‘She is almost equal to an imagination.’ This was notorious British actress Fanny Kemble’s assessment of the legendary Italian soprano Giuditta Pasta, the Queen of Bel Canto who in the course of a remarkable career created the title rôles in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda, and Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Contemporary accounts of Pasta’s singing seemingly describe a hundred different voices, and this is illustrative of the delightfully confounding businesses of analyzing and classifying voices. If singers’ voices are imprecise, kaleidoscopic instruments, listeners’ ears are equally imperfect, changeable organs that react to the endlessly-varied stimuli of music in unique, often unexpected ways. In the sense that words are inadequate to convey the impact of a truly great singer’s artistry, Fanny Kemble may have provided history with the most apt description of the histrionic power of Giuditta Pasta as both a singer and an actress: Pasta’s was the sort of genius that communicated directly with listeners’ hearts, and her operatic portrayals were celebrated as fusions of her own insights with the imaginations of the composers and the characters she portrayed. The spirit of Pasta haunted the 20th Century in the singing of Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer, artists whose performances sought in the mists of time the fire that flickered in Pasta’s legacy. In the first years of the 21st Century, the examples of Pasta, Callas, Gencer, and all those artists who strove to reach the supreme heights of lyrical expression have grown ever colder. While wars rage among those who claim to love opera about whether this or that production is ‘relevant’ and whether this or that singer is fit, handsome, and young enough for a given rôle, the essential profundity of opera, the collective experience of emotions too grandiose for words alone, struggles for survival in a community in which singers are increasingly judged by how they look rather than how they sound. Quietly but with a voice that can set off avalanches of glistening musical passions, a beautiful lady from Canada has found in the depths of her talents a thrillingly individual understanding of bel canto, not merely as a particular style of singing but as a means of shaping—and enduring—a career in an industry in which failure is publicized with far greater zeal than success elicits. Whether traversing the pages of opera’s most familiar scores or reviving long-silent heroines, soprano Joyce El-Khoury is an artist in whom the core values of the great divas of yesteryear blossom anew. Not another pretty face attempting to mask a second-rate voice with prima donna attitudes, she is an artist of uncompromising integrity who is already proving ‘equal to an imagination.’
Much is revealed about the fact that, for Ms. El-Khoury, bel canto is a journey rather a destination by her saying from the very start that her principal goal as an artist is to unite music and characterization in ways that meaningfully engage audiences. ‘I always strive for emotional connection,’ she says. Unlike many young singers, Ms. El-Khoury displays an instinctive comprehension of the fact that, in order to create portraits of characters that will resonate with audiences and remain in their collective memories, the impetus for this emotional connection must be sought first and foremost in the music. ‘Many of the characters I play have forced me to examine the human condition,’ she intimates. ‘Women like Violetta [in Verdi’s La traviata], Magda [in Puccini’s La rondine], or even Antonina [in Donizetti’s Belisario], for example, try to improve their lots and redeem themselves. Getting to know these women has made me realize that all of us as human beings are simply doing the best we can in any given moment. Taking [into] account our personal histories, flaws, and limitations, we are all doing our best to be happy.’ It is this universal effort at self-improvement as the only route to true happiness that is, for Ms. El-Khoury, the most essential component of portraying characters who are more than costumes, words, and strings of notes. ‘We are all after the same thing, ultimately,’ she says. ‘I think this is why people find comfort in music and theatre and especially opera, which combines the two: comfort in knowing we are not alone.’
Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Willy Decker’s production of Verdi’s La traviata at De Nederlandse Opera, May 2013 [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard, © De Nederlandse Opera]
It is interesting that a singer with such sure senses of herself and the place of her artistry in the storied traditions of opera came to the genre along an unusual path. ‘During my early teens,’ Ms. El-Khoury recalls, ‘I wanted to be a pop singer, and opera was nowhere to be found on my playlist. I loved listening to Michael Jackson. His music, use of gesture, and theatrical concepts were very inspiring to me. Years later, I realized that they were very operatic!’ Even in the formative years of her exposure to music, Ms. El-Khoury had an appreciation for melody and vocal styling. ‘I also loved the Bee Gees for the beauty of their songs,’ she recollects. ‘I often sang Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey ballads for events such as Ottawa’s Lebanese Festival’—a nod to the heritage of the nation of her birth. ‘I decided to begin taking singing lessons with a Classically-trained teacher, hoping it would improve my singing technique for my pop career. Little did I know [that] these lessons would lead me to studying music at the University of Ottawa and subsequently falling in love with and wanting to serve this magical art form that is Opera.’ Ms. El-Khoury the opera singer has not buried her aspiring-pop-star roots, though: ‘I still have Michael Jackson and the Bee Gees on my “Running” playlist, right next to Verdi’s ‘Dies irae,’ which can make a champion out of anybody!’
