Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Joyce El-Khoury
Photographed in New York by Dario Acosta
Makeup and hair by Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2012
Joyce El-Khoury has something of the perennial student about her. In an age when many young singers feel entitled to have a career handed to them, El-Khoury constantly stresses the importance of hard work, of not taking shortcuts with her art. When she mentions any of her mentors — they include Christofer Macatsoris and Laurent Philippe of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts; her voice teacher, Bill Schuman; conductors James Levine and Lorin Maazel — it's always to point out how much they have demanded of her. At the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, from which she graduated last year, she coached with Renata Scotto. "I worship her," says El-Khoury. "I love the old-school way of studying, where you're in a studio for an hour working on a single phrase. I love text. I could sing recit the rest of my life."
El-Khoury's sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it. She was born in Lebanon, and Arabic was her first language. Her family moved to Canada when she was six, and she began speaking French. "When someone says something to me in English that I don't understand," she says, "they think I'm stupid. They don't realize it's my third language!"
After graduating from the University of Ottawa in 2005, she auditioned for Juilliard, Curtis, the Academy of Vocal Arts, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes. She was accepted only by the last two, but without scholarship, so attending either of them was out of the question. She took a year off and lived in Philadelphia, using the facilities at AVA to practice every day. "I had only two voice lessons that year," she remembers, "and essentially taught myself how to sing again. The following year I auditioned for AVA only — and got in. It's not about the fairy dust. You get what you put in. It was a long process working with Bill Schuman to open up the top of my voice while keeping the core."
At the Met, she made her debut in 2009 as one of the nuns in Suor Angelica, and James Levine has encouraged her to immerse herself in Verdi: she is studying Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Luisa Miller, I Vespri Siciliani.
Last year, El-Khoury won First Prize — $12,000 — in the Loren L. Zachary Society Competition. "That was one I really wanted to win," she says. "I've done well in a lot of competitions, but there does come a time when you have to say, 'Enough.' Otherwise, the world is going to see you as a young artist forever. Do competitions, make some money to help you out along the way, but know when to stop. You have to take ownership of your own artistry at some point."
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