The following interview was conducted in on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is gratefully acknowledged.
[Below: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of Joyce El-Khoury.]
Wm: What were your earliest memories of music?
JEK: I was born in Lebanon of Lebanese parents. My grandfather George (my father’s father) was famous in our home-town in Lebanon for his singing in church for over 35 years. His love of singing has been passed down in the family.
When I was six years old, we emigrated to Canada, where I grew up with two younger sisters, Cynthia and Krista.
I started singing in school and church and was given some solos. However, as a child I had severe stage fright… I couldn’t even bring myself to sing in front of my parents. I had to be completely home alone in order to sing.
There was one incident in summer camp when I was 11 where I had a solo in a play. I went up to the microphone and went completely blank. I couldn’t remember the words or melody and ran off the stage, horrified. It took quite a bit of time to recover from that.
Wm: How did you learn to cope for stage fright?
JEK: It wasn’t until three years later. I was at a church music festival where I watched my peers sing on stage. I thought to myself: “I’m being a chicken… I can do that!” I decided in that moment that I really did want to sing and I asked my parents for singing lessons.
The teacher they found for me was very encouraging and invited me to sing at her church benefit concert. I was excrutiatingly nervous, but after my first song was over, I felt much better. I got over the stage fright by getting on stage! That’s the only way to do it.
Wm: What were your musical interests at that time?
JEK: I didn’t grow up listening to opera because this wasn’t really part of our culture. We mostly listened to Lebanese music and Pop. I had only the stereotypical impression of what opera might be like.
At the time, I was singing Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston covers, dreaming of being a Pop star. The first CD I was ever given was by the Bee Gees. I still love and listen to the Bee Gees today!
Wm: When did you learn about opera?
JEK: I was prepared to pursue medical or nursing studies at the University of Ottawa. In fact, I worked for 4 years at the Children’s Hospital and loved my time there. When the time came to apply for University programs, my parents said to me: “Joyce, you have a voice…you should really study music.” And that’s what I did.
My voice teacher Karen Spicer prepared me for my audition and thankfully I was accepted into the U of Ottawa’s Music program. I enrolled in an “Opera Workshop” course and the first opera we put on was Carmen. I got to sing the Habañera, and from that moment on all I wanted was opera!
Wm: What did you learn at the University of Ottawa?
JEK: I built the foundation for my musical career there. When I first entered the program, I did not know how to read music. I learned sight reading, diction, and musical history to name a few things. It took a lot for me to catch up to the other students, but I was hungry for it and wanted to study.
I was anti-social during my college years because I so badly wanted to work on my music. I don’t regret that at all. I had 4 jobs at the same time to put myself through school. One of them was working the desk and supervising the Music Library. I had many quiet peaceful hours there and I used the time to grab hold of a score and a recording just to get familiar with new repertoire.
I worked directly with Ingemar Korjus, the head of the Voice Department. Not only did he help me fine-tune my technique, he also insisted that I be true to the art form and most of all, myself.
I had seen a performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Ottawa’s opera company, Opera Lyra. During the last two years at the University, I became part of Opera Lyra’s Young Artists Program. Ten years later, I sang the role of Mimi in that opera with Opera Lyra.
[Below: Eric Margiore is Rodolfo, left, and Joyce El-Khoury is Mimi, right, in the 2013 Canadian Opera Company production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Joyce El-Khoury.]
Wm: What were your experiences in the Opera Lyra Ottawa Young Artists Program?
It was my introduction to the behind-the scenes world of a professional opera company. I experienced for the first time what it was like to be backstage, what a stage manager does, what a prop master does, etc. I was in the chorus for Carmen at the time and I just couldn’t wait to get on stage for every performance. I will always be grateful to Opera Lyra for this experience.
As a member of the Young Artists Program, I gave various concerts, for which I learned quite few operatic scenes and I sang my first operatic role, Giovanna in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at Opera Lyra Ottawa.
Wm: On graduating from University of Ottawa, what did you do next?
