‘Ballo’ Chose Me – Joyce El-Khoury on Her Musical Journey, Creative Process & ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’By John Vandevert
Praised for her unwavering vocal stamina, character portrayal, technique, and sublime timbral quality, Joyce El-Khoury has become one of the leading bel canto sopranos of our time. Not only an expressive dramaturge and highly sought after classical singer, but additionally a champion for classical singing advocacy in her home country of Lebanon with her “Lessons for Lebanon” work, El-Khoury epitomizes the contemporary opera singer. Participating in repertoire across the bel canto spectrum from Puccini to Strauss, along with contemporary composers like Heggie and Picker, not to mention her work in bringing to the stage undiscovered works by Donizetti, Bellini, and even Liszt, El-Khoury’s interest in studying the annals of music and intrinsically learning the fundamentals of expression through music comes through in her dramatic performances as clear as day.
Ahead of her Chicago Symphony debut on June 23rd-28th as Amelia in the concert performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” conducted by the eminent Maestro Riccardo Muti, I had the pleasure of speaking with El-Khoury, where I asked about her path to music, her creative process, and her thoughts on the “Un Ballo.”
Development & Devotion
Known for her in-depth investigations into her character and her captivating dramaturgy, El-Khoury is well regarded as being a singer who not only embodies her heroines but truly becomes them when performing. Her relationship with singing and her love of operatic theater was not a straight-edged path, however. The person she is today could very well have been non-existent if not for several very particular and highly serendipitous events. Having grown up in Lebanon and moved to Ottawa, Canada, when she was only six, her world was turned upside down at an early age. As she shares, however, her intrinsic devotion to singing was always there.
It was in secondary education when things would begin to change, however. Having enrolled at a science-focused high school due to her fascination with the human body, El-Khoury had been working in a hospital for four years and applied to Ottawa University for nursing. Yet it was a single line from her parents which made her change tracks completely.
“In my last year of high school, I was applying for universities as a nurse in Ottawa, and my parents told me ‘We understand you want to do nursing but you have a voice that God gave you. It would be a shame if you didn’t use it. Why don’t you study music?’” With this as her call to action, El-Khoury quickly shifted gears, leapt at the idea of pursuing music, and prepared for an audition. In a cheerfully wide-eyed and eternally grateful manner, she shared with me the fantastic events which transpired next:
“I thought ‘I’ll go study music and see where it goes?’ I couldn’t read music at the time for the audition at Ottawa University, but I got in based on my audition. The first year I joined Opera Workshop, we did scenes from “Carmen” and I was Carmen. From there I fell in love with opera and that was it. I was hooked and I dedicated myself to the art form.”
Talent only gets you so far, however: a fact of which El-Khoury is profoundly aware. When asked about where her intrepid work ethic comes from she notes strongly, “I did have some lazy teenage years but I learned a lot. Especially the point that I can’t take anything for granted; that talent can only get you so far. That’s something innate with me now.” She also reflected on her childhood, upbringing, and family being three of the most transformative elements in her life and the reason for her love of hard work.
“My background and my people, where I come from, my parents. Lebanese people are extremely hardworking, they don’t make any excuses. So many of us have left our country and started somewhere else and they started from nothing and rebuilt their lives.”
Her father’s impact on her life was enormous.
“I’ve grown up with examples of hard working, disciplined people like my mother and father. My father, in particular, is very studious and meticulous with everything he does, and I’ve definitely inherited this trait.”
It is clear that El-Khoury’s very artistic being is shaped by embracing the process, as so many singers are often told, and when asked about her own process of ‘practice-to-stage’ she notes that while on stage, her sole focus is on communication. “My work comes from a desire to be well prepared so when I get onstage, I don’t have to think about anything other than effectively communicating through my singing and my acting. If I haven’t built the necessary foundation then I’m going to be thinking about that instead of just being the character.”
Bel Canto with a Twist
Despite her comfortability, and eminency, in the traditional bel canto repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries, El-Khoury has chosen to make a name for herself in other ways as well. Her repertoire list boasts names ranging from Puccini’s Tosca, Bizet’s Micaëla, and Dvorak’s Rusalka, to Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana, Verdi’s Violetta, and Massenet’s Salome.
It is the heroines of lesser-known operas, like Donizetti’s “Belisario” and “Les martyrs,” Liszt’s “Sardanapalo” (the unfinished second of only two operas written by him), and Bellini’s “Il Pirata” (the first recording of the opera featuring Maria Callas as the soprano), that have come to give El-Khoury an air of exceptionality, however. Having had her first taste of obscure repertoire at the invitation of Opera Rara to sing the role of Antonia in Donizetti’s “Belisario,” a three-act tragedia lirica whose story echoes his better-known work “Lucia di Lammermoor,” El-Khoury shared the fundamental reason why she loves these underperformed pieces.
“There’s a rush I get knowing that somebody is listening to this music for the first time ever.” She was not shy in sharing her deep love of research and archival-based discovery. “I’m a huge nerd, and I love exploring music. I love looking at manuscripts, and those little details others gloss over. I like the archaeological aspect of digging old works up for audiences to hear. It’s all simply fascinating to me.” Sharing a personal story about her relationship with “La Traviata,” an opera she’s incredibly well-known for, El-Khoury noted that an opera which some may consider famous and common is still novel and the ‘first time’ for others. Thus, when it comes to ‘new’ works the feeling is the same for her.
“I try to remind myself with operas that I’ve done before that there is someone in the audience who’s never heard the music before. It’s that same feeling of, ‘Oh wow. I’ve never heard that before.’”
Another aspect of El-Khoury’s career that makes her unique is her polyglot nature, picking up languages with ease and speaking at least three already on-top of the ones she’s learned throughout her career. As she shared, her journey to learning English was, much like her musical career, not an easy journey and required that quintessential work ethic. Having come to Canada at an early age with two languages already, it was through television that she learned English, “Arabic was my first language, and then I learned French as it’s an official language in Lebanon. I learned English when I came to Canada at the age of six. That was difficult, culture shock and language but I learned a lot through shows like “Full House” and “Growing Pains.””
Through her career, she has become exposed to French, German, Italian, Russian, and Czech languages.
“I do have a mind that easily absorbs language because of my unique upbringing. It’s helped me develop a real love of text, and I love words. In music, I love how we can actually personify them, paint them.” For El-Khoury, when singing, language and music are mutual partners in the invocation of thought and emotion, and the way words are sung hold so much expressionery power. “You can take every word and give it more meaning by the way that it’s sung and colored. I don’t know why this is something I’ve always known but I just have, and it’s influenced every aspect of my career.”
El-Khoury and Amelia
From June 23 to the 28th, El-Khoury will be debuting her first Amelia, from Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”: an opera all about deceit and deception yet the striving for virtuousness and honor amidst the chaos of treachery and duplicity. Written in 1859 and changed multiple times due to external censorship, this opera has come to be an intensely popular opera with contemporary audiences, though not ubiquitous musically except for select passages and arias such as ‘Saper Vorreste.’
Given that El-Khoury is very well known for her dramaturgical preparations of operatic characters and command of her theatrical personifications when on stage, when asked if this opera was ever on her radar and her choice to perform it now she notes, “I didn’t choose ‘Ballo,’ ‘Ballo’ chose me, and I never thought I would think sing this opera to be honest. But when Maestro Muti invited me, I was incredibly humbled and excited to do it. So I began seriously studying the opera and the more I studied it the more I began to love it as well.” But it was more than a new opera for her. Due to her interests in musical technicalities she began observing something profound.
“What I realize, having been working on it for a few months now, is how “Ballo” is so expertly written. How specific Verdi was in his writing, every bar has an articulation added to it, a fermata here, a staccato there, a tenuto over there, and a slur over these notes… Every bar has something you need to pay attention to, he was so specific.” Thus, “Un Ballo” is not for the faint of heart, nor is it an opera that is any less demanding than Verdi’s larger works like “Aida,” “Nabucco,” or “La Forza del Destino.” El-Khoury makes that very clear.
“It requires a lot of vocal flexibility to respond and make those necessary vocal adjustments as you go along in the score. What I’m realizing in “Un Ballo” is that all of my bel canto has prepared me for this opera and this performance.”
Something novel about El-Khoury’s premiere is the version of “Un Ballo” that will be performed. Instead of using the common 2006 Ricordi version—the standard for contemporary opera houses today—a new version will revealed and performed for the first time. “In Chicago, we’ll be using a new critical edition that Ricordi is working on. I’ve been working with the editor of this new edition and we are really excited to show Verdi’s music in a different, more authentic light than ever before.”
She notes that her nerd-like interest in the disparities between what Verdi intended and what made it to print has guided her work into “Un Ballo,” “The dissection and the research, what they printed versus what Verdi actually wrote, is fascinating. I think it’s going to be really exciting where this goes in this new print. This will be the first time it will be heard in this way.” When asked about her journey of getting to know Amelia, El-Khoury’s dramaturgical meticulousness comes through in strides. “Right now, I’m getting to know her through her words and music. Her musical line is infused with her psychological and emotional turmoil. Her emotions are there, this undying desperation and this palpable sighing.”
Sharing her interpretation of the story El-Khoury relays how Amelia tries to maintain her honor despite her love for Ricardo.
“She’s living this secret life, she tells no one. She’s so desperate to rid herself of these feelings that she does the unthinkable. Here is a woman who is having an eternal struggle. She knows what she needs to do, what she wants to do, the right thing. She is struggling with her humanity in this opera big time.”
At the heart of opera is an intrinsic need to feel represented, like our emotional states outside the theater are not as weird as we think: that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
When asked about the purpose of opera El-Khoury states: “It’s not a hard question but difficult to answer because the answer may be simpler than we realize. People want to feel, to hear, to be awed by vocal acrobatics. In daily life, we are inundated by auto-tune and edited things, lip-syncing. People want to be wowed.” It is deeper than mere spectacle, however. As she goes on to note, it is a feeling of collectivism and representation. “There’s this feeling of ‘I’m not alone, this is life you know?’ That is really special about what we do. It encompasses all the art forms. It washes over you. That is what I’m really aware of as a performer of opera.”
El-Khoury is not only an excellent dramaturge and performer but someone who understands what it means to be a performer, to provide a means of humanitarian synthesis of the audience’s world and the characters on stage. “Opera gives people a means to say, ‘We all go through life, and it’s hard, and it’s rewarding, and it’s sad, and it’s beautiful.’ I want us, all of us on-stage, creating our art, to be able to give the audience that feeling.”