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.
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