• Rusalka at NC Opera: Exclusive interview with Joyce El-Khoury

    [Opera Lively interview # 129] North Carolina Opera will be presenting a single semi-staged performance of Antonín Dvořák's masterpiece Rusalka, one of our favorite operas, on March 30 at 3 PM at the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC, sung in Czech with English supertitles. Tickets are $27-$85 and may be purchased online at www.ncopera.org or by phone at 919-792-3850. Timothy Myers conducts, and Crystal Manich is the stage director. Audiences less familiar with the piece are likely to have listened to the gorgeous aria "Song to the Moon" - but this famous passage is far from being the only musical reward of this exquisite opera, with its beautiful folk melodies and swirling romantic orchestral writing. Not only the music is compelling, but the dark fairy tale is psychologically deep and rewarding. Opera Lively will attend the performance and publish a review. Meanwhile, we have interviewed the star of the show, the excellent and beautiful soprano Joyce El-Khoury.

    In addition to Joyce, the performance will also feature:

    Russell Thomas as The Prince, a tenor who sang with the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, the Concertgebouw, and the New York Philharmonic.

    Soprano Heidi Melton is the Foreign Princess. She hails from Deutsche Oper Berlin where she appeared in Love for Three Oranges and Un Ballo in Maschera, and was seen in other German houses in Tannhäuser (both as Venus and Elisabeth) as well as in Peter Grimes, Les Troyens, and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

    Another veteran from prestigious houses is baritone Tom Fox as the Water Goblin. He appeared at the Met, San Francisco Opera, La Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, and L'Opera de Paris, among many others.

    Mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak as Jezibaba. She has appeared in regional American companies such as Wolf Trap Opera, the Castleton Festival, Virginia Opera, and Florida Grand Opera.

    With a cast of this quality and the secure conducting of maestro Timothy Myers, we expect a lot from this show. NC Opera has been presenting excellent performances and each season is better than the last. All opera lovers at driving distance shouldn't miss this show!

    Now let's turn our attention to Ms. Joyce El-Khoury.


    Photo © Kristin Hoebermann

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    Singer: Joyce El-Khoury
    Citizenship: Canadian (born in Lebanon, raised in Canada, based in Philadelphia)
    Fach: Full Lyric Soprano with dramatic qualities
    Recently in: La Bohème (Mimi and Musetta), Canadian Opera Company; Verdi's Requiem, Seattle Symphony; title role, Rusalka, Opera San Antonio
    Next in: North Carolina Opera, March 30 at 3 PM, and The Royal Concertgebouw, May 17 at 12:30 PM, both in the title role of Rusalka - tickets respectively [here] and [here]. Santa Fe Opera, Micaela in Carmen, June 27 through August 23 (12 performances), tickets [here].
    Website: click [here]

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    Artistic resumé

    During the 2013/14 season, she made her role debut as Musetta in La Bohème with the Canadian Opera Company, in a production that had her alternating this role with Mimi. She sang the Verdi Requiem with the Seattle Symphony, and will make her debut at the Santa Fe Opera as Micaela in Carmen this summer.

    The summer of 2013 brought with it, her role debut as Desdemona in Otello at the Castleton Festival conducted by Lorin Maazel. During the 2012/13 season, Ms. El-Khoury performed the role of Antonina in Donizetti’s rarely performed opera Belisario with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. A separate studio recording was made of this opera with Ms. El-Khoury performing this role, which was released by Opera Rara last October. She also reprised Violetta in La Traviata with the Palm Beach Opera, L’Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Étienne, and De Nederlandse Opera.

    Future engagements include Violetta in La Traviata at Lyric Opera of Kansas, Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs with Opera Rara in Royal Festival Hall, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette with Austin Lyric Opera, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with the Vancouver Opera, Leonora in Il Trovatore with Knoxville Opera, and the title role in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

    Further performances of note include Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, and the title role in Suor Angelica under the direction of Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival, the Verdi Requiem at the Al Bustan Festival in Beirut, La Bohème and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Munich Philharmonic, Marguerite in Faust with Opera Camerata of Washington, D.C., Mozart’s Requiem with the New York Choral Society in Carnegie Hall, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and Bruckner’s Te Deum with the Baltimore Symphony.

    Ms. El-Khoury is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. She is a First Prize winner in many competitions including: the Loren L. Zachary Competition, the Opera Index Competition, the George London Foundation, and the Mario Lanza Vocal Competition.

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    The Opera Lively Exclusive Interview with Joyce El-Khouri

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. Photos used with permission from the singer's web site and from NC Opera's press release, and credited when credit is known (we'll gladly add more credits if they are sent to us); fair promotional use.


