As an only child growing up in Seoul, South Korea, South Pasadena classical singer and choral director Sunjoo Yeo recalls her mother musing that she started singing before she could talk. Now, as a world-class soprano with two decades of performance experience with the Los Angeles Opera and Los Angeles Master Chorale, Yeo is working to channel her lifelong love for music and singing to create performance opportunities for local youth in her community.
“I think I have a love in music,” Yeo told The Review. “And I think I feel I’m singing with my heart, not just using my sound.”
As a precursor to her skill in mastering multiple musical aspects, Yeo started playing piano at the age of three and developed a close relationship with music, feeling that piano was both a friend and a sibling to her. She also remembers continually singing Korean folk songs with her mother, Jung Park (who now lives in LA), and being warmly supported by her and her late father Ki Park’s encouragement to pursue her passion.
A South Pasadena resident since 2003, Yeo received her master’s degree in vocal arts from the University of Southern California. It was at USC that she met her husband Myung “Joe” Yeo. The couple’s two children attended South Pasadena schools. Rachel, 24, now works for Kaiser Permanente in Pasadena and Raymond, 17, is a senior at South Pasadena High, where he is involved with the Tiger newspaper and the soccer team.
Music is a connecting power throughout Yeo’s family, serving as another language that they share. Rachel is a singer in many local productions and Raymond is both an organist and pianist.
“We talk with each other, we share music with each other, we feel when we do music with each other because we are all musicians,” said Yeo.
At home, her husband Joe, who works in information technology for Los Angeles County, is “our only audience,” Yeo admitted with a laugh. She noted that he goes above and beyond as a driver and cook (she says his specialty is Italian) while the rest of the family prepares for concerts and performances.
“He’s a good cook,” Yeo shared with a smile. “We love his spaghetti sauce. It’s so special. I think he does a secret recipe.”
Yeo’s dedication to her art has had international ramifications as well. Over the course of nearly two decades with both the LA Opera and LA Master Chorale, Yeo has crafted an ability to sing in numerous languages including Italian, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and even Sanskrit.
Although Sanskrit is considered a dead language, she learned it in preparation for LA Opera’s upcoming performance of Satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth force”) by Philip Glass, which is inspired by Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, where he developed his groundbreaking ideas about nonviolent political resistance. Satyagraha runs Oct. 27-Nov. 11.
“Getting to know more about music, my heart is more open for others,” said Yeo. “It’s the power of music. We can make everything united.”
Yeo’s studious and creative nature has made for an impressive list of performance accomplishments in Los Angeles and beyond. Her notable solo appearances include “Stories from Korea,” conducted by Grant Gershon at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “Clocks and Clouds,” conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Hollywood Bowl, and “Opera Everyone Loves,” conducted by Edwin Benachowski at McCallum Theatre, among many others. She also received an award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival.
Looking to the bigger picture of sharing her art, Yeo is also a talented director who is taking her experience and utilizing it to both nurture young talent and share the art of established singers with her community. In 2014, Yeo made her debut as the choir director for the Independent Opera Company in their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Earlier this month, she also directed members of the LA Master Chorale at the 24th annual “Bach to Broadway” performance at St. Andrew Church in Pasadena.
Closer to home, Yeo serves as director of the Los Angeles Children’s Community Youth Choir and Laudate, which often performs in South Pasadena. Currently the youth choir numbers about 20 children, ages 6 to 18. Oneonta Congregational Church in South Pasadena supplies the rehearsal space and the church’s Oneonta Chancel Choir director, Steve Hill, assists with many of the performances. In a nod to the future, Yeo is realistic that although she may not be able to sing at her current level forever, she is making plans to share her experience and knowledge with the next generation of young singers.
“First of all, I like to be a director because I wanted to have more performances for the community and also provide a stage for young and local singers,” said Yeo. “Also to bring professional singers to the local concert so everyone can come enjoy it.”
In a further effort to nurture local talent and give back to the community, Yeo founded the non-profit organization Global Growth Youth Federation (GGYF), which is focused on bringing exposure of classical music to communities across the San Gabriel Valley. Started just last year, Yeo said she’s working to build up GGYF and is looking for others who share a similar passion for music and want to support the growth of the organization.
“For the community, I just wanted to share my experience and talent for the music,” said Yeo. “First of all, GGYF is this kind of nonprofit organization so I can bring more people, and if someone has more ideas then I can bring them to join it and make more and more for the future.”
As both a parent and a certified teacher, Yeo sees a vital place for music in the lives of children. She views it as a way to help children maintain healthy balance in a world where violence and distractions so readily catch their attention.
“For the children, they must have a good balance in their life,” expressed Yeo. “So, music gives a person the warm heart. It’s going to be a seed for their tender little heart at a young age.”
Reflecting on the importance of sharing music within today’s society, Yeo feels working together with others will not only strengthen the communal bonds of South Pasadena and the surrounding areas, but will bring peace to the hearts of individuals as well.
“With music, there’s no politics or such things as rich people or poor, or rich country or poor,” shared Yeo. “Music can support. Music can hug everything.”
For more information on Sunjoo Yeo and the Global Growth Youth Federation, visit www.ggyfe.org.