Maintaining a balanced understanding of one’s history and one’s future is, in Ms. El-Khoury’s view, critical to enjoying lasting success on the operatic stage. ‘It is imperative for a singer to know his or her own strengths, whether young or experienced,’ she says. ‘Luckily, I knew early on that Italian and bel canto repertoires were well-suited to my voice and my temperament.’ A special quality of Ms. El-Khoury’s singing is that, like Callas, she approaches every rôle that she sings with a technique grounded in bel canto, enabling her to discern and display the melodic center of any phrase. ‘In my view,’ she confides, ‘bel canto technique applies to all repertoire. This is something that I quickly learned while studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Not one note, word, or phrase can be taken for granted in any type of repertoire. The only things that vary with each different rôle are the combinations of notes, rhythms, and text.’ To illustrate her point, Ms. El-Khoury describes the method by which she approaches a new rôle. ‘My preparation process is always the same: I begin with study of the text, then the music follows. During this study process, I am looking for the humanity in the combination of the two—and this is what I thrive on.’ Indeed, discovering the timeless emotions in a score is a vital component of her artistry that inspires Ms. El-Khoury’s love for her vocation. ‘Of course, the most gratifying aspect of pursuing a career as a singer is standing on a stage and sharing with an audience something which somehow feels extremely private and personal. I think of performing as not only something [in which] I can implement my years of vocal training but [also] as a means of expressing my life experiences. It is a true privilege.’ It is a privilege that comes with challenges, however, and Ms. El-Khoury is keenly aware of the impact that these challenges can have on her personal and professional lives. ‘The greatest challenges [are] being away from loved ones for long periods of time and maintaining meaningful relationships,’ she indicates. ‘It is a lonely life at times because, more often than not, I am in a strange city where I don’t know anyone. I have had to turn down social events countless times in order to protect the quality of upcoming performances. Because of this, I am left with many hours open for reflection, contemplation, and study. It is in these hours [that] I do my most concentrated and inspired work. Luckily, studying provides me with such a joy that I don’t mind the solitude which accompanies it.’
Joyce El-Khoury sings Lauretta’s aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ (Gianni Schicchi) in the Castleton Festival’s 2010 production of Puccini’s Il trittico [Photo by Leslie Maazel, © Castleton Festival]
A special triumph in Ms. El-Khoury’s career to date came in an unlikely rôle: Antonina in Donizetti’s rarely-heard Belisario, recorded in studio for Opera Rara [reviewed on Voix des Arts] and performed in concert at the Barbican in October 2012, a performance of which Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Telegraph that Ms. El-Khoury’s singing impressed with ‘fluent coloratura and viperish intensity.’ Created in the opera’s 1836 Venetian première by Caroline Ungher, Antonina is anything but a conventional bel canto heroine, a fact that is not lost on Ms. El-Khoury. ‘Her character is not easily liked,’ she states. ‘She believes her husband has had their son killed and is plotting his downfall. It was a new experience for me to play a vengeful character with such fiery music. Interestingly, I was singing Antonina in London and then flew to Munich two weeks later to sing Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with Maestro Lorin Maazel and the Münchner Philharmonker—both soprano parts which were written for Caroline Ungher!’ Collaborations with Lorin Maazel have proved wonderfully rewarding for the young soprano, not least in performances at the Castleton Festival, the enterprising event on Maestro Maazel’s Virginia estate at which Ms. El-Khoury gave critically-acclaimed performances of Suor Angelica and Lauretta in Puccini’s Il trittico in 2010 and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello in 2013.
Another part in which the full spectrum of Ms. El-Khoury’s artistry shines alluringly is Violetta in La traviata. It is a rôle for which her well-honed technique and emotional sincerity are ideal, as superb performances at Welsh National Opera, Palm Beach Opera, De Nederlandse Opera, and elsewhere have confirmed. ‘Generally, when I prepare a rôle that highlights my vocal strengths,’ she says, ‘I am significantly more confident in my approach to serve the music to the best of my ability whilst bringing a character and her emotional complexity to life.’ This is a response that has developed as her career has progressed. ‘It may take some time for a young performer to know his or her own strengths—as well as weaknesses—and understand the impact they may have on his or her trajectory.’ Ms. El-Khoury acknowledges that this is not a road that an intelligent singer travels alone, however. ‘I have always had a handful of mentors (coaches, conductors, voice teachers, and friends) with whom I can have an honest discussion. I often ask for advice on repertoire from those who know my voice best. Once I’ve compiled all the information from the various sources, I am much better equipped to make an informed decision. At times, it isn’t easy to decide…so I rely on instinct, which is usually always right.’
Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata at Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne, March 2013 [Photo by Cyrille Cauvet, © Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne]
Ms. El-Khoury’s Amsterdam Violetta came to life in the setting of Willy Decker’s much-discussed production of La traviata, also seen at the Salzburger Festspiele and the Metropolitan Opera. ‘It is a modern take on this beloved classic,’ she says, ‘and all details are well thought-out and tastefully executed, bringing to the audience a very exciting experience.’ This raises one of the most controversial topics in opera today, that of the ‘revision’ of standard-repertory operas in the pursuit of increased appeal to 21st-Century audiences. ‘I don’t see anything wrong with “updating” well-known works in order to give a fresh perspective on the pieces and offer audiences different theatrical experiences than they have previously had,’ Ms. El-Khoury suggests. ‘I do, however, insist that this “update” be well thought-out and respectful of the work at hand. It must adhere to the synopsis and the libretto set to music by the composer. Most often, we are dealing with masterpieces, which stand on their own and do not need updating.’ She concedes that determining whether directors’ efforts at rendering opera more palatable for current and future audiences is a tricky proposition. ‘I do not know what the most critical means of ensuring the survival of opera for centuries to come is,’ she says, quickly adding, ‘but I do know what will kill it: “dumbing down” opera for the masses and misrepresenting it in mainstream media is counterproductive and will not bring new audiences to the theatre—or help cultivate new opera lovers. Education for the young and old is key. We must introduce people to opera as it is performed at the highest level possible. This will give them a real chance at truly understanding this art form and falling in love with it as I did several years ago.’
In addition to seeking to contribute palpably to the future of opera, Ms. El-Khoury looks to her own future. Viewing her current successes from the perspective of her experiences as a student and a fledgling singer new to staged opera, she has excellent advice for other young sopranos still finding their way. ‘I would advise any young soprano to always have self-awareness,’ she shares. ‘This applies to her technique, stagecraft, and physical health; and to always looking for ways to improve them. She must know exactly where she stands and be honest with herself about her abilities. Self-awareness also pertains to how she conducts herself professionally: “Respect yourself, and you will be respected.”’ Cognizance of her own abilities influences Ms. El-Khoury’s current choices of repertory, but she is also mindful of the twists and turns that the maturation of a voice can impose on the progress of a career. ‘There is no real way of telling which direction my voice will take in the next ten to fifteen years, so, who knows?’ she says with typical good humor. ‘I think it’s safe to say that Brünnhilde and Isolde will remain unfulfilled fantasies, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Sieglinde!’
The first half of 2014 sees Ms. El-Khoury taking on an exciting new part, the title rôle in Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka. Two performances in San Antonio (31 January and 1 February) are followed on 30 March by a much-anticipated semi-staged performance with North Carolina Opera in Raleigh. ‘These being my first times singing Rusalka,’ Ms. El-Khoury opines, ‘I am looking forward to discovering a character who is essentially non-human. Dvořák’s music’—including the instantly familiar ‘Song to the Moon,’ in which Ms. El-Khoury’s gorgeous upper register will be put to excellent use—‘is sublime, and I am honored to be singing it. I am sure I will have more to say once I have been living with the rôle for a longer time. Rusalka reminds me of myself as a teenaged girl, however. It will be interesting to revisit this time of my life.’ On 17 May, Ms. El-Khoury’s Rusalka will be heard at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in one of that venue’s famed Saturday broadcast performances. The stage is set for one of the most promising operatic rôle débuts in recent years to take the world by storm.
At some point in the past quarter-century, the term ‘traditional’ has taken on an inexplicably negative connotation in the Arts world. Nevertheless, Joyce El-Khoury is a traditional prima donna; not in the modern traditions of arrogance, self-righteousness, and ill-preparedness, but in the Grand Tradition of Pasta, Malibran, Callas, and Gencer. With a vocal compass that ranges over two-and-a-half octaves with every appearance of ease and a smoky timbre that enables overtones of authentically Italianate morbidezza with no impact on the fleetness of her coloratura, she combines the incendiary stylistic prowess of a 19th-Century sfogato with the technical security of a perfectly-schooled modern singer. Giving performances that honor the past with the best qualities of the present, Joyce El-Khoury embodies the enthralling future of opera.
Joyce El-Khoury during studio sessions for Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s Belisario, October 2012 [Photo © Opera Rara]
Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. El-Khoury for her time and uncommon thoughtfulness in responding to questions for this article. Many thanks are also offered to Mindi Rayner for her great assistance and patience in facilitating the interview with Ms. El-Khoury.
Ms. El-Khoury is represented by William Guerri of Columbia Artists Management. Her press representatives are Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations (USA, Europe, Asia) and Elizabeth Bowman of Bowman Media (Canada, Europe, Asia).