Opera Canada: Joyce El-Khoury’s Rising Star

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Among the younger generation of Canadian singers, Joyce El-Khoury stands out as the proverbial complete package – great voice, great looks and a great stage presence.  Her luminous lirico spinto is a voice type that’s always in demand.  Combine that with excellent technique, exemplary musicality, discipline and focus, and you have a winner.  The icing on the cake is a super-soft high pianissimo, one that recalls great divas of the past like Leyla Gencer and Montserrat Caballe, but that is a rare quality among sopranos today.  Since stepping in fro an ailing colleague as Suor Angelica at conductor Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival in 2010, El-Khoury has emerged as one of the most promising young artists.  Las spring at De Nederlandse Opera, she was scheduled to sing just two performances of Violetta, but was awarded nine after Russian soprano Marina Poplavskya withdrew from Willy Decker’s production of La traviata.  If you’re unfamiliar with the El-Khoury voice, you can get a tantalizing taste of it online at YouTube via her we site (joyceelkhoury.com).


This summer, the soprano enjoyed a highly acclaimed role debut as Desdemona in Otello at Castleton, again conducted by Maazel, who has championed her.  A further sign of her ascendance, she recently joined the roster of the prestigious Columbia Artists Management, guided by CAMI Vice President William Guerri, who also manages the career of Ben Heppner.  Giver her hectic schedule, I finally caught up with her at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, where El-Khoury was in transit for a little downtime before starting rehearsals as Mimi/Musetta in her Canadian Opera Company debut this fall.  We talked at length about her career and her rapidly rowing list of heroines, including her signature role of Violetta and her Desdemona debut.


 “I’ve sung Violetta 30 or 40 times by now, it’s been in my voice and my psyche for year, “ she says, “With Desdemona, it’s a clean slate, a fresh role.  When preparing Desdemona, I could really feel the difference between having sung something so many times versus never.  Violetta is very highly strung, her music is very beautiful and very florid.  It requires three types of voices:  coloratura in the first act; dramatic in the second act, very heavy and really verismo; and then it’s more lyric again at the end.  Compared to Violetta, the role of Desdemona is a more relaxed way of singing.  When I was in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann [Young Artist Development] Program, Maestro Levine said, ‘You must sing Desdemona, it’s a perfect role for you.’ It actually turned out to be perfect vocally.  Her lines are legato, and I find it very liberating to stand there and just let the voice soar over the orchestra.”


While some sopranos find it dramatically difficult to play Desdemona, who is often seen as a passive and weak figure, El-Khoury has a different take: “I’ve given it a lot of thought.  Why doesn’t she realize that every time she mentions Cassio, Otello goes crazy?  I don’t feel that she is dumb; she’s actually incredibly strong.  If you read the original Shakespeare, she stands up to her father, telling him, ‘ I want to marry this man.’  However, we do see her getting weaker and weaker in the opera as Otello comes after her.  She loves him so completely that it doesn’t even occur to her that he suspects her of anything.  That’s how I see her.”  After success at Castleton, El-Khoury expects Desdemona will play a prominent role in her repertoire in the future.

I’ve sung Violetta 30 or 40 times by now, it’s been in my voice and my psyche for year

This fall, in the COC’s new production of La bohème, she renews acquaintance with a favourite role (Mimì) while taking on a new one (Musetta).  She has sun Mimì with Maazel in Castleton before taking it on tour to the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman – “the theatre was gorgeous, and the audience was great, on their feet cheering at the end.”  Her most recent Mimi was for Opera Lyra Ottawa opposite American tenor Micahel Fabiano, who will also be her Rodolfo in Toronto.  Mimì is often portrayed as a good natured, quiet girl, no unlike Carmen’s Micaëla, a role El-Khoury will sing at Santa Fe Opera next summer.  But she prefers to take a more nuanced approach to these characters:  “In the original literary work [Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger], several characters are all called Mimi, so she is really a composite.  In the play, she’s like Musetta, flirty and sexy, doing what she has to do to survive.  Puccini created this pious character as a contrast to Musetta, but I think they are more alike than it seems. Mimi probably has outbursts like Musetta, but we don’t see them on stage.  She’s very passionate and feels things very deeply.  As for Musetta, Puccini wrote into her music lots of details of her personality.  He uses staccati to show her abrasive nature and her spunky attitude.  We tend to see her as completely flashy and seeking attention, but she also has depth – we see it in the last act.  You know, people are complex beings and rarely are one-dimensional.  The more we can bring this complexity to our portrayals, the more we’re able to vie to the audience what they come for.”


Early next year, El-Khoury will add Rusalka to her growing repertoire, for nwo in concert and semi-staged formats in San Antonio, Texas, North Carolina and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  With her power, the range of tone colours at her disposal and her alluring stage presence, Rusalka should be a very good fit. “My job for the next few years is to build repertoire, to sing as many of my roles as possible,”  she says.  Beckoning as Marguerite (Faust) and Manon, two heroines she sang in her student days.  In five or six years, when her voice is ready, her goal is to tackle the three Donizetti Queens in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.  Given her strong technique, Italianate timbre and bel canto training under the tutelage of well-known voice teacher Bill Schuman, these are realistic goals.  A good hint of things to come is her debut recording of Belisario, a Donizetti rarity for, appropriately, the Opera Rara label, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.  After recording, they gave a concert performance at the Barbican Centre, which was extremely well received.  Antonina, Belisario’s wife, is arguably the biggest sing of her young career:  “It’s a great part – very florid, with some highly dramatic moments that require a lot of vocal thrust, a big range up to a high D.  My character has a huge scene at the beginning, some ensembles and a uge scene at the end.  There is not much archival material, and I had only heard the Leyla Gencer recording.  Actually, when I’m studying a role, I don’t like to listen to recordings.  I know some singers do and it helps them to memorize, but for me, I listen to it a couple of times just to get the gist of the orchestration and the colours.  Once I start learning, no more recordings!”


In our airport interview, El-Khoury comes across as an artist or purpose and focus, with a clear vision for her own career.  And clearly she has the will to take it as far as she can. “You have to want it very badly to put up with the difficulties and the challenges of the career.  We’re along 95% of the time.  You meet new people in every job, a new environment, new bed, new hotel, new food… You know, I love it!  IT’s a wonderful way to experience life and enjoy the world.  The downside of being away is missing family and big events.  I can’t tell you how much the last five days in my Philabdelphia apartment has done for my mental health, just being there.  Before this, I was last in my own bed in January, for two days.  But I wouldn’t give it up for anything; I wouldn’t change it for anything.  It’s a privilege to be on that stage, to do what we love to do.” – Joseph So