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No Short Cuts: An Interview with Soprano Joyce El-Khoury

BK: You’re singing such a full-tilt schedule of interesting, demanding work. You just finished Hérodiade at Washington Concert Opera, and you’re about to do Traviata at Covent Garden and then later at the Glyndebourne Festival. It feels as if this is a genuine time of arrival for you.

JE-K: What feels fantastic is just that I love the work. You’ve known me since the beginning. I love the work. I am doing some really interesting stuff and that’s what gets my blood going. So far, so good. This is an exciting season. We start rehearsals for Traviata on December 28. So we’re firing on all cylinders, getting that ready for that.

BK: What is the part of Traviata that you have had to work on the hardest, that taxes you the most?

JE-K: I will start by telling you that the third act is the act where I feel the most at home. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve been singing all night, and I am extremely warmed up and I feel great—I think it also has to do with the mood of the act and the way that it lies in the voice. Violetta is sick and exhausted, and at that point of singing the opera, you are actually exhausted! I think most sopranos would agree that “Sempre libera” is the most challenging, not only because of the way that it is written and what it demands of the voice, but also because of the fact that it is the most daunting. There’s no break in it. You don’t have a moment to swallow and reset your instrument, from a physiological standpoint. That’s something to be aware of. When I’m preparing to do the role, I sing it every day. It’s like going to the gym every single day. The other is, from an emotional standpoint, “Amami Alfredo!” in the second act. It’s so emotionally charged, and by then you have had this huge scene with the baritone, and you are emotionally wrung out and then you have to sing this extremely powerful music with the orchestra just blasting. So you’re finding the balance between having it be vocally beautiful and impactful and with an underlying emotion, but not tying yourself up in knots. I think the London production of Traviata will be my thirteenth production. I know the role intimately, and I know where I have to chill out, and where I have to really give. That comes with experience, to be quite honest.

I’m often asked, What would you tell a young singer who is embarking on a career? I would always say, “Don’t look for any short cuts. Just do the work. Don’t expect to skip steps.” You go through all the steps, and at one point it clicks.

BK: In Anne Midgette’s recent interview with you in The Washington Post, you mentioned that you don’t have a cookie-cutter voice. Were you implying that there were people who tried early on to push you into a certain groove?

JE-K: What that means to me is that it’s my impression that throughout the years, it wasn’t always clear to various people who heard me what I should be singing. I have had offers for repertoire that is kind of … varied! For some roles, people want a specific kind of sound. My strength is that I can sing different types of roles. I can go from Hérodiade to Traviata, because that’s how I sing music. I don’t think we should put ourselves in a box as a vocalist. But there are some people you hear, and you say, “Oh, she would be a great Despina,” for example. And it’s clear what she should do. “He would be a great Nemorino.” I have the kind of voice that sometimes confuses people. That’s what I meant. I know that I have an unusual sound, and people either love it or they don’t. It goes to the philosophy that I don’t put myself within a Fach. People say, “What kind of soprano are you?” and I say, “I don’t know!” I sing what speaks to me, music that I feel my voice can serve well, and something that I’m emotionally connected to.

BK: You grew up speaking French. Can you tell me at what point the French repertoire really spoke to you?

JE-K: I learned French in Beirut. I spoke Arabic and then I spoke French, and I learned English last. It’s my worst language! Sometimes I have conversations with people and they throw out a word and I look at them blankly, because I don’t know what that word is! To a normal person, I sound like an average English speaking person. But back home, we switched between Arabic, English and French. We barely finished a sentence in one language!

When I started at the Academy of Vocal Arts, my first year, we did Manon. And originally I wasn’t assigned the role of Manon, but I knew they were doing it, and I started learning it. Throughout rehearsals, it became clear that it was a role I should do. It became obvious to me that it was natural because I understood the syntax of the language. The things that can’t really be taught. Every language has a flavor, as you know. These things are organic. Once I did Manon, I knew that I really wanted to sing French repertoire, partly because of the way it was placed in the voice, and also because of the way I was able to color with the voice. I learned from that how to color text. From there, it just kind of was—Here I am now!

BK: You got enormous exposure when you sang the St. Sulpice duet from Manon with Michael Fabiano on the 2014 Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala. It’s a popular item on youtube. Was “THE KISS” carefully rehearsed or did it come about more spontaneously?

JE-K (laughs): We didn’t go work on it. We just knew we wanted to go for it. You know Michael. You know me. We’re best friends. There’s no problem there. Nobody is shy about anything. And we work so well together. We just get each other. We just kind of let it go. We knew we were going to kiss, but we didn’t really plan it. By the end of the duet, everything had built so much, and the kiss was 100 percent real.

