The glamorous Korean soprano on “flirting” with her audience, meeting Dame Joan, and singing with her dog.
You’re out here for a concert at the Sydney Opera House. Do you prefer recitals to staged operas?
Yes, I usually do concerts these days. I love performing with an orchestra and wearing beautiful dresses and singing my favourite songs. In opera you have to share the stage with others, but I love it when it’s just me and the audience. It’s like flirting, you know?
You came to Australia quite often; what do you like about it?
Australia means a lot to me because I grew up listening to Dame Joan Sutherland. She’s been my icon and she’s still my favourite artist. I learned singing listening to her recordings and my very first solo album was done with her husband Richard Bonynge.
Did you ever meet Dame Joan?
I met her in Switzerland, where she had a house. She cooked spaghetti bolognese for me and we joked around and took a walk with her dog. She was a very good cook and an amazing woman. On stage she was a diva, but at home she was a normal, beautiful woman.
You also studied with another great soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. What advice did she give you?
When I went to Salzburg to study with Madame Schwarzkopf at a summer academy, I was so shocked about her beauty, her elegance and her presence. She was a beautiful diva. She taught me the importance of the lyrics and also she gave me the beauty of the German repertoire – Mahler, Schubert, Strauss – lieder I now adore.
You’re based in Italy, so is the bel canto repertoire closest to your heart?
I love Rossini and Bellini because all these Italian composers have incredibly hot blood.Musically I connect with the Italian composers because I am a hot-tempered person too: I cry loudly, I smile like crazy, and I’m not afraid to express my feelings. My personality is similar to their music – passionate, strong, emotional…
…And the style suits your voice.
Exactly. Vocally there are lots of things to show; high notes and all this incredible agility. Those things are ideal for my kind of voice. But in this year I performed Baroque music for the first time with the Academy of Ancient Music. It was the complete opposite of my character; everything had to be really calm and stylish. I loved it – I found the new me, the new Sumi.
We’ve spoken about Joan Sutherland and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and you referred to them both as “divas”. Is the diva image important to you – and all the history and trappings that come with it?
I want to be an icon of the new generation of divas. Being a diva today doesn’t mean you are capricious, cancelling performances and so on. The new diva is professional and a very positive presence. She looks beautiful and is aesthetically pleasing but also follows what is going on in the world – not only in music. Which is why I am also an artist for peace for UNESCO – I’m going to North Korea next year as a volunteer. We cannot limit ourselves to just the music field; the music world is too small for us now.
You recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of your European stage debut in Rigoletto, so what do you recall when you look back on that performance and where you’ve come?
It was my absolute first time in a professional role in Italy, but the most incredible thing was I was not scared – it was like something that had to happen. And after that debut I met Maestro von Karajan, so it was destiny.
In the intervening years have you noticed your voice changing and maturing?
I feel my voice is warmer, darker, more rounded without losing the high notes.
Do you enjoy traveling and touring?
Yes, but this time I cannot bring my little dog, Cindy Crawford. She’s a Yorkie and a singer too; her favourite repertoire is the Queen of the Night, but this time I’m sorry to not bring her to Australia to show how good a singer she is.