Q&A: Catching up with soprano Joyce El-Khoury

Joyce El-Khoury is nominated for a JUNO award for the recording Echo.

ARTSFILE is reaching out to artists from Ottawa who are making their way in the world. The results of these inquiries will form an occasional series of interviews. This time Peter Robb talks to the soprano Joyce El-Khoury who is really making her mark on opera stages in North America and Europe.

Q. Tell us what you have been doing?

A. It has been busy. The season started with singing Liu in Puccini’s Turandot with Opera Philadelphia. This was both a role and company debut. It was a wonderful experience being in my adopted hometown for a few weeks while working. I then went to sing the role of Salome in Massenet’s Hérodiade with Washington Concert Opera and my dear friend tenor Michael Fabiano.  This was a dream come true for me as it was a very special occasion being that the opera had not been performed in the U.S. for more than 20 years. The last time it was presented was with Renée Fleming and Placido Domingo in San Francisco in 1995. The music from Hérodiade is so rich and beautiful which makes me wonder why it isn’t performed more often. After this engagement, I was off to London to make my Royal Opera House Covent Garden debut singing Violetta in La traviata. Luckily, Violetta is a role that I have sung many times, so it felt like an appropriate debut to make in such an iconic theatre. Between performances, I was preparing music for my solo disc which I recorded in Manchester just days after the last performance in London.  It was a very intense schedule and I had to be very vigilant and organized, but it also was a very exciting and rewarding experience for me to record this disc of rarely performed works. Then it was off to Bordeaux for Leïla in Pearl Fishers, which was a role debut as well. Now I find myself in Ottawa getting ready for Rossini’s Stabat Mater in Paris next month, followed by a concert in London’s Cadogan Hall for the official release of the disc. The concert is with Maestro Carlo Rizzi, who conducted the Hallé Orchestra on the album and with wonderful tenor Michael Spyres who also recorded an album of his own as well (in the same sessions).  We sang duets on each other’s discs, and these will also be presented in this concert. I will end the season with Violetta at the Glyndebourne Festival! The English countryside will be just what I need by then.

Q. Do you have a base that you are working out of?
A. Actually, for the last (almost) three years, I have been hopping all over the world with my suitcases, and loving it.  In the summer of 2014, I was preparing to head over to the Santa Fe Opera for a new production of Carmen when I looked at my calendar for the next 18 months and realized that I would only be able to be home in Philadelphia for 13 days. I decided this was wasteful and put all my things in a storage unit. I thought I would do this for about a year, but, little did I know… it’s now been three. I’m beginning to consider settling somewhere, however. I do enjoy traveling, and once I’m settled in a city (with my suitcases unpacked!), I’m quite content. However, I think the time has come to make a change. I’m in the middle of planning the next step, and not exactly sure where I will settle.  I have a new nephew in Ottawa, so that is very tempting…
Q. Having worked on both sides of the Atlantic, what is different about being in Europe and performing there on a regular basis?
A. What is immediately apparent to me is the slower pace of life in Europe. Most people know how to take time to enjoy themselves, and aren’t necessarily driven by money or ambition in an unhealthy way.  They know what is important to them, and seek to find balanced lives. I’ve just come back from Bordeaux where all restaurants close between 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. If you’re hungry during that time, you have a problem. That being said, it allows the workers to have quality hours to their day, which I respect and admire. The performing arts and opera are more inherently part of the collective conscience. Almost every city has an opera house, and being that opera is part of general culture, people are more likely to be informed about it. Audiences are discerning and enthusiastic and I rarely get the “You’re an opera singer?!” question followed by “But what is your real job?”
Q. Tell me about to solo album?
A. This is a very exciting project for me. It has been in the works for quite some time now. I recorded a selection of arias with the wonderful Maestro Carlo Rizzi and the Hallé Orchestra in the U.K. This is my third recording project with the Opera Rara label, but my first solo disc. It is a tribute to soprano Julie Dorus-Gras, who was famous in the 1830s and 1840s for creating various roles in opera premieres such as Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, Teresa in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Matilde in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Eudoxie in Halevy’s La Juive, to name a few. The disc features arias from these operas among others, as well as excerpts from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. I think my favourite on the album is Hélas, sans le revoir…from Weber’s Robin des bois, which is the French version of Der Freischütz. Dorus-Gras sang this in its French version in concerts, and to my knowledge it has not been performed since.
Q. You’ve just finished a run as Leila in the Pearl Fishers. Tell me about her. Tell me about the opera.
A. It was a wonderful, enriching experience with great artists in an exquisite theatre (in Bordeaux, France) — lucky me. The opera is being done more and more (especially in Europe) lately, and getting the outings that it deserves  The story is quite simple, and the characters aren’t as developed as one might be used to, however, the drama is there, and the characters each have a purpose and a story. Bizet was 25 when this work premiered. To have such skill, mastery and imagination at this age is, to me,  awe-inspirinig.  Here we have his very first opera which is completely rich in color and atmosphere, helping the listener to be immersed in the sounds of Ancient Ceylon. What I found interesting in singing Leïla is how her vocal music evolves throughout the opera. She begins the opera with a light and high coloratura aria and ends the third act (in our version) singing a duet with Zurga, which is very intensely orchestrated. The vocal lines at this point are completely representative of her struggle.  She is pleading with Zurga to save the man she loves and you can hear her despair in the music. It is quite a vocal transformation for her throughout the opera.

Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in a scene from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi @ Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Q. Then it’s back to Violetta at Glyndebourne. You have performed this role a lot. What does it mean to you?
A. Violetta has taken me all over the world. I first studied her when I was at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia in 2008 and since then she has grown and developed with me. It is quite surreal to think that by this summer I will have done over 70 performances of La Traviata, but it is a role that I adore and which is extremely rewarding to perform. She has so many nuances and so much depth to her character that there is always something to discover with each interpretation. When I was in Paris two years ago, I visited the grave of the real Violetta: Marie Duplessis in Montmartre Cemetery. It was spine-tingling and a moment I will never forget. This is what I was thinking of when I made my Covent Garden debut this year singing this role. I had watched this famous Royal Opera production when I first started learning the role at AVA, and here I was in the costumes and on the set that I had dreamt of being. It was a wonderful moment for me, especially knowing how many years this production has been given in London and wondering how Marie Duplessis would feel if she knew what her life and story has meant to so many people.
Q. You are careful about the roles you take on, why?
A. I want to keep my voice as healthy, high and light as possible for as long as possible. I don’t want to push my voice beyond its limits and it’s important for me to let it develop in a natural, healthy way. Although it is a dream of mine to one day sing Butterfly (I suspect that I will at some point), there is no reason to rush it. The role is very demanding vocally and dramatically, and I want to make sure that I am ready for it. Right now, I’m focusing on bel canto repertoire for the most part. I have done a few obscure bel canto roles and am beginning to delve into the more dramatic ones such as Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata, which I will be doing twice next season.
Q. It’s a long way from uOttawa and Ingemar Korjus’s class. Reflect on the journey for me.
A. I remember standing in Professor Korjus’s studio during my final year at U of O, looking out the window and asking myself: ‘How do I get out there? How do I do it?’ I had no industry contacts and no clue how any aspect of the business really worked. Looking back now, I realize how it really has been a journey of hard work, sacrifice and tenacity. I’m often asked what advice I would give to young singers. My answer is always the same: ‘Don’t look for shortcuts in your artistic journey. Do the work, the nitty-gritty, and yes, even the boring detailed work, plays an essential part in the building of a career. My path has been set brick-by-brick and it has been windy and bumpy at times, but one thing always led me to the next. … and I have no regrets. I had help along the way of course. Every singer needs support and mentorship, and I was lucky to have both.
Q. What’s next?
A. One thing I am very excited to talk about is my role debut of Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata next season at the Opera National de Bordeaux. The opera is being presented as a tribute to Maria Callas. She has always been my queen, so I am humbled to be able to honour her. I will then repeat it in Switzerland with Opera St. Gallen. Another very exciting project is my return to the Royal Opera House to sing the first ever performance of Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida. The opera was never premiered in Donizetti’s time. In fact, he had taken some of the music from it and used it in La Favorite. Most of the music will never have been heard before. To be able to share “new” music with the public is my greatest joy and privilege.
Q. When are you back in town?
A. I will be back for a few days in July before I head to Glyndebourne.  I must get some hours in my parent’s pool. It’s always a great joy for me to come home and be surrounded by those that I love.
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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.