Glamour girl's simple life

Korean soprano Sumi Jo has two closets at home. One holds more than 250 haute couture concert gowns she has collected over 25 years, the other is full of jeans and sneakers.

"When I'm not at work, I'm very active and I love very casual clothing.

"I don't wear make-up and I'm driving, taking my dogs out or going to the supermarket. Those things, I enjoy doing, I love a lot," she tells Life! over the telephone from her home in Rome, where she has lived for the last 30 years.

Her contrasting wardrobes hold up a mirror to her life on and off stage.

When the lights come up, the 1.6m-tall star is a picture of perfection and control, her petite frame housing a voice which was hailed by the legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan as one "that appears once in every century".

But once the curtain falls, you are likely to find Jo, 51, behind the wheel of her new Nissan (she cannot remember which model it is, but "it's one of those outdoorsy cars. I love Freelanders and Jeeps, the bigger cars, the very wild cars") or taking her two dogs, 13-year-old Yorkshire Terrier Cindy and 14-year-old Shepherd dog Milly, for a walk.

The soprano will be giving a one-night-only concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. She will be presenting a varied repertoire of works by Strauss, Offenbach, Lehar, Gounod and Rachmaninov.

Listening to Jo speak is as pleasurable as hearing her sing.

Her Italian-accented English is warm and full of dramatic flourishes, punctuated by easy laughter.

She promises that her concert here - her fourth since 1998 - will be "a firework of skills".

She says: "The human voice can show a lot of different colours and techniques, and create a lot of emotion. So I try to collect songs which give me that kind of emotion, and then I want to share them with the public in Singapore."

The South Korean made her international debut at the age of 23 in 1986 as one of the leads in a Verdi opera in Trieste, Italy. It was then that she caught the eye of von Karajan, who cast her opposite the famed Spanish tenor Placido Domingo the following year.

While she has been performing for more than two decades, she is known for more than just operatic works.

In 2000, she released Only Love, a crossover album of Broadway tunes, and in 2010, her song was featured on the soundtrack of Eat Pray Love.

"While Julia Roberts was eating spaghetti, you can hear my Queen Of The Night aria in the background," she quips with a chuckle.

Jo, who is a spaghetti lover herself, can ill afford to over-indulge though, as keeping an operatic voice in perfect condition is no easy feat.

Disciplined eating is a must, she says.

Although you would not know it by looking at her svelte figure, she adds: "It's not exaggerating to say that eating is truly part of my life and eating good food is a really important pleasure of mine."

In fact, when she was in Singapore in 2004 for a performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall, her appetite almost landed her in trouble.

She recounts candidly: "I usually try to avoid spicy food because as a singer, it could damage my voice. But before the performance, I couldn't resist a kind of spicy soup that I really wanted to taste and then somehow, my tummy did something strange and I didn't feel very well."

Ever the consummate professional, she did not let her discomfort show during the recital. She says she "resisted until the end" and performed five encores before fainting.

Her diet is heavily Italian and when she is not travelling, she has an Italian housekeeper who cooks for her.

"I cannot live without pizza. Pizza Margerita, I can eat every day. I love pasta, rice, risotto, you know, carboidrati (carbohydrates)," says Jo, lapsing momentarily into Italian, a language she learnt at 19 when she moved to Rome to study music at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.

The daughter of a businessman and a housewife, Jo also speaks her native Korean and French, and understands German and Spanish.

To keep in shape, she is understandably very careful of what she eats.

"That's a difficult part of my job because I'm wearing very sexy, fine haute couture dresses, so before I put french fries into my mouth, I think 10 times."

She sees this strict adherence to a disciplined lifestyle as one of the toughest parts of her job, which involves travelling for eight to nine months a year.

As a result, she says wistfully: "I don't have enough freedom to do what I want. I cannot eat this, I cannot do that.

"I hate it, but I'm used to living like this. Nobody can ask me to go out at 11 o'clock to have a drink, that's impossible."

The bachelorette was engaged to a French literature expert in the 1990s, but the relationship did not pan out and she now thinks that she will never settle down.

She says philosophically: "I know that in my life, my voice and my music belong to many, many people, also physically because I travel, I don't think I can really belong to one man."

Age has also cooled her desire for Cupid's arrow to strike.

"That kind of passionate love, I'm not interested in anymore. My love now is more profound. It's deeper and I can share it in many different ways."

One of the ways in which Jo tries to reach out to her fans is via social media.

She has more than 24,000 followers on Twitter, which she updates several times a day. She has over 16,000 followers on Facebook.

While she says that many musicians and singers post only work-related updates, she tweets about anything under the sun, from football to politics and pets.

"My life is so beautiful. I travel all of the world, meeting beautiful people, going to fancy hotels and wearing beautiful gowns," she says.

A sombre note creeps into her voice as she muses on the downside of fame.

"On the other hand, I am completely alone. I don't have friends.

"But through all this social media, somehow I can communicate with people and when they ask me something, I answer carefully and very honestly."

If she could live life all over again, she says that she would not want to be a singer, but she would consider an alternative career as a veterinarian or a housewife.

The pescatarian - the only meat she eats is seafood - is an animal rights advocate.

In 2011, she donated 150 million won to Korea Animal Rights Advocates to construct an animal protection and education centre.

Three years before that, she made it to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) Asia-Pacific's Best Dressed List for refusing to touch fur.

She says firmly: "Animals have their rights as well and we need to respect them, especially in Asia.

"I'm very concerned about that matter, especially for dogs... I love dogs, so I want to help them be treated correctly."

As for her dream of being a housewife, she confides: "It would be nice to get married, have kids, to live as normally as possible, sleeping in my own bed, having breakfast in my own kitchen."

Though Jo may long for children in another life, she is glad for the chance to live her current one now.

She adds: "I love it. I love my job, as far as my health allows and as far as God gives me the energy and the power, I'll continue."


1962 Born Jo Su-gyeong in Seoul, South Korea. She begins piano lessons at age four and vocal lessons at age six.

1981 She enters Seoul National University to study music. During the entrance exam, she achieves the highest score in the history of the university for vocal performance.

1983 She moves to Rome in Italy to study music at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. She adopts the stage name Sumi Jo to make it easier for non- Koreans to remember her. Three years later, she is unanimously awarded first prize in the Carlo Alberto Cappelli International Competition in Verona, one of the world's most important vocal contests, which is open only to first-prize winners of other major competitions.

1986 Makes her European operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste, Italy. It is here that she catches the eye of the famed Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, who helps to launch her career.

1989 Debuts with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, once again portraying Gilda in Rigoletto.

1990 Debuts with the Chicago Lyric Opera as the Queen Of The Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

1993 Wins a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording for Die Frau Ohne Schatten with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.

2002 Sings at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Seoul.

Book it
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: Feb 20, 7.30pm
Admission: $30, $58, $78, $108, $138, $167 and $210 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.