Q & A: Joyce El-Khoury On Performing Donizetti & Liszt World Premieres

By Francisco Salazar

Joyce El-Khoury is quickly rising the ranks of the opera world for her versatility and artistry. She has also gained a reputation for bringing newly discovered and rarely performed works to life, collaborating with Opera Rara, and performing them with numerous important companies. She has also performed in many of the great theaters in the world bringing an immense repertoire.

This summer El-Khoury adds two new roles to her repertoire in two world premieres of Donizetti’s “L’Ange de Nisida” and Liszt’s “Sardanapalo.” The Canadian-Lebanese soprano had a chance to speak with OperaWire about these upcoming projects and her dedication to new and rare works.

OperaWire: You’re doing two world premieres of historic works that have never been performed. What are the pressures of doing these two significant works? What are some of the challenges of this undertaking and do you find it refreshing not having to get comparisons?

Joyce El-Khoury: I feel very privileged to premiere both of these pieces. I can feel the weight of the responsibility that has been given to me, and all I can do is be certain that I give it my best and my all. My ultimate responsibility in these cases is to Liszt and Donizetti. I am presenting them on their behalf, and am their voice. And for this, I am grateful and fortunate.

OW: You have specialized in the Bel Canto repertoire but are doing a lot of rare works. What brings you to these works and what makes them special?

JEK: When I made my first recording with Opera Rara, Donizetti’s “Belisario,” it was the first rare opera that I had performed. After this, the repertoire kept presenting itself to me. During my studies as a young artist, there was no way for me to know that this is what I would end up spending most of my time doing, but it has somehow chosen me. I now feel a deep sense of duty towards these pieces. It has become my mission to give voice to these lost and unknown works.

OW: This Donizetti work was reworked as “La Favorite.” Are there any melodies or pieces audiences will recognize from that work?

JEK: Yes, some numbers are recognizable and will sound familiar. When Donizetti wrote “L’Ange de Nisida,” he was forced to put it aside because the Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris, for which it was written, was closing down. So, of course, he used some of the music (literally tearing pages out of his manuscript) and put it into “La Favorite.” Some of it is in different keys with different text, of course. If you’ve ever seen a Donizetti manuscript you will know that he wrote extremely fast and his manuscripts are almost impossible to read. The score for “L’Ange” is particularly challenging as it was fragmented with different sections stored in different places (Paris, New York) and with all the edits that he did to the score to turn it into “La Favorite,” it was difficult to decipher and piece together the libretto and the musical flow. This detective work was done by Candida Mantica, who spent the last 10 years traveling around the world piecing this edition together. The Prelude and some recitatives are realized by Martin Fitzpatrick, and Silvia’s cabaletta (though present in the libretto) was not present in the music and was adapted from a cabaletta Donizetti wrote for a revival of “Maria di Rohan.” So, as you can see this has been a tremendous project, which involved many hours, many people and endless dedication. It has been an experience I will never forget; being in the room with my fellow castmates, Sir Mark Elder, Candida Mantica, Martin Fitzpatrick and Roger Parker bringing this to life.

OW: What draws you to Donizetti and what made you want to explore this piece?

JEK: I adore singing Donizetti. It just feels like a good fit for me temperamentally and vocally. When I was invited to sing this, I accepted not having seen the score (it was not ready) knowing that in general Donizetti sits well with me. Of course, knowing the history and intrigue behind this piece made me even more eager to discover and explore it.

OW: You previously did “Les Martyrs” and “Belisario” with Sir Mark Elder. For this piece, you’ll team up again. What does he bring to the works and what is special about working with him? What have you learned from him of the Bel Canto style?

JEK: For Sir Mark, God really is in the details. His meticulous attention to what the authors produced and his unerring drive to present what they had in mind, often uncovers subtleties in these works that would otherwise be overlooked. Bel canto, unlike the later, musically dense works of the late 19 century (think Strauss, Wagner, Puccini et al) is often rather simple on the page. To be fully brought to life, the musical preparation and interpretation is of utmost importance. This is where Sir Mark excels.

OW: You just finished up “Il Pirata.” What is the difference between a Bellini and a Donizetti piece? Are there any connections between Il Pirata and this upcoming work?

JEK: Interestingly, I hear a bit of “Pirata” in sections of “L’Ange.” There are many commonalities between Donizetti and Bellini, and I can feel and hear the Rossinian influence. I prefer not to compare them because both have their distinctive qualities. I have sung more Donizetti than Bellini (“Pirata” being my first Bellini opera) and I have to say that I hope to continue to include Bellini in my repertoire because the melancholic melodies reach deep into my heart.

OW: Tell me about your experience working with Opera Rara and what the experience of recording has been?

JEK: It has been a special highlight of my career working with Opera Rara. They are a small, intimate company with a real enthusiasm for what they do. They have a clear mission to present rare, forgotten and often unjustly neglected works and they pursue it with an admirable zeal and artistic integrity. To have had the opportunity to work with them on so many different roles has been an absolute blessing.

OW: What excites you about giving this world premiere at the Royal Opera House?

JEK: I am so very excited to be giving this premiere at the Royal Opera House. It certainly gives “L’Ange de Nisida” the attention that I believe it deserves. I love the London audiences, who I feel I have gotten to know thanks to my various projects here and I cannot wait to see their reaction to this piece.

OW: How does Liszt’s music fit into your repertoire?

JEK: I must admit that Liszt’s “Sardanapalo” has entered my life as a complete (and pleasant) surprise. Like many, I did not know that the piece existed in the first place. I am thrilled to add it to my repertoire.

OW: What interested you in his music and how does his vocal writing compare to the composers you usually sing? What can audiences expect from this opera?

JEK: The composition style is quite interesting in that it has bel canto elements, with a slightly denser instrumental texture. I hear Strauss and Wagner in the music and it also reminds me of Italian opera, such as Mascagni. Unfortunately, only the first act of the opera has been found. Liszt worked for seven years trying to compose an opera and it never saw the light of day. I believe that giving this an airing would have been a dream come true for him and, certainly is for us performers.

OW: After singing all these rare works in concert settings, do you hope that they will be revived into productions?

JEK: Yes, absolutely! I think it is our duty as performers to present the pieces to the best of our ability and let the audience decide and dictate whether or not they want to keep coming to hear the pieces. They, at least, deserve staged versions in order to be really fleshed out and experienced as was intended by the composers.

OW: Do you plan to continue mixing these rare works into your repertoire?

JEK: I do plan on continuing to incorporate rare works into my repertoire. I do feel a strong pull toward this and I feel like cosmically there is a reason I seem to be doing so many of them. It is not a task that I take lightly, and I know the great responsibility that has been given to me. And for this, I am honored.


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