to sing it. Professional auditions aren’t even done that way. You get at least a minute or two.

          4) A teacher would need time to review a composition.

          5) You don’t judge on how many notes were out of tune or how many rhythms were out of tune. It’s general intonation and rhythmic accuracy. Dynamics, articulations, phrasings.

          But it IS K-drama land….so I have to go easy on them. Plus I SUPER enjoyed it. Even the open end…*le sob* And Soo-hyun and the teacher guy…:D

            • They NEED a trained musician or at least a rEAL music teacher. Not an industry musician. They have a different (equally viable) education. But since they were focusing on classical, they should’ve asked someone like me…or me. So I could hang with Taecyeon (who speaks awesome English) and Soo-hyun. 😀

  3. I totally noticed that your clips were in the wrong order. Does this mean I get bonus points? I think opera is something I can enjoy while watching something or in the background, but I could never sit and listen to it.

    • Grr, you got to it right after I posted! I changed it 2 seconds later. Yes, you get one point.

      As for opera, listening on a CD player or w/e is hard, but if you go to the opera, its got costumes, and sets and lights and dancing and all that which makes it more fun. Or, ya know, put into a tv show rocks too!

Leave a comment. You know you wanna!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s