Born in Lebanon and raised in Ottawa, Joyce El-Khoury returns to her adopted hometown to take on the starring role of Mimi in Opera Lyra’s La bohème, the first performance for the opera company since it was forced to cancel two of its shows last season due to lack of funds. Described by Opera Lyra artistic director Tyrone Paterson as “one of opera’s next great artists,” the soprano talks about being part of this significant performance and what it takes to be “opera hot.”
Interview by Chuck Snipper
Are the pressures on young opera singers different now than in decades past?
Today you have to be able to sing, act, dance, and look the part. It’s called being “opera hot.” The roles I play require that I be beautiful, physically strong, graceful, theatrical. I want to look good in those costumes, so I eat clean, work out in the gym, and run, which makes me a healthier human being with a healthier voice.
Did you always want to sing opera?
No, I wanted to be a pop singer, like Céline and Mariah. Opera just wasn’t cool. But at age 14, I studied with the classically trained Ottawa teacher Karen Spicer. Then my parents encouraged me to attend the music program at Ottawa U. In my first year, I played Carmen. The role pushed me over the edge, and I’ve never looked back.
How did growing up in Ottawa affect your career?
I was born in Lebanon. Had I remained there, it’s unlikely I’d have this career. In Ottawa, I studied dance and singing. I saw performances at the NAC. On my 20th birthday, I bought myself tickets to see La bohème by Opera Lyra, and I loved it!
Does performing with Opera Lyra have special meaning?
Opera Lyra is the first professional company that hired me. I am indebted to them and grateful for the opportunities they gave me when I was starting out. I’m sure there are many other artists who support Opera Lyra in a similar way. Also, the tenor in the show, Michael Fabiano, is my best friend. It’s been our dream to sing in La Bohème together since our student days, and now we’re performing it in my hometown, 10 years after I first saw it with Opera Lyra at the NAC.
What is it about the role of Mimi that is particularly challenging?
Mimi is often played as soft, plain, slightly victimized. I see her character differently. She’s charming. I use the poetic text to find her physicality, sentiments, and thought process. Mimi’s a great acting challenge, and I love acting. And Puccini’s music is wonderfully rewarding.
How is opera relevant to younger generations?
Young singers like me bring in young audiences. But to make any art form relevant to any generation, you must engage audiences through your performance. We, as artists, need to relate to people on a visceral level — through the singing, the orchestra, the staging. Opera is a wonderful vehicle for expression and engagement. On the other side of things, the new wave of marketing opera is hopefully moving people’s perceptions away from the “fat lady with the horns.”
What are your favourite operatic roles to date?
Suor Angelica [from the opera of the same name] and Violetta from La Traviata.
What other music would you like to perform?
Lebanese folk tunes from the ’60s, with their Middle Eastern tones and classical Arabic sounds.
Opera Lyra’s La Bohème runs Sept. 8, 10, 12, and 15. National Arts Centre, Southam Hall, 53 Elgin St., 1-888-991-2787, www.operalyra.ca.