JEK: A friend told me that about a summer program in Italy sponsored by Oberlin College in Ohio, in which they would be performing Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”. I auditioned for the Oberlin program and was cast in the role of Dorabella.
Some of the students in the program, such as my dearest friend tenor Michael Fabiano, were from Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). I was persuaded to audition for AVA. I did, but I was not accepted on the first try.
However, I stayed in Philadelphia and was given permission to use the AVA facilities. I would study there, all on my own in a small practice studio on the 4th floor and taught myself five roles, including Micaela in “Carmen” which I’m singing now at the Santa Fe Opera. I spent every day working on my voice, determined to improve. One year later, I auditioned again for AVA and was accepted.
Wm: In the meantime, you were selected for the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices Program.
JEK: I was an Apprentice in both the summers of 2006 and 2008. After my first summer here I started AVA.
Wm: Tell me about your experiences at AVA.
JEK: I was there for two years. I sang Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte”, the title role of Massenet’s “Manon”, Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Manon’s role in the second act of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.
AVA was the place where I learned how to learn. When I learn a role now, I follow the process I was taught at AVA. When I thought there was something I couldn’t do, they would push until I could do it. I grew immensely while I was there and I learned that if I push myself hard enough, there isn’t anything that I can’t do.
When we are on the road, singers have to be self-sufficient and to learn repertory on their own. It’s a huge comfort knowing that I can do a lot of my role preparation on my own.
Wm: You returned again to Santa Fe in 2008. What was the apprenticeship here mean to your career?
JEK: Perhaps the most valuable experience for me was being in the chorus of 4 operas during my first year as a member of the Apprentice program. One may be quick to think that for a young singer the chorus is non-beneficial, a misuse of time even, but for me it played a huge role in my development.
As a chorus member, I was able to work on my stage craft without the pressure of being in the spot light. I learned how to move on stage while keeping in contact with a conductor, interacting with my colleagues, etc. Almost 3 months of continuous stage time was exactly what I needed.
I also had the opportunity to work with veteran Met comprimario singer, Nico Castel. We developed a great rapport, and he connected me to Ms. Gayletha Nichols, director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
I sent her a CD of my performance of the second act of “Manon Lescaut” that I had done at AVA. She passed it along to the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program administrators, who invited me to come to sing for Maestro James Levine.
The Met offered me a position in the Lindemann program and I decided to take the leap and study with Maestro Levine.
Wm: This would be a transfer from AVA to Lindemann.
JEK: At AVA, I had completed all my required courses including language and dance, and I had sung five roles in the two years I spent there. It seemed to me that splitting a four-year time span between AVA and Lindemann would be very beneficial.
Wm: What did you learn in the Lindemann program?
JEK: It was thanks to Maestro James Levine, Ken Noda, Vlad Iftinca and John Fisher that I learned that Verdi and bel canto is where I feel most at home. I studied various roles at the Met: Mozart, Strauss, Verdi.
Maestro Levine was very clear that he wanted me to focus on Verdi repertoire. It was with him that I studied Amelia in “Simon Boccanegra” and Desdemona in “Otello”. He said to me that not many singers can sing Verdi, and that my voice was meant for it. He encouraged me to keep my “Verdi line” even when I was singing Puccini.
I also spent those 3 years studying acting technique with the brilliant Stephen Wadsworth. What he taught me is something I take with me and use in every production that I do, which is to use my own personal experiences and combine those with what my character is undergoing.
Wm: What has been your performance experience with Verdi to date?
JEK: Violetta in La Traviata is the role that I have sung the most. I performed it for the first time at AVA, then with Knoxville Opera just before I went to the Welsh National Opera for David McVicar’s production where I sang 17 performances.
[Below: Alfredo (Ismael Jordi, left) deliberately attracts the attention of Violetta (Joyce El-Khoury, seated right) in a 2013 Muziektheater Amsterdam production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of Joyce El-Khoury.]
I then went on to sing it in Seoul, St-Etienne, Palm Beach, Amsterdam. I will soon be taking it to the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland.
One other Verdi role that seems to fit like a glove is Desdemona in Otello, which I performed with Maestro Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival in Virginia.
I will be adding a new Verdi role this season. Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. I can’t wait!
Wm: the “Trovatore” Leonora is one of the meatiest of Verdi’s roles for the dramatic soprano.
JEK: I’ve done her big aria D’amor sull’ali rosee and the Leonora/Conte di Luna duet in concerts. I’m working on the rest of the music, and the role feels like a good fit for me, not only vocally, but also in terms of temperament.
Wm: What other roles are in your immediate future?
JEK: Next season, I will be busy with five new roles, all of which I am dying to sink my teeth into. It is a lot of new music to learn, but being the music nerd that I am, you won’t hear me complain about it.
I’m performing Pauline in Donizetti’s “Les Martyrs” in a recording for Opera Rara and in concert at Royal Albert Hall in London with Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in November.
This is my second recording with Opera Rara and I have to say that I am beyond excited about it because this opera is seldom performed and the music is just sublime.
[Below: Joyce El-Khoury, left, confers with Sir Mark Elder, right, in preparations for a recording for Opera Rara; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Joyce El-Khoury.]
After that comes a return to Musetta, followed by Juliette (Gounod), Rosalinde (Die Fledermaus), and the title role in Tobias Picker’s opera “Emmeline” at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, which had its world premiere in 1996 at the Santa Fe Opera.
Another role I am preparing is the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”, although I am not yet permitted to reveal for which opera company. Stay tuned for the announcement in January!
Wm: How did you come to be selected for a revival of “Emmeline”?
JEK: I had just sung Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” conducted by Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival. I returned to the Met program that Fall and was asked to sing the Angelica/Principessa duet for our scenes program.
It just so happened that Maestro Tobias Picker was there and heard the performance. I heard from someone that he said that I would make a great Emmeline. So, of course, I picked up a score and fell in love with it. He and I then met a couple of times to work on the music, waiting for the opera to be produced. And there you have it! Lucky for me, OTSL decided to put it on!
Wm: It is a great shock for all of us to have lost Maestro Maazel this year. You consider him one of your mentors.
JEK: Lorin Maazel truly gave my career its start. He showcased my talent in a way that the world was able to see.
He was performing the Puccini “Trittico” at the Castleton Festival that he created. He cast me as Laura in “Gianni Schicchi” and asked me to cover the title role in “Suor Angelica”, the second opera of the triple bill. I ended up going on for opening night, singing both Lauretta and Angelica. It was a night I will never ever forget.
Maestro Maazel really believed in my talents and invited me to sing with him every chance he could. He cast me in “La Boheme” at Castleton, at the Royal Opera House – Oman and with the Munich Philharmonic (also for Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”), Rosina in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” in Beijing and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Tanglewood, Otello at Castleton. There are others, but I’ve lost count. That’s how much I owed him.
His passing is a great loss for all of us. What he did for me and other young singers and instrumentalists is immeasurable in value. I have so many wonderful memories of my time with him, his family and on his farm.
I will be eternally grateful for his belief in me.
Wm: You’ve returned to the Santa Fe Opera as a principal as opposed to being an apprentice. Now that you have sung in several parts of the world, how do you rate this company?
JEK: Its administration is very fine, the productions have high value and the orchestra is wonderful! Not one thing goes unnoticed and nothing is taken for granted. It is opera at the highest level. It’s a dream come true to make my debut here.
Wm: What are your thoughts about singing Micaela on the Santa Fe Opera stage?
JEK: I’ve really enjoyed singing my first Micaela here! Thirteen performances is an ideal way to really develop a role. I had actually performed Carmen, but in the past, the role of Micaela had never really appealed to me and I avoided it somewhat.
[Below: Micaela (Joyce El-Khoury, center) walks past the leering eyes of a platoon of unkempt soldier (Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists) in the 2014 Santa Fe Opera production of Bizet’s “Carmen”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph.]
Wm: I would think Micaela would be considered a plum assignment, with its first act duet and big third act aria?
JEK: It is very important for me to perform characters with a spine as I don’t like playing victims. Sometimes Micaela can be perceived as the meek and timid character, which I believe is the opposite of what she is. I told the director, Stephen Lawless, that I was determined to play her with a spine. We had the same vision for her. Lawless’ concept of the character in this new production was very satisfying to me. He left me free to make choices to emphasize her strength.
Wm: To me it seems that Micaela is a very brave woman. She not only stands her ground with a platoon of soldiers, but later walks right into the smuggler’s camp to drag Don Jose away from Carmen and the outlaws he has become associated with.
What are some of the strong women characters in your repertoire?
JEK: Violetta in “Traviata”, Antonina in Donizetti’s “Belisario”, Pauline in Donizetti’s “Les Martyrs”, all of Donizetti’s queens in “Anna Bolena”, Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux”.
Wm: Give me an example of a role that you feel should be played a stronger character than is usually the case.
JEK: The title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. She loved Edgardo but was bullied into signing the marriage contract with another man. What she did to extricate herself from the marriage was not right, but it was done out of love for Edgardo and out of pure will power.
Wm: You are associated with anti-bullying campaigns. Did you have personal experience with being bullied?
JEK: Yes, through my entire childhood and into my early teens. I’m not exactly sure why, but I was constantly subjected to humiliation.
It tore me up and had quite the impact on my self-esteem. I personally muscled through it, and overcame its effects but I still struggle with remnants of self-esteem issues from time to time. It is a battle that so many have to fight.
Wm: What is being done to combat such bullying?
JEK: I see that it’s an ongoing problem in schools, communities, online, and I am determined to use my personal experience to help those children and teenagers who are being hurt by similar experience.
I am impressed by some of the movements on school campuses and there are many in the works all over the world. One which has moved me is called Pink Shirt Day! which takes place in Canada, and was inspired by two teenage boys whose friend had been bullied, simply because he wore a pink shirt to school.
They came to school the following day, having bought 50 pink t-shirts, gave them to the other boys to wear in protest. This takes place every year to raise awareness. The movement has a website as well as Facebook page and next year, Pink Shirt Day is on Feb 25, 2015. Have a look!
You can see children reaching out to create solutions to problems. The first step is for everyone to be aware of the situations in which physical or verbal abuse is taking place. The more we discuss issues like this, the sooner we come to find improvements and solutions.
The UN declared May 4th “Anti-Bullying Day” and it would be wonderful to take that and run!
Wm: As a person born in the Middle East, I know you have deep concerns about the conflicts there.
JEK: I can always remain hopeful that there might be a Middle East in the future with zero conflict. People want peace and they need peace.
Lebanon is a culturally rich country, whose citizens are highly educated and, by and large, is peaceful. The Lebanese don’t want to be involved in fighting. The Lebanese are often compared to the Parisians. In fact Beirut is often referred to as the Paris of the Middle-East… they like to have a good time.
I sang my first Verdi “Requiem” in Lebanon last season. I was moved by the beauty and by the social connectivity of its population. It was a wonderful experience, quite different from the Middle East you see on the news. In fact, when I first came to Santa Fe, I was reminded of Lebanon and the Middle East.
Wm: Please elaborate on that thought!
JEK: Something about the architecture, and of course, the heat!
It was great to be here for three months, which is luxury for an opera singer who typically has much shorter engagements. I’ve had a little bit of time to enjoy the surroundings. I’ve taken rafting and horseback riding through the beautiful backcountry.
Wm: Does the constant travel required of a successful opera singer ever get to you?
JEK: I knew that life on the road would be difficult. Luckily, I’m a pretty introverted person, who doesn’t need to be entertained. All in all I love being on the road and don’t mind spending some time alone.
Sometimes I have dark days, when I’m missing my family and loved ones and wishing I could be home. I know I’m like many opera singers who join in the celebration of a great success at performance’s end, then return to lonely hotel rooms or wherever they are staying.
But this is what I was born to do. I’m fortunate to do it and I certainly wouldn’t change a thing.
Wm: Thank you, Joyce, for a fine interview.
JEK: Thank you also.