During the general rehearsal of La traviata at Covent Garden last month, Joyce El-Khoury posted online a couple of selfies from her dressing room. Her resemblance to Angela Gheorghiu, who premiered Sir Richard Eyre’s iconic production in November 1994, was remarkable. “Everyone’s telling me that!” she laughs. Violetta was a breakthrough role for Gheorghiu and it’s a deeply significant one for El-Khoury, having performed it now in eleven different productions, this latest marking her long awaited Royal Opera House debut.
JE-K: What I loved about Gheorghiu when she sang Traviata is that she had this fragility that's innate in her voice that is so essential to Violetta to depict her illness.
MP: Are there any sopranos who you'd listen to on disc when you're preparing a role?
My queen is Maria Callas. I love the colours, I love the wild quality and the imperfections and the finesse – I love it all. There's something about her voice that really resonates with me. Before I started studying opera seriously, her Carmen was what grabbed me and took me out of pop singing – I sang Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston covers – and into opera. When I listen to her, my throat responds to her throat, I can feel what she's doing. But when I'm studying a role, I prefer not to listen. I have to just look at what's on the page and deal with my own throat.
What does Violetta mean to you as a role? How do you keep the interpretation fresh?
It's funny you should ask because my approach to this run has been to consciously remind myself that Violetta is saying all these words for the first time. I know what's coming up, but for Violetta it's the first time she's saying “È strano!”, so I have to remind myself to sing it as if for the first time. That's what keeps it alive – that and remembering that there'll be someone in the audience experiencing the opera for the first time.
People say you need three different sopranos for the role to sing Violetta.
I agree. Act 3 has always been the most natural to me. I'm not sure why but it’s where I feel at home, possibly because of the quality of the music or the immediacy of the emotion or the desperation that I seem to be able to access! The Act 1 aria is always daunting for all of us. Every soprano I speak to says “I just want to get off stage and come back when it's over.” What's not obvious is there's really no time for a break in that scene, just to swallow and to reset the instrument from a physiological point of view, just to breathe. Then there’s the drama of Act 2 with Germont while the orchestra is just wailing away. That can be tricky, not to let the emotion get to the quality of your sound.
What's also tricky is warming up before the opera and negotiating how much is enough. Violetta is a huge role and you don't want to be vocally knackered by the end, but the instrument has to be so warm and so ready, because you go straight into it. I have to sing two acts during the afternoon after a full warm up, then a rest. Then, an hour before I go on, I have to sing again. I don't speak where I sing – my speaking voice is pretty low and I sing up there – so it takes a while for that transition. Isn't it crazy what we have to do?!
Which Traviata productions do you really admire?
I love the Willy Decker production which I sang in Amsterdam. I love the symbolism, that time is ticking. At the top of the act, she's on this couch and it's spinning. When I first saw it on DVD, I didn't know what that meant but I was able to discuss it in rehearsals. The set is round and it’s like she's in a tornado, in the eye of the storm. That's why it's spnning, her life is spinning. I really loved the vitality. When I did that production, I was at the gym every day! It was a very physical production and there was only one intermission. I loved the adrenalin and physicalising the torment.
I also loved David McVicar’s production that I did with Welsh National Opera. Classic with a twist. That was my European debut. We were standing on Violetta's tombstone! That was haunting.
Do you think there's ever a danger that being emotionally involved in a role such as Violetta can affect vocal quality and does that matter?
I've been thinking about this exact thing and yes, sometimes emotion gets in the way. It makes the breath faster so the vibrato gets faster. If we were to look at something just aesthetically and remove the emotion from it, we could just listen for quality and so yes, we have to have a bit of distance emotionally from the vocal production. However, there are moments in a performance where I actually choose to make a not-so-beautiful sound because I feel the emotion in that moment is not meant to be beautiful. That's what I love about Callas. I'm very aware when that happens, it's a conscious decision. And that's what opera should be. We should be allowed and encouraged to play with colours. I have no interest in watching and hearing a vocally perfect performance. It's impressive but not if it doesn't touch you.
In La bohème, you sing both Musetta and Mimì. Which role do you prefer?
Musetta because she's more fun! Okay, you know me. Act 3 of Traviata comes so naturally – I don't know why, but tragedy is easy for me to access. It’s the same with Act 4 of Bohème, I love text and the ways we can colour it. I love theatre. I've often considered just being a straight actor because I love to act, and that's what I love about singing Mimì. When I've sung Mimì I've always had a great time. If I were to be offered Mimì, I'd take it, but I love Musetta more because she is more sassy.
I appreciate how much freedom Benedict Andrews gave me as Musetta in Amsterdam. What you saw on stage was me just being me! I've recently seen it on Youtube and thinking “My God, Joyce, you're completely insane!” Musetta's more extrovert and it's lighter. To tell you the truth, if you're singing Violetta after Violetta it's good to have a period in the calendar where you're not carrying the show. The voice needs rest.
So that rest can be taking on a lighter role?
Do you ever get used to living out of a suitcase?
Before I went to Santa Fe in the summer 2014 I had an apartment in Philadelphia – a huge loft with a bathtub in the bedroom. I looked at my calendar for the next 18 months and I wouldn't have spent any more than 30 days in Philly, so I gave it up. I put things in storage... they're still in storage now!
What I find difficult is the suitcase, the airports, the queues, the security, the visas, but once I'm settled in a place and unpacked, I'm happy, because then I get into a routine. You have to be solid being on your own and I quite enjoy it. I have a vivid inner life! I'm very introverted, not many people realise that. I'm not a party animal. I like to sit and study and think. On stage is when the real Joyce really comes out.
How is your voice developing?
I feel with time it's getting higher and cleaner. My first Violetta was in 2008 and I think vocally she's taught me a lot since then. I've also had to tweak things along the way because there's always been muscle memory to deal with from previous productions, so now my goal is to keep my voice as high and light as long as possible, so bel canto is where I really want to live.
So if someone came along and offered you Aida?
I would say no. I was invited to sing Butterfly and I turned it down. I considered it because it's tempting but I thought it best to wait. It was a flattering offer.
I'm so lucky to do what I do. I've had several "pinch me" moments recently. When you're in school preparing for this, this was the goal... and I'm here. You've been working your butt off for years and you thought back then that by the time you got here, the work would be over. But there's still so much to learn, so much music to explore. The voice is constantly changing and you're always looking for extra. With work comes acceptance that this is what my voice is: I'm always going to work to improve it but these are its qualities. It can't be what it isn't. I know I'm not a cookie cutter person and I'm not a cookie cutter soprano. People either love my voice or hate my voice... and that's great.
To be crass, we're in a business where we are concerned with career advancement and longevity and of course it's important you need to have people appreciate what you do else you won't be doing it for long, right? However, I don't need approval from everybody, as long as I know I'm doing all that I can and if I'm serving the music in the best way I possibly can and that I'm moving people, then I'm good with that.
Which new roles have you got coming up?
I’ve got a Leïla in Bordeaux in May. I'm also working on Lucia di Lammermoor, the next lady I want to tackle. There’s no date set yet, but I''m working on it. I also have Tatyana. I sang it a