    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively: Rusalka’s libretto draws from a number of literary sources. In addition to Slavic mythology, most quoted are the ballads of Czech poet Karel Jeromír Erben, which had already inspired Dvoøák in a series of symphonic poems (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel), as well as fairy tales by Božena Němcová. It also draws from other traditions such as Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet’s Undine, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and probably Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell. Exploring the literary sources (when they exist) in preparation for a role is oten a good idea. Is this something you do – reading up on a role and its sources?



    Joyce El-Khoury: I always research as much as I possibly can when preparing a role. What I learn from other sources allows me to gather information about the character and leads me in the right direction in creating an interpretation with multiple dimensions. For me, this is a step in the work process that cannot be skipped. I feel that by doing the research part of the exploration, I allow myself the privilege of discovering and studying the music. That being said, it is my job to present the character to the audience in a way which enables them to have a meaningful experience. They must be stimulated, transported and inspired. So, once I've done my research, I let most of the information live in my subconscious and I allow myself the freedom to organically express the emotions communicated by the text and the music.

    OL - Likely the reference recording for Rusalka is Charles Mackerras’ for DECCA, with Renée Fleming and Ben Heppner. Also favored by critics is Chalabala’s CD for Audiophon with Milada Šubrtová and Ivo Žídek, which is also featured as the soundtrack of a filmed version of the opera, with actors, on DVD. Cheryl Baker also sang the role. Modern DVDs include Renée Fleming’s, and Kristine Opolais', while recent CDs have Camilla Nylund and Ana Maria Martinez in the title role. Have you listened to, or watched any of these? Do you draw upon your predecessors for inspiration?



    JEK - I have great respect and admiration for my colleagues. We are all so different in many ways, yet we are united by our love of this art form, and for this I feel extremely grateful. I have seen and heard a few of the performances that you mentioned, simply because I am a true opera fan and enjoy listening. However, my preparation process is very personal. When it comes to inspiration, I find that in the score and the score alone. Everything is there: the text, the music, the characters - all of which are incredibly depicted in Rusalka.

    OL - Rusalka’s daunting first two numbers with a wide range, “Father Water Goblin!” and “He often comes here” are rapidly followed by the gorgeous “O moon in the velvet heavens”, the famous Song to the Moon. This is all very early in the opera, before the soprano has a good chance to warm up. Is this sequence difficult?

    JEK - Before a performance, no matter what the role is, I always have a workout as well as a good vocal warm up. I always make sure that I'm properly warmed up before I sing a note on the stage. The beginning of the first act of Rusalka is very cleverly written because it allows me to get in the groove.

    OL - One of the most beautiful scenes in all of opera, musically speaking, is the final interaction between Rusalka and the Prince, in “Beloved, do you recognize me?” and “Kiss me and give me peace.” What are your favorite musical parts in Rusalka?

    JEK - Of course I agree with you that the final scene with Rusalka and the Prince is exquisite. Dvořák has taken us through various keys and finally here we arrive at D-flat major. This may be the longest time we stay in one key. Finally, Rusalka and the Prince are able to communicate with each other and although it may not be the happy ending we had hoped for, we still have a sense of closure and resolution. Rusalka's acceptance of her fate is truly touching because she has seen all the ugliness of the world, and still she forgives. This makes us examine our lives and humanity. The other part of the opera which gives me goosebumps is only 5 bars long: "Tvoje moudrost všechno tuší, dej mi lidské tělo, lidskou duši!" I agree with my coach who says this sounds like levitation music. To me it is like a prayer to something or someone divine. Of course, at this point, Rusalka is, with all humility, begging Jezibaba to help her.

    OL - The shimmering orchestration, the beautiful leitmotifs, and the tone painting of lakes and forests make of Rusalka a very lyric piece of music, sort of in contrast with its dark themes involving the idea of powerful and punishing mystical nature. What other comments can you make about the musical aspects of this opera?

    JEK - I couldn't add anything more to what you've already expressed! This is such a special piece and singing it is thrilling.

    OL - Rusalka is a very dark and dramatic fairy tale. Rusalka is both fragile, and deadly, sort of a mix of Mélisande and Salomé. How do you read the psychology of the title character?

    JEK - One of the things which makes Rusalka so rewarding to play is that she wears her heart on her sleeve. She doesn't hold back when it comes to expressing her feelings and desires. We see her at the beginning of the opera very uncomfortable in her world - the only world she has known. She then enters the human world and again finds discomfort and grief. She begins the opera like a teenager coming of age (like Tatyana in Eugene Onegin perhaps?) and then explores the possibility of love which leads her to pain and disappointment. She helps us examine how difficult and wonderful it is to be human…how fortunate we are to lead lives with so many things to discover, learn and experience. Rusalka will do anything to know love. Isn't that what we all need?

