Joyce El-Khoury © Julien Benhamou
The first time I met Joyce El-Khoury was by coincidence. We happened to sit next to each other during opening night of Gounod’s Faust at the National Opera and started an animated conversation, which continued during intermission and after the opera had ended. We got along so well, in fact, that we soon made an appointment to continue our conversation elsewhere.
Joyce El-Khoury with Michael Fabiano in Amsterdam
A few days afterwards we meet at an almost deserted outdoor café on Rembrandt Square. The weather is gorgeous – the sun reflecting itself in our wine glasses. El-Khoury loves Amsterdam, and cannot get enough of the city.
In November 2014 El-Khoury will return to Amsterdam for Musetta (La Bohème) and the prospect to spend six entire weeks there already makes her happy. She immediately discards my remarks on the weather in November and December.
“I simply love the city, regardless the weather. The atmosphere is unique and the people are so friendly! I love Amsterdam. Everyone is free here, or at least seems to be. The city is a huge inspiration to me. The only problem are the bikers, they scare me a little!”
The Canadian soprano, born in Beirut, is a star in the making. Opera News wrote about her: “Canadian Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it”.
As Violetta (La Traviata) at the Dutch National Opera
The Dutch public can attest to this. In May 2013 El-Khoury made an unexpected and overwhelming debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the National Opera. In May 2014 she stole the hearts of the NTR Saturday Matinee audience with a deeply moving performance of Rusalka in Dvorak’s opera of the same name.
“The Matinee is even better than sinking into a warm bath. The public is so incredibly sympathetic and kind, you can feel their love, which really makes you feel good, feel loved. You feel like … no, this feeling cannot be described. Also the organisers, the rehearsal assistants … The most beautiful moment to me came when the orchestra started to play and our voices blended with the sound of the orchestra for the first time.”
“And then we had James Gaffigan to conduct us …. I have no words for him. He breathed along with us. He was one of us, and stood above us at the same time. But also next to us. This Rusalka has been the highlight of my life thus far. Singing is a privilege, but singing at the Matinee in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life…”
Beirut and Canada
Joyce El-Khoury was born in Beirut and moved to Canada when she was six years old.
“I am a Canadian and I feel at home in Canada, but my soul, my heart, my everything stayed behind in Lebanon. Most of my family, for example, lives there. If my grandparents would not spend half of their time here, and half the time in Lebanon, I would miss them terribly. My heart is Lebanese, and I hope to spend some more time there one day.
“My father had a beautiful voice, but it was my grandfather George who was the famous singer. Well, famous, when he walked down the street people yelled Kyrie Eleison at him. I sang in the chorus as well, it helped me a lot when we first settled in Ottawa. Everything was new there, and I missed Beirut terribly, but singing comforted me.”
“I never thought about making singing my profession, I wanted to be a doctor. Or a nurse. I even worked in a children’s hospital for a while. My parents did not think that was a very good idea, though. “You have such a perfect and beautiful voice, you really need to do something with it” they said. They not only stimulated me, but also helped me to find my path in the manner that suited me. Unconditional love, indeed.”
“I function best under stress, I need to be challenged. I am sort of a workaholic: even on vacation I always take my score with me.”
El-Khoury’s current repertoire includes many classical and less famous roles by composers like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Language does not seem to play a role for her.
“I have been very lucky: languages, to me, come quite easily. Learning a language almost goes by itself, it is all very natural for me. Maybe because I was raised bilingual (Arabic and French), with English added later.
I have an affinity with languages, and I love to sing in Czech or in Russian. “
Rusalka in Amsterdam © Lieneke Effern
“Rusalka is in love, like someone who is in love for the first time. She dreams and believes her dreams are the truth. She is invisible to the prince, nothing more than a wave. She can only be united with him in the foam on the waves, but she wants to be seen too!”
“I am not sure whether the prince loves her…. I think he is fascinated by her. She is a great unknown, a beauty, a mystery. But she does not speak, so he does not know what to think anymore. You may think that is horrible, but you can hardly blame him. She is weird, which scares him a little.”
“Rusalka becomes truly human the moment she forgives. By forgiving she transforms into a human being. I think the opera enables us to study human emotions.”
Finale third act Rusalka from Amsterdam:
Musetta (La Boheme) in Amsterdam ©Lieneke Effern
“There is not a lot of difference between Musetta and Mimi, I think. I have sung both parts, and I love them equally. Musetta may appear more superficial, but she is not. She is just better at hiding her emotions and feelings. To the world she is happy and strong, and a big flirt as well, but inside she is a little bird. She genuinely loves Marcello, and is afraid of being hurt. It all shows in the final scene.”
With Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for La Boheme in Ottawa, El-Khoury sings Mimi
“The most emotional moment in the opera, to me, comes in the second act, when Mimi says: “”Io támo tanto.” My voice always breaks there for a moment.”
“I need to feel something. I need to have a connection with a role, and understand the character. I have to be challenged emotionally. When I do not feel anything, it becomes too mechanical and detached. I also think you need to keep your emotions in check, though, however hard that may be. Otherwise your throat blocks, and you cannot sing.”
Trailer of the Amsterdam production, El-Khoury sings Musetta:
When I am banned to the moon and can only take one opera with me that would be Suor Angelica! For the drama, but also for the music. The music comforts me, and gives me a warm and good feeling. And then there is that beautiful ending, the wonder that everything ends well!”
“This role also brought me where I am now. I was hired to sing Loretta in Gianni Schicchi during the Castleton Festival in 2010, but I was also the understudy for the singer who sang Angelica. She fell ill during opening night, and very gladly I took over. Under the circumstances they reversed the order: first Schicchi and then Angelica. Maestro Lorin Maazel was most helpful.”
“Later Maazel took me to Munich and even to China! I will miss him terribly: he was my mentor, teacher, supporter and friend.”
Final scene from Angelica, Castleton:
“I have learned a lot from Renata Scotto, mainly about body language: the things you do when you not sing. We have worked together in Palm Beach on a Traviata she directed in which I sang the lead. “
“I sang my very first Violetta in 2012 in Wales, then Amsterdam followed. I thought the Amsterdam production was very beautiful. I had watched the DVD many times, and understood the clock straight away, but the business with the couch had to be explained to me. I thought it was a tremendous experience.”
La Traviata from Palm Beach directed by Renata Scotto:
What is your dream role?
“Thaïs! Preferably with the gorgeous costumes they had in Los Angeles. I also love Butterfly. The part lies slightly higher than other Puccini roles, but I think it suits me. I also want to sing all three Tudor queens.”
As Maria Stuarda in Seattle
“I am not sure it will ever happen, but I would love to sing Salome” she adds with hesitation. “Actually, I would love to be a conductor, I love being in charge!”
English translation: Remko Jas
Interview in Dutch: JOYCE EL-KHOURY
© Simon Fowler /Decca
Joseph, finalmente mio!
An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.
“January is an outstanding month for tenors,” he laughed. “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”
To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.
Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time; his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.
Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:
In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.
He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),
He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!” He has always remembered the phrase since.
Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival) accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:
Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?
“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”
Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?
“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”
I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.
“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”
Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?
As Gustavo in Ballo in Maschera at ROH © Catherine Ashmore
“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”
“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”
Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.
“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”
What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?
“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”
In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?
“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”
“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”
“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”
I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?
“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”
© Simon Fowler/Decca
Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”
What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”
Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”
© Michele Agius
Why do you sing, actually?
“Why do I sing?” He ponders for a moment, apparently the question is harder than it seems. “I sing because I can express all great emotions through it: love, sadness, anger…. everything!”
English translation: Remko Jas
Het interview in het Nederlands: