(First Person) Joyce El-Khoury: Front Page National Post Arts & Life
Originally printed on the front page of the National Post Arts & Life Section
Who am I? A question that I’ve been asking myself for the last few weeks. This question is not one that is profound or existential, but one that relates to working on two roles (Mimì and Musetta) in the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème. Every morning I check the daily schedule to see which part I have to play/rehearse. I have been fortunate to have sung Mimì in several productions, therefore a role that I know intimately. Musetta, however, is a first. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about alternating these two roles, but what seemed like a daunting task, has been a very fruitful challenge… and I live for challenge! This opportunity has made me realize how important both characters are in the telling of this timeless story of love, loss and coming of age. I now see both women much more clearly. I, especially, have a much better understanding of Musetta through Mimì’s eyes than ever before, and the way I portray both women is affected by this.
During the rehearsal process, I try and get into the skin of the character as much as possible. One way to help me achieve this is to dress accordingly. For example, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata is the role I have performed the most. In the first act – a lavish party scene – I dress in order to make myself feel as glamorous as Violetta does. For the final act, when Violetta is on her death bed, I show up to rehearsal with very little makeup and wear something which makes me feel uncomfortable, or even unattractive to help me connect with the emotional and physical state of the character so that I can more effectively convey what the composer has written. On a regular rehearsal day in Toronto I have had to bounce between the flirtatious, fiery Musetta and the meek and down-to-earth Mimì – there is no fashion that fits these two women in one, therefore I needed to adjust my rehearsal method slightly and really study the differences between these characters to bring out their personalities more clearly within me. I think this exercise, in a way, has really strengthened my way of studying all my roles.
My debut recording, the role of Antonina in Donizetti’s Belisario, will be released this month on the Opera Rara label. Contrary to La Bohème, this opera is very rarely performed, and the reference material is very limited, with only one previous commercial recording available. During the recording process, done without an audience, I realized that the key to moving an audience comes down to doing exactly what the composer has written. The newness and freshness comes automatically from a committed artist who is willing to be the vessel in which the characters come to life. What brings the uniqueness of the performance to life, is the individual performing the role. My personal life experience naturally flows through me as I sing and act. All the characters I play are already living in me. All I have to do is allow them to come through the music. This is art. This is individuality. This is who I am, no matter how you dress me.