    OL - It is interesting to see that as Rusalka dares going after what she wants, she is robbed of her voice and her expression. As a modern woman, how do you relate to the character in its themes of her ill-fated pursuit of her desires and her freedoms?

    JEK - Everyone wants to be heard and understood. It is a basic need to be able to express ourselves. The idea of having this taken away from us is very disturbing. One of the things that makes Rusalka a heroine is the fact that when Jezibaba tells her that she will be mute to all humans, Rusalka replies by saying: "If I may know his love, gladly for him I will be mute". Rusalka knew exactly the risk she was taking, and she took it with full consciousness. She believed that the Prince would love her and that the power of love would destroy all curses. This kind of faith in love and humanity is what I think we all cling to.

    OL - The Bayerische Staatsoper recently put together a Regie version of the piece, directed by Martin Kusej, which featured incest, rape, child sexual abuse, and domestic abuse, not to forget crude imagery with simulated sex acts, and a lot of blood and dead animals. Poor Kristine Opolais was slapped around a lot, and still sang beautifully. What is your take on this kind of production?



    JEK - I have not seen this production, so I cannot comment on it. I will say, however, that usually I have no problem with an "updated" production of a well-known work as long as it is respectful of the piece and the composer's intentions. If the ideas presented by the director fit within the theme and help deliver the message of the opera to the audience, I have no problem with it.

    OL - This is your second Rusalka and you are on your way to a third one at the prestigious Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. As far as I know all three are either concert versions or semi-staged like this NC Opera production. Is it difficult to convey the dramatic richness of this piece without the support of full staging?


    Joyce as Rusalka - credit unknown, fair promotional use

    JEK - Rusalka is so rich musically that it can stand on its own. If you close your eyes and just listen to the music, you will see the trees, the lakes, the moon… the magic. All of the theatrical elements can be heard in the music.

    OL - What can the public expect from this North Carolina Opera semi-staged production?

    JEK - We haven't begun rehearsals yet, so I don't know much about the production. I do, however, know some of my colleagues and I can tell you that you are in for quite the treat. The cast is extremely talented and I am looking forward to hearing my colleagues sing these roles.

    OL - How challenging was for you to learn this piece in Czech language? How long did it take to learn the role?

    JEK - The Czech language came surprisingly naturally to me. I've always been a little bit of a linguist. My first language was Arabic/Lebanese then I learned French, followed by English and Italian. I am lucky that I can quickly make the distinction between various sounds. This was very useful when I was learning Rusalka. The actual learning and memorizing of the music didn't take very long, but of course understanding the character - a being who is not human and is essentially water - was challenging.

    OL - Let’s now turn to you, leaving Rusalka behind. I heard that you considered a career in medicine before deciding for a singing career. Given that I’m a medical doctor and a passionate opera lover, this aspect of your biography interested me. Would you give me more details regarding the circumstances of your choices?

    JEK - When I was in my teens, I had the most excruciatingly painful stage fright. I loved, loved, LOVED to sing… when I was home alone! I couldn't sing one note in front of anyone; not even my parents. I also was highly passionate about health sciences. When I was a child, instead of playing with dolls, I played "Doctor". I had imagined myself as a doctor for a very long time (although I was terrible at Math) and hadn't considered a career in singing because I was just too afraid of it. So in high school, when the time came to begin thinking about University studies, I joined the Coop program at my high school. This program was in place to help students explore the field in which they want to work. I signed up to work in the Children's Hospital in Ottawa, my hometown. After three months of work there, they offered me a job which eventually helped put me through college. I was all set to go into Nursing at the University of Ottawa, but my parents, knowing that I loved singing and believing that I had a unique talent, encouraged me to enter the Music program at the University (by this time I had overcome my stage fright). I still, to this day, wish there was more time in one lifetime so that I can pursue this other passion of mine. I still watch countless surgical procedures on TV and online. It continues to fascinate me.

    OL - At one point you wanted to be a pop singer. How did opera come to be part of your life and then became your career?

    JEK - When I was 15, my mother signed me up for singing lessons with a classically trained voice teacher, Karen Spicer. I didn't really know anything about Opera at the time, but figured that a classical singing technique would only help my Pop singing. After a few years of lessons, when the time came to apply for University programs, my parents encouraged me to pursue Music. My singing teacher prepared me for my audition and I was accepted into the Voice program. The first opera we did was Carmen and I was hooked.

    OL - What are your memories of your training in two prestigious institutions, the AVA in Philadelphia, and the Lindemann in NYC? Any interesting stories to tell about how you got selected to the Lindemann?

