Sumi Jo on the madder side of love

For one night only, Sumi Jo is joined by baritone José Carbó, conductor-pianist Guy Noble, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, for a sparkling evening of operatic and popular classics. The Adelaide Review had the rare opportunity of speaking with her ahead of her visit.

“You’ve got ‘a voice from above’,” Herbert von Karajan said upon auditioning a young South Korean coloratura soprano, then in her mid-20s, in Salzburg in 1988. “This is the voice I could hear once in almost 100 years,” he said, and his words immediately opened all the doors of the world’s opera houses and festivals. So began a career that has seen Sumi Jo rise to become one of the most acclaimed voices of our era.

Your concert is titled Mad for Love. Do you think madness and love go together, in life as well as in opera?

In the 19th century, most of the stories are melodramas involving subjects like love, revenge and passion and death. That’s because, I think, most common emotions we feel are happiness and sorrow and justice. The typical happiness is fulfilled with love, and typical sorrow comes from hatred. These common emotions have been within our minds from the beginning, and are still in us regardless of time and geographic location. As we all agree, these common emotions are around us every day, even in this modern time. Betrayal of love always makes us mad and feel sorrow. It’s always been like that and it will be like that forever. Other subjects like obsession and jealousy also intensify the melodramas around us.

In opera, the spectacle of characters going crazy often seems to intrigue audiences. Why do you think this is?

The audience who enjoys dramas such as movies, opera, plays and musicals — tends to fall in love with characters of the story by treating himself or herself as one of those characters in the story. When the main character of the story is going crazy for love, the audience cannot resist the emotions of this character. Obviously it depends on the quality of the story. I think it is quite a natural reaction of the audience to become intrigued by the story, since they all want to share the same emotions of the character of their interest one way or another.

One of your most celebrated roles is Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani. Can you tell us about her Mad Scene in Act II, and how she is driven mad by jealousy when she believes her fiancé has run off with another woman?

First of all, Elvira of Bellini’s I Puritani is such a small, pure young mind who has never been exposed to the real sophisticated world of human society. Her innocent mind simply has not experienced any love in the past, and her dramatic emotions towards her fiancé make it enough for her to think bad things about him and feel such a hard betrayal by him. We can find quite a high similarity in Ophelia going mad in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well. I cannot agree more about this madness of Elvira’s emotions, and I become her on stage when I sing this Mad Scene aria. But I always try to deliver not only the emotions but the best musical expression of her mind of the aria for the audience as well, since this aria is one of the best Bel Canto arias — a role of mine — in Italian opera.

The heroine Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is another one of your famous roles. Why does she end up stabbing her husband on her wedding night?

Lucia’s young years were terrible. Since she has grown up under the pressure of her family and especially of her brother Enrico, her stressful environment made her even see the ghost of a woman in the yard. Under such unstable circumstances and state of mind, she is forced to marry to Lord Arturo, for whom she does not have any love. Even any small stress or pressure around you, if collectively gathered, will create pressure on a person to make wrong reactions. This happened to Lucia on her wedding night. This terrible crime could be considered, if described in modern times, an act of error under pressure. This incident can be seen as being made a victim of circumstance around one’s family legacy.


Sumi Jo performs Lucia di Lammermoor’s ‘Mad Scene’ in 2003

What is it with 19th-century opera composers that made them write all these mad scenes, typically involving female roles?

Before the 19th century, all that mattered were relationships between humans and God. As we go through the Renaissance, everyone realises the importance of human beings as themselves, not only as creatures of the God. Composers started to describe human emotions. As composers start to create more dramatic music, there had to be females playing sacrifice in the story, especially dramatic dying in love. As described earlier, audiences tend to immerse themselves in the opera characters while they are observing their behaviour. It seems that if the story is dramatic, involving young female roles going crazy in love, the effect on the audience’s emotional involvement gets expanded.

Sumi Jo
Mad for Love
Festival Theatre
Sunday, July 15, 5pm
adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au

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