A soprano comes full circle: Joyce El-Khoury sings Bohème for the company that raised her

Steven Mazey, Ottawa Citizen, original post here.

She’s sung at the Met, Carnegie Hall and Beijing Opera, and in coming months she’s scheduled to sing with the BBC Symphony, Netherlands Opera and the Munich Philharmonic.

But for now, Ottawa soprano Joyce El-Khoury is back home to sing her first starring role for Opera Lyra Ottawa, the company that excited her about the art form and gave her crucial early experience.

From Sept. 8 to 15 at the National Arts Centre, Opera Lyra presents La Bohème, Puccini’s opera about love and death among struggling young artists in Paris.

El-Khoury, 30, will sing the role of Mimi, the frail seam-stress who falls in love with the writer Rodolfo (American tenor Michael Fabiano).

El-Khoury, who was born in Lebanon and moved with her family to Ottawa at age six, now lives in Philadelphia and spends much of her time performing abroad. Her eyes mist a little as she talks about what it means to be back where it all started.

“It’s a nice feeling to know there are people in the audience who love you,” she said in a recent interview between rehearsals.

“My parents have bought more than 30 tickets for relatives and friends over the four performances. It’s been great to go to rehearsals and come home to my family at night. I spend so much time in cities where I don’t know anyone.

“Here, I get to feel like a nor-mal human being with a day job.”

She says her parents, Jean and Alex, who run a coffee distribution company, encouraged her to pursue music when she was in high school. El-Khoury loved to sing but wasn’t sure if she should take a chance on an uncertain career.

They helped support her through her studies and they cheered her student performances, first at the University of Ottawa and then at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

“They’ve sacrificed so much for me. When they came to see me sing Traviata at the Academy, my mother turned to my father and said, ‘Aren’t you glad that you left Lebanon so that you could see your daughter doing this?’ My success is also theirs. They’re a huge reason why I do what I do.”

El-Khoury says it’s also meaningful that her first starring role for Opera Lyra happens to be in the first opera she saw. When she saw Opera Lyra’s production of Bohème in 2002, as a University of Ottawa student, it was her first fully staged opera.

El-Khoury had decided to study music, thanks to voice teacher Karen Spicer, who had taught her through high school, recognized her potential and encouraged her. El-Khoury had planned to study nursing, and knew little about opera.

When she saw Bohème, she says, “I was enthralled and loved every minute of the music and the theatrical experience. I re-member thinking, ‘I really want to do this.’ Ten years later, here I am, with this very opera.”

While at the University of Ottawa, El-Khoury sang in the chorus for Opera Lyra and she spent time in the company’s training program for young singers.

“I learned how opera works, what a director does, what a stage manager does, how things work backstage. Having grown up with Opera Lyra, I feel honoured to come back. This is the company that raised me.”

In the competitive world of opera, where talented young singers graduate from music programs every year, things went well for El-Khoury.

From her voice studies in Philadelphia, she landed a three-year stint in the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lin-demann Young Artist Development Program.

The program offers coaching and performances in small roles, and it accepts only a handful of the hundreds of singers who are considered from around the world. Met officials praised El-Khoury’s lush voice, theatrical instincts and striking stage presence.

The program, which she completed a year ago, helped open doors for El-Khoury with other conductors, opera houses and orchestras. The veteran maestro Lorin Maazel has booked her regularly and has become a valued mentor, she says.

When she sang her first Mimi last year, in a performance conducted by Maazel in Virginia, a Baltimore Sun critic praised El-Khoury’s “velvety tone” and “delicately spun pianissimos” and added “this was not just an-other pretty voice. El-Khoury shaped each line with refined textual and musical sensitivity, while employing natural acting skills to give her portrayal considerable depth.”

El-Khoury, who has also been acclaimed in Verdi’s La Traviata, has sung several Puccini operas, and says “some-thing about his music just makes sense for me. And Bo-hème always works, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The music gives me goosebumps.”

Young British maestro Alexander Shelley, who is con-ducting the production and has drawn high praise from NACO musicians for his orchestral concerts, has been impressed by El-Khoury.

“If I were to package what you’re looking for in a singer in every way, those are the distinguishing features Joyce has.

“She’s fun and easy to deal with. She has immaculate control of her voice, and she embodies what one wants in a Mimi. She’s a beautiful woman, and she has in her character the qualities that Mimi has, a feminine sensitivity but a core strength as well.”

The production, which marks Opera Lyra’s return after having to cancel two of its productions last season for financial reasons, will be directed by Joe Bascetta. The promising cast includes soprano Laura Whalen as Mu-setta, baritone Peter McGillivray as Schaunard and another homegrown star, Pembroke baritone Joshua Hopkins, as the painter Mar-cello.

Hopkins, who as a teen travelled to Ottawa to study with Opera Lyra chorus-master Laurence Ewashko, has sung at the Met and is re-turning there in January. He recently had his debut with the New York Philharmonic and was just chosen by Opera News magazine as one of 25 artists poised to become major forces in opera in the coming decade. Hopkins was the only Canadian on the list.

Michael Fabiano, who sings Rodolfo, also made the Opera News list. He and El-Khoury were students together in Philadelphia and are good friends.

“Michael and I have al-ways loved singing together, and what’s nice is that we can gently critique each other because we want the best for each other,” she says.

El-Khoury’s current sea-son includes several performances of Traviata in Europe and a Verdi Requiem in Lebanon in March, marking her first return to her native country since she was 11. Is El-Khoury ever surprised at how far she’s come since seeing her first opera 10 years ago?

“I have moments when I think, ‘How did I get here?'” she says with a laugh. “But then I remember that I’ve been working and working for the past 10 years.”

She’s grateful for the gentle push from her parents and her voice teacher to pursue music. “I was lucky I had that encouragement. The great moments that I’ve had so far in music have surpassed any-thing I dreamed of.”

OPERA LYRA OTTAWA

La Bohème

When & where: 8 p.m., Sept. 8, 10, 12 and 15, NAC Southam Hall

Tickets: Starting at $25 at the NAC box office or through Ticketmaster outlets 1-888-991-2787

Information: operalyra.ca