    JEK - I had a wonderful education at AVA. My time there is what helped me become the serious musician that I am today. In my second year, we presented the second act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut in concert. I had invited Gayletha Nichols (who I had met at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) to the performance. She was unable to attend, so I sent her a recording of the performance. I believe she gave it to the Lindemann Program coaches, who then invited me to audition for Maestro James Levine. I sang for him and I was fortunate enough to be invited by him into the program. The time spent in the Lindemann program working with Maestro Levine was one of exploration and growth. I learned so many valuable things from him and I will forever be grateful. It was with him that I worked on Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Desdemona and Vespri Siciliani. I'll never forget it.


    Joyce as Desdemona in Otello at the Castleton Festival, with Lorin Maazel, July 2013

    OL - It must be exciting that as a young singer you are already featured on a CD – Donizetti’s Belisario – and you are going already into your second recording, also in a Donizetti opera, Les Martyrs, with such a spectacular ensemble as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Can you tell us about your first recording experience and your expectations for your second one?


    Joyce in Opera Rara's recording session of Belisario - credit unknown

    JEK - I truly enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal about how to use my voice alone to create a character. I think that for my second recording I will be even more comfortable with the recording process and can pace myself and relax more.


    Click [here] to purchase her CD from Amazon or [here] from Opera Rara including digital download

    OL - You were featured at DNO in Willy Decker’s famous Traviata production, the one with the red dress made famous by Anna Netrebko, also shared with some illustrious colleagues of yours such as Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau. I watched a trailer of that production and thought you did as well as your famous colleagues. What do you think of that production?


    Joyce in DNO's Traviata - photo credit Hans van den BogaardJEK - I absolutely adore this production. Every last detail is thought out and everything has a meaning and a reason. I was very honored to sing in this production. I think how Decker manages to strip away the usual opulence of La Traviata and replace it with symbolism is brilliant. I hope to do this production again soon.

    OL - You’ll soon debut in a contemporary opera, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, which is returning to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Is this your first experience with contemporary opera? What are your expectations for it?

    JEK - Yes, it is my first experience with contemporary opera and my first time singing in English. I am fascinated by the story told by Judith Rossner. When I first encountered Emmeline, my jaw dropped and I was in a state of shock. This was a turning point for me because until I discovered Emmeline, I had no real desire to sing any contemporary music. Tobias Picker's Emmeline changed that. I was terribly moved by the story and the music… I just HAD to sing it. Maestro Picker and I have been looking for opportunities to present Emmeline, so I am thrilled to finally be able to sing it in Saint-Louis. The role of Emmeline is at once very rich musically, and extremely complex psychologically. I can't wait to delve into this character.

    OL - You’ve sung dramatic roles such as Suor Angelica, with Lorin Maazel. Where do you see your career going? What roles you believe suit your voice very well? I heard that you’d see a Sieglinde in your future, but not Brünnhilde.

    JEK - I have a very open mind about where my voice will go and which repertoire I will explore. I am open to all possibilities, as we never quite now exactly how a voice will develop. I do however, hope to sing more of the Verdi and Bel Canto Heroines: Simon Boccanegra, Luisa Miller, Vespri Siciliani, I Puritani, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda (which I will debut shortly), to name a few. I hope to one day sing Norma….fingers crossed.

    OL - Let’s talk about you as a person underneath the artist. What are your main interests in life, outside of classical music?

    JEK - Opera is such a high-pressured career that I need to have periods where I go back to basics. I don't have much time off, but when I do, I decompress. I go for long runs, talk to friends and family and try to enjoy the basics of life.

    OL - How do you define your personality and your take on life?


    Photo © Kristin Hoebermann

    JEK - I am pretty frank and what you see is what you get, as they say. I am introverted in many ways, which comes as a surprise to many people. I do think this makes me a better artist, because the stage experience is very cathartic for me and what I am allowed to express on stage is very real and honest. I am positive, optimistic and generally very perceptive and intuitive. My "gut feelings" usually always lead me in the right direction.

    OL - Thank you, Ms. El-Khoury, for a delightful interview.

    JEK - You're welcome!

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    Let's listen to the singer in Otello, under Lorin Maazel. This is a very impressive rendition of the "Ave Maria":



    And here is the trailer for her rendition of Violetta in Willy Decker's production at the DNO:



    And here, Opera Rara's promotional piece for her recording of Donizetti's Belisario:



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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Clayton's Avatar
      Clayton -
      Very exciting, she has a lovely voice and expression. I like very much her Antonina and can't wait for Les Martyrs to be performed.


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