22 Mar Opera Canada, Vol. 53, No. 1
In the competitive world of building an opera career, a beautiful voice, solid training, abundant musicality, physical attractiveness, ingratiating stage persona are all key, but it never hurts to have Lady Luck on your side, too. Just ask Joyce El-Khoury. While singing Lauretta in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival in 2010, the soprano won the conductor’s respect and trust when she also had to step in for an ailing colleague in Suor Angelica. She was well prepared: “Angelica was a role I had been studying for years. I feel I know this woman! Its rare that you feel you can relate to a character on so many levels.”
Her performance in Suor Angelica turned Maazel into something of a champion who has opened other doors. “Maestro Maazel has been very supportive of my career, inviting me to sing lead roles. I just did Rosina in Beijing with him, and I’ll do La bohème and Missa Solemnis with him in Munich.” She has also just won plaudits for her UK debut as Violetta for the Welsh National Opera. “Joyce El-Khoury made a strong company debut,” wrote The Guardian’s critic, and another praised her for making “light work of Verdi’s demanding vocal part … (Violetta’s) protracted spiral downwards into bodily and vocal oblivion was handled with consummate dramatic skill.” With the Feb./Mar. UK debut under her belt, the Ottawa-native looks forward to her first Magda in La rondine for Des Moines Metro Opera (Jun./Jul.) and reprising Violetta for Opéra Théâtre Saint-Étienne and De Nederlandse Opera. There’s also a recording in the works–Donizetti’s Belisario for Opera Rara.
Born in Lebanon, El-Khoury moved with her family to Ottawa at six. Music was part of her childhood, singing in the local Catholic church, following in the footsteps of several generations on her father’s side. “My parents tell me I would stand in the middle of our living room singing to our guests when I was three or four.” Her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in voice even though she had her mind on a career in nursing (“I had the worst case of stage fright you could imagine.”) But at University of Ottawa, El-Khoury was nurtured by voice teacher and bass-baritone Ingemar Korjus and his wife, mezzo Sandra Graham, “I would not be where I am today, if it weren’t for them,” she says. “Ingemar taught me how to sing, and how to be honest with my music and true to the art form. To this day, when I practice, I ask myself, ‘What would Professor Korjus say?’ Sandra gave me the chance to perform my first opera, Carmen. Her passion for opera was contagious, and I learned a lot watching her teach.”
After graduation, El-Khoury moved to the U.S. to study with noted voice teacher Bill Schuman at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. Her dark-hued lyric soprano has an unusually solid middle register as well as a shimmering high pianissimo, a rare combination. She attributes her ability to sing soft to an accidental discovery: “It was late at night in my parent’s basement and I had some music to learn. I was singing to myself quietly and found this spot my throat [for quiet singing]. I took it to Bill and we worked it so that it comes easily to me.”
Given her beautiful voice and strong technique, El-Khoury has been singularly successful in competitions, winning the Loren L. Zachary Competition, the George London Foundation, the Mario Lanza Vocal Competition and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal National Competition. A recent graudate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Program, El-Khoury feels she learned a great deal about herself there: “The highlights of my time there were the people I was able to work with — pianist Ken Noda, who was a big help to me, soprano Renata Scotto, who is now one of my mentors, and of course Maestro Levine. He encouraged me to study the taller, higher Verdi repertoire–Desdemona and Simone Boccanegra’s Amelia. So when I sang “Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core” from I vespri Siciliani, it won me competitions and got me jobs.” Given her success in Verdi and Puccini, its easy to be pigeonholed in this fach, but El-Khoury doesn’t want to be categorized: “I feel that a voice is a voice. I don’t want to limit myself by saying I’m a lyric soprano or a lyric coloratura. I don’t know what to call myself. If I feel I can do justice to a role vocally, I’ll try it.” — Joseph So