BK: Singers have such demanding lives on the road. Often they don’t get to know each other all that well, as they’re traveling from one production to another. It must be wonderful to have a best friend who’s also a performer—and a guy.

JE-K: It’s a great comfort in my life, and in his. Our friendship has so many facets. We’re friends on a personal level and can talk about all of our personal problems and issues and joys, and there’s the professional side where we share ideas and ask for ideas and input. He’s a huge presence in my life. It’s great that he’s also in the business, as you say. It’s very difficult for anybody to understand what we do unless they do it themselves.

BK: You attended the Academy of Vocal Arts at a time when so many amazing talents were there. The school is well known for its rigorous standards. Was it intimidating to you at first?

JE-K: I wasn’t intimidated. I was extremely inspired by the people I was surrounded with. The people I was being coached by, too. I went in there knowing it was the only school I wanted to attend, because a few years before, I had auditions in a billion places and didn’t get in anywhere. Once I got in, I really rolled up my sleeves and started to work immediately. I minded my own business and did as I was told. I had a pretty smooth ride at AVA in many ways, because I worked on what was assigned to me. I showed up prepared. I came in early and stayed after hours to practice and worked really hard. I’m not afraid to say that. I learned so much from Maestro Christofer Macatsoris. He would spend one hour per phrase. It was wonderful to learn about how many possibilities there are for one phrase. I spent a lot of time working with Laurent Philippe. With him I prepared Manon before I took it to Macatsoris.

BK: Bill Schuman was your teacher?

JE-K: Yes. Bill Schuman was wonderful with me. When I first met Bill, it was when I had come from Canada, and I was singing a lot of mezzo rep: Carmen and Dorabella, because I had this dark color. Nobody knew what to do with this weird color. Bill was the first to say, “You are definitely a soprano,” and opened up my voice, and my time with Bill was really fruitful.

I did have a great experience there; I sang five roles in two years. There’s one thing that we call “AVA Guilt.” We were taught there to be so well prepared. Now that’s the standard for me. If I feel I didn’t have enough time to prepare something, then I have AVA Guilt. Two seasons ago, I had seven new roles in one season, back to back. My God. That was really something. I was rehearsing one and learning the other, and I didn’t feel like I could do all the things I wanted to do with the role.

BK: What are some of the revelatory things that you remember from your working sessions with Macatsoris?

J-EK: One thing that comes to mind is that my last year were were working on Traviata. A lot of our Traviata rehearsals were with the whole cast. I had one session with Macatsoris on “E strano! E strano!” I don’t know how long we were in that room, just working on “E strano! E strano!” Just those two words. He demonstrated to me how it could be sung and how it can be colored, and what it can mean, and that has stuck with me. Because onstage, when the chorus leaves, and your heart is beating and you’re about to sing “E strano! E strano!,” it helps to know that you have so many ways that you can sing it.

BK: When you were singing in competitions, what were some of your sure-fire winning arias?

JE-K: I won with “Arrigo! ah parole a un core” from I Vespri Siciliani. And sometimes with “Sempre libera”—believe it or not. The other one was “Ch’il bel sogno.” Once you can float that and hang it there and leave it, that’s something that impresses them. The “Arrigo!” from Vespri, which I think is still online from a competition that I did.… People don’t know it as much as they know the Bolero. Not many people sing it. So there’s attention drawn to it immediately. You go up to a high C, and chromatically down to a low F-sharp in the chest. It’s a huge range, and people just go, “Uh—what was that?” That was an aria that I worked with Maestro James Levine.

BK: It’s so interesting to see what young singers choose to perform in an audition. I never get tired of trying to figure it out.

JE-K: Auditions are so challenging, because there are so many variables. You want to sing what you know best. But you have to know who you’re singing for and what they’re looking for, and what their days have been. At 8 p.m., they may have heard 100 people.

BK: What’s the strangest offer you ever got?

JE-K: I did have an inquiry about Fidelio about some point. I can appreciate it, but it’s not something that speaks to me, so I said no. One role that I would like to sing is Fiordiligi. I haven’t done much Mozart. I’ve been offered Elettra [Idomeneo], but I said no to that. What I like about Fiordiligi is that it’s kind of Verdian in the writing, in the way that it’s shaped. Right now I have my eye on Lucia.

BK: And what about a role that doesn’t speak to you?

JE-K: Right now, it is a role that I’ve already done: Micaela in Carmen. I’m not interested in doing it again. It just doesn’t do anything for me at this point. I would rather hear other people sing it than hear myself sing it. So I’ll leave it to them.

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  2. Great interview! Now can I have that dress??

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