By Lara Tan (22A01B) and Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)
What does a night at the opera bring to mind?
Hundreds of people sitting stone-faced in a cavernous concert hall, silently immersing themselves in the music of ages long past? A stuffy, esoteric pursuit of cultural enlightenment for only the initiated? An overall solemn, purely intellectual affair with little room for fun?
As it turns out, that isn’t all there is to it.
We went down to the Esplanade last month, looking to spend a night at the opera with this lovely lady.
Sumi Jo is a familiar name to the opera-acquainted ear; the South Korean soprano has enjoyed a glittering career since the 1980s, performing with some of the greatest singers, conductors, and orchestras around the world.
Despite being a veteran on the operatic stage, that night she chose to step away from the melodrama of opera. No fancy costumes, no stage directions, no other singers on stage. Just her, her pianist (the wonderful Jeff Cohen), and the audience, in an intimate recital setting.
After almost ten minutes of anticipation, the queen herself. From the moment she stepped, amid thunderous applause, into the swathe of light cut out by the spotlight, Jo commanded the entire concert hall.
Her programme was a veritable mix of genres, from 17th century Baroque music to newer, contemporary compositions. Spanning languages from Italian, French, English and even her native Korean, it was undoubtedly an exciting collection of songs for the evening, even if we weren’t always familiar with what was being sung.
However, the programme also had opportunities for Cohen to feature his own versatility and individuality as an artist. He delighted the audience with the melancholic Clair de Lune (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy, as well as the groovy Charleston Rag by Eubie Blake.
As a collaborative pianist to Jo, he was brilliant, and the chemistry between both of them was evident. He followed her with impressive fidelity as he accommodated her fluctuations in tempo, and brought out the best in her melodious instrument.
He also demonstrated his sense of humour by letting loose during a more jovial song, yodelling heartily just like she had sung.
However, there was no doubt that the star of the show that night was Jo herself. A master of the stage, every new appearance was met with thunderous applause, as she went on and off the stage in between certain songs for some rest.
When it came to her arias and art songs, she tackled each song with artistic sensitivity. Her rendition of Sposa son disprezzata by Antonio Vivaldi featured breathtaking dynamic control that left the audience in raptures, and her performance of Villanelle by Eva dell’Acqua showed off the best of her tender musical phrasing.
Notably, the programme also included Korean songs: Into Flower Clouds (꽃구름속에, kkochguleumsog-e) and As the Spring Approaches (강건너 봄이 오듯, gang-geonneo bom-i odeus). While there seemed to be a disproportionately large number of Jo’s Korean compatriots in the audience, it was a heartening nod to her origins, and brought a personal flavour to the concert overall.
Of course, to those who understood the lyrics, it was all the more poignant to hear the familiar language being sung with such emotion, so far from Korea.
As we sat there, we overheard someone whispering in Korean: “I didn’t think she’d include songs from our culture like Into Flower Clouds in her programme, [that’s] quite meaningful.”
The last aria on her programme, O luce di quest’anima, was an ebullient finish to the concert (or so we thought). This perhaps showcased her vocal acrobatics the best, in a combination of trilling high notes, soaring leaps and rapid running notes.
And just when we thought the evening couldn’t get any better, she obliged us with not one, not two, not three, but four encores.
The very first encore Jo performed was perhaps the most well-known tune sung that evening: O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. A lyrical staple of the operatic repertoire, she brought out all the emotional gravitas required of her, leaving the audience in a stunned, touched silence.
However, the affected mood had completely changed by the very last song she sang that evening. It was time for Jo to sing the famous Doll aria from Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, where a lifelike automaton sings but needs to be wound up as it runs out of energy.
One of her most-performed songs, she even teasingly told the audience that she had to “check if she had” her high note. It was, after all, the end of a taxing musical programme, and the night was not getting any younger. She found the note effortlessly, much to the amusement and raucous approval of the audience.
Her brilliant comedic performance elicited fits of laughter from the audience as she pretended to run out of energy in her doll persona, slumping over dramatically and perking back up with a goofy smile. Her pianist was also integral to the absurdity of their performance, as he tried his very best (twice) to restart the “doll” by rewinding her “clockwork”.
The evening finally ended (quite literally) on a high note, and after several more curtain calls, Sumi Jo left the stage to the enthusiastic, rapturous applause of the audience.
As audience members dispersed and left their seats, we couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of warmth and gratitude. Whether it was returning to the concert hall at full capacity after almost two years in the pandemic or watching our very first classical performance ever, there was certainly something new in the experience for each of us.
For one of us, the maiden opera experience was one of immense awe. It felt like an induction into the mystical land of opera music; but more than that, it was breathtaking to sit in on such an extraordinary display of vocal skill.
For the other, it was reassuring and almost emotional to be able to step back into the concert hall which had once been filled at barely half capacity, with livestream cameras taking the place of living, breathing audience members. A hopeful nod to the future, as regulations (fingers crossed) continue to be relaxed.
And with that, both of us left the concert hall, after falling under Jo’s captive spell for almost three hours. If you’re looking to experience the magic of the concert hall, unwind after a gruelling week, or even find an excuse to dress up and go out with your friends and family, we highly recommend a night at the opera, or any other concert for that matter.
You’ll probably discover something new and unexpected there or about yourself — just like we did.