01 Jun TABARET Magazine: “The delightful diva”
[originally printed by TABARET Magazine, view original article here]
Hard-working soprano Joyce El-Khoury is taking the opera world by storm.
by LOUISE UMUTONI
“There are so many ways for one to interpret and colour music, which is what makes it a beautiful art form.
— Joyce El-Khoury
It takes a special kind of courage and belief in self to pursue a career in the ultra-competitive, super-specialized discipline of opera. We caught up with Joyce El-Khoury (BA ʼ05), who recently performed the role of Rusalka, the doomed water spirit, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, to find out what it takes to make a career in the arts.
Both Joyce and her younger sister, Krista Jane El-Khoury, a pop singer who studied commerce with a specialization in accounting at uOttawa, first took to the stage at the Ottawa Lebanese Festival when they were children. Today, Joyce, who graduated from the uOttawa School of Music, is gaining recognition, performing with major companies all over the world. Her next performance is with the Santa Fe Opera, in the role of Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen.
She kindly agreed to answer our questions.
Q. When did you decide that you wanted to be an opera singer?
A. I decided I wanted to be an opera singer in my first year at the University of Ottawa. I had originally wanted to pursue a pop career and had started taking lessons with a voice teacher that did classical training. After working with her for a few years, she and my parents encouraged me to apply to uOttawa music. I passed the audition, was accepted and then cast in my first opera, Bizet’s Carmen, and have not looked back since.
Q. The opera world is one of the hardest to break into. Did you have a tough time getting recognition and making a career out of it?
A. I think that any artistic career is tough to break into, but if you are honest with yourself, work hard and focus, you are moving in the right direction. I continue to follow this mindset and am thankful for the opportunities that have been presented to me as a result.
Q. What would you say is your strongest point as a musician?
A. I have a somewhat forensic approach to music. I deeply analyze each piece or role so that I can know how to colour it with my voice. I love studying history and context when I learn a piece of music. There are so many ways for one to interpret and colour music, which is what makes it a beautiful art form.
Q. What does it take to make it in this industry? What are some of the hardships associated with pursuing a career in this field?
A. It takes a lot of dedication, and we have to absolutely adore what we do in order to live with the sacrifices. We are away from our families, we are alone most of the time, living out of a suitcase and spending a lot of time on airplanes and in foreign countries. That being said, it is a tremendous gift to see and experience the world and to continuously meet new and interesting people.
Q. What would you say have been some of your most important roles?
A. Violetta (Verdi’s La Traviata) is a role which I have done in various productions throughout the world. I am preparing to perform it again with the Korean National Opera. Another role that means a great deal to me is Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. I debuted it last summer at the Castleton Festival under maestro Lorin Maazel. I have been fortunate to have a very good working relationship with Maazel. In addition to bringing me back to Castleton, he invited me to perform with the Munich Philharmonic, then in Beijing and then with the Royal Opera Muscat in Oman (La Bohème and Missa Solemnis). And finally, another important role is one that I have yet to perform, but studied under maestro James Levine when I was in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. The role is Amelia (Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra), and I look forward to singing it one day soon.
Q. Which musician do you admire most?
A. The musicians I admire the most are the composers, especially Verdi, Mozart and Wagner. Also, I am becoming more and more familiar with Donizetti because of the work I have been doing with Opera Rara. I recorded Donizetti’s Belisario and have started working on another rare work of his, Les Martyrs. All of these composers knew very well how to write for the voice and exploit it expertly.
El-Khoury has performed in the Netherlands, the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Lebanon and many other countries. Photo: Kristen Hoebermann
Q. Some people view opera as “high culture.” Do you find that this makes your art less accessible to the masses?
A. This is an ongoing debate in my business, but generally those who give opera a chance will be pleasantly surprised at how accessible it actually is.
Q. How would you describe your time at uOttawa? Did it have any impact on your career choice?
A. When I was at uOttawa, I studied with Ingemar Korjus. Our work together was very intense and he really taught me how to be honest, not only with myself but with the music as a means of communication. I owe him a great deal because he provided me with a lot of opportunities and he really believed in me. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pursue a career in opera, because he really gave me the confidence to chase my dream. Also, while at uOttawa, I did several roles in Opera Workshop under the direction of Sandra Graham. Sandra’s love of opera is infectious and inspiring. She brings her students on a journey of opera, teaching them while sharing her love and admiration for the art form.
Q. Rusalka is clearly a role that you are performing a lot this season. What is your experience of and attraction to it?
A. It’s funny that you ask me this question because it really brings me full circle. I performed the famous aria “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka in my final performance with the uOttawa orchestra, conducted by David Currie. Having performed Rusalka twice this season already, I just performed it yet again in May at the historic Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam, in a live radio broadcast. Every time I perform the role, I discover something new. It’s extremely layered and you never stop discovering new things about the music and the character. This role has the additional challenge in that it is not a human — Rusalka is a water nymph, or many liken her to a mermaid. It challenges me to think about humanity through Rusalka’s eyes.
Q. What advice, if any, would you give to students envisioning a career similar to yours?
A. Don’t take any short cuts. Don’t look for the easy way to do things. Study hard, work hard, put in the time, put in the effort and love what you do.