“Do you know the saddest moment in every one of my discussions with Romanians? It’s when young people ask me why I came to this country and then proceed to tell me how horrible it is here.

I often put myself in your shoes and ask myself what it would be like to talk about my own country in this way. Sad, truly sad. It would mean that I don’t have respect for my home, for my family.

Romanians should not feel inadequate in any way. Look in the field I work in — opera. Romania has heaps of talent.”

Ato Sumi is a 33-year-old Japanese soprano and a permanent collaborator of the Romanian National Opera. She recently won first place at the Romantic music competition in Baia Mare An Autumn Story where she interpreted the song The Little Shepherd with 300 Sheep.

Ato speaks Romanian with a regional Transylvanian accent and she emphasizes moments of surprise with interjections borrowed from Hungarian: oioioioioi!

Ato Sumi, standing next to ballerina Chiharu Yamamoto, who works at the Cluj Opera.

From Kyoto to Cluj

Ato took piano and clarinet lessons and began singing in the choir of her native city, Kyoto, at the age of 6. In Japan, it’s mandatory to take part in the orchestra or choir in the public school system. In high school, she began specialty studies in music.

But her musical options in Japan were limited after high school. The university tuition was too expensive for her family and there was tremendous competition to get into the only state-run Opera House. Of the over 200 colleagues who began their specialty studies at the same time as Ato, not a single one of them makes music anymore.

Ato told her friends that she would go to ‘the ends of the earth’ to make music. In a way, she did just that in 2002 when she moved in Romania to continue her studies at the Gheorghe Dima Academy of Music in Cluj.

To the wide-eyed young lady from Kyoto, Romania was not a crazy place to go. It was the home of Angela Gheorghiu who leaped onto the world stage in 1994 for her role as Violetta Valery in La Traviata. The BBC covered Gheorghiu’s performance live from the Covent Garden Opera House. Ato recalls:

“Mrs. Angela Gheorghiu looked like she had stepped right out of a painting. Young, beautiful and energetic. She was a real diva with an incredible technical ability and attitude.”

At the age of 19, Ato said goodbye to the cherry blossoms of Kyoto and boarded the plane for the opera scene of post-Communist Europe.

Angela Gheorghiu. Photo: Facebook

First Impressions

After a connection in Paris, Ato landed in Budapest. Then she hopped on the train to Cluj. The train broke down in the middle of Hungarian farmland covered in snow. Ato watched in horror as agitated, vociferous passengers were marched off the train through snow drifts to a bus that drove them to the next station.

Ato went through a difficult transition after she arrived in Romania. It took three years to get settled and to stop being affected by the fact that people treated her unfairly.

At that time, there weren’t many Asians in Romania so I received weird stares all the time. That’s when people threw eggs at me. It really happened, right in the middle of Cluj. I looked upon this incident without any resentment, as an isolated event.

Everything was grey back then, 12-13 years ago. I had the feeling that the only place I could see color was in your flag.

I didn’t know what communism meant, but I sensed that Romania still maintained the atmosphere of the old regime. That it had entered in peoples’ physiognomy. I remember visiting Paris during that time and burst into tears on the Champs-Élysées.”

Settling In

Ato studied for six years at the music academy in Cluj — four years plus two years for her Master’s. She’s certain that she was a part of the golden generation in the Transylvanian Conservatory.

She was a classmate of the tenor Ștefan Pop who won Operalia in 2010, a competition that Plácido Domingo has organized for young opera singers since 1993.

“Imagine, I had just come from Japan and was immediately presented with the meaning of native talent. Ștefan was sensational, a genius, it was evident even in his first year. I think he was the youngest singer to have won the Operalia competition.

And then Adela Zaharia, another classmate, won in 2017. It’s the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal in sports. I then wondered: what am I doing in this field? Because I’m not as talented as they are.

Come on, don’t you know…There are Romanians in every single huge theatre in the world. Metropolitan, Vienna, Berlin, Rome. You are at the top in this domain. I’m not at all exaggerating.

And this irritates me that you have no idea what you have. It’s hard for a foreigner from Asia who wasn’t raised in European culture to penetrate this world.

In Japan, there’s only one state-run opera house and you know how big the population is there. Here in Cluj you have two opera houses and the cheapest ticket is around 2 euros. Mamma mia, only two euros to see a show.

After a difficult start, I have to say that Romania’s evolution has been fantastic in the past years. I am very happy for Romanians. You can travel easily and you can make use of the fact that you learn foreign languages so easily.

There’s a Japanese department in the Cluj University and you almost sound like us, with a really good pronunciation. I don’t know how you manage to do it so well. You all have a good ear, I think you’re all inherently musicians.”

Finding her place

Ato’s vocal technique places her in the soprano lirico-leggero category. She could be Adina in Elixir of Love by Donizetti, or Susanna in Figaro’s Wedding. Ato covets the role of Liù the slave from Turandot.

But competition is fierce, and the “waiting room” at the lyric-leggero register is the busiest. She says her biggest problem is that she is so tiny. What do you do when you’re only 4’11” and you have to sing alongside of people who literally take over the stage?

Ato adores every moment on stage. Performing in the Opera choir feels to her as “the most elevated artistic form” and that her performance is as important as Angela Gheorghiu.

The Japanese “spirit” doesn’t lend to a career as a soloist. The culture of respect for others causes the spotlight to be distributed evenly, from the soloists to the chorus, and from ballet to make-up. The Japanese do not end with the fat lady singing, the expression that has dominated stereotypes in the world of opera.

In Romania, the chorus is seen as a kind of exile for the unfortunate who have not succeeded on their own.

“I’m not going to cry if I become a choir member. Doing something together is a little harder for Romanians. When Japanese set their minds to doing something together, the result can be incredible. But for a Japanese soloist to appear, well that’s more uncomfortable because we’re too modest, too closed off, too… I don’t know what.

Opera is the greatest art form in the world and we do it together. Every production requires over one hundred people working together. We have to be unified.”

Romania is now home

Ato hasn’t seen cherry blossoms since she left home 13 years ago. The cherry blossom celebrations are in April and she only returns to Kyoto once a year, usually during the summer.

She knows she will never be able to put down roots in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“This is such a sad thing for me and I’m afraid I won’t do a good job explaining it.

My work here is very special. I put all my heart, all my passion into my work. Some of my colleagues say — let it be dear, don’t get frustrated, even if you get angry, nothing will change.

But things are changing. It is worth the struggle to help people see their potential. For this privilege, I am willing to give up the cherry trees blossoming in Kyoto.”