Hit hard by the pandemic, soprano Jo Su-mi finds solace in the magic of music


In Italy, the number of daily coronavirus cases have been reaching as many as 10,000 while the mortality rate is about 3 percent.

“I can’t even describe in words [how bad] the situation is here — it’s totally different from Korea in terms of scale, and I’m really scared,” renowned Korean soprano Jo Su-mi, who’s been living in Rome for over three decades, said in a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, on Dec. 29. “I saw a truck packed with coffins moving in the middle of the night because they lacked space. It’s heartbreaking, but I also feel nervous.”

The coronavirus and death were always near her.

“Around Christmas I was going to upload a video of me singing, but on the first day of practice, there was a call from my pianist that she’d been infected,” Jo said. “One of the performers who did an online concert with me in June was infected too. My best friends lost their parents in this pandemic as well.”

In May last year, she faced the death of her friend.

“When my best friend died due to the virus, I was in a very bad place,” she said. “Especially after attending her funeral, I couldn’t do anything [for a while].”

Despite the tidal wave of tragic news, Jo persevered and held on to singing over the year. In April she uploaded a video of herself singing “Ave Maria” while playing her piano, offering a message of support to medical staff and workers on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19. In June she held a small concert in Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia, Rome, with renowned Italian chamber orchestra I Musici. In July she released a new song, titled “Life is a Miracle,” which she sang in the memory of her friend who had recently passed. With her friend’s son Federico Paciotti, the performers each sang and recorded the song in their homes. In December she consoled people by uploading a Christmas carol medley on YouTube.

“You know me, I had to do something,” Jo said. “I’ve never done anything because others pushed me to do it. The world has come to a stop, but we can’t also stand still.”

The following are edited excerpts of Jo’s experience in the pandemic and the hope she found within.

Soprano Jo Su-mi held a series of online concerts last year during the Covid-19 pandemic to interact with people through her music. [YOUTUBE CAPTURE]

Q. You’ve had to deal with the coronavirus on a very personal level. How has it impacted you?

A. I had the corona blues — I felt anxious, stressed, and depressed. It was the music that saved me. It really did. It’s funny though — there aren’t a lot of singers who would play the piano or produce music by themselves in these times. But [for me], my mother’s nagging which had me play the piano eight hours per day really helped.

Q. How did music save you?

A. When you hear the music, you hear the generation, the society and the history. It’s not just classical music. I also listen and study BTS and Blackpink’s music as well. I feel comforted when I experience something that’s different from reality. [Music has] magical powers. That’s why I wanted to have an online concert. I wanted to comfort people, and tell them, “It’s all right, it’s going to be okay.” I thought of it as my mission.

Q. How did you find performing online?

A. It’s almost driving me crazy, not to be able to sing on stage. I am the type of person who needs an audience. I need my fans, and I consider receiving applause as my lifeline. I felt abandoned when I couldn’t stand on stage anymore. It was scary to feel secluded, and I felt that I had to communicate with people in another way.

Q. Was it your first time holding an online concert and singing in your home?

A. I used to hate online performances. I studied my entire life to sing without a microphone on stages with good acoustics, and the idea of singing online was out of bounds for me. But I've changed my mind now. Seeing my friend die, and witnessing my close ones sick, I felt I had to do something. For the carol medley, I set up the stage all by myself. I rented a gallery from my friend and set up the stage, made sure I washed my hands profusely and played the piano and sang.

Q. What did this pandemic leave you with?

A. I was more anxious because I lived alone. But as people say, with crisis comes opportunity. It was a difficult time, but I tried my hand at things that I haven’t tried before. First of all, I cut all of my nails and practiced piano a lot. I cooked my dogs’ food by myself and read books, imagining about the world after the pandemic.

Q. Are you going to continue hosting online concerts?

A. I totally agree 200 percent with the saying that “Without music, life would be a mistake.” I will continue to play music no matter what kind of pandemic comes along. Rather than having people praise my singing or piano skills, I want to approach people using my talents. I don’t know what kind of world will come about next after this, but what I do know for sure is the role of artists and musicians has grown much bigger.

Q. It’s the 35th anniversary of your debut in Italy in 2021. How do you feel about that?

A. I first thought, “No way! I still feel like I’m a student.” The second thought that followed after was that it still doesn’t make sense. Over three decades have passed, but there’s still so much music I want to study.

Q. What do you want to tell people for the new year?

A. The world has stopped, but we can’t. We need to keep going in any kind of way we can, and every one of us needs to use the light within us to play the role of a beacon who can light up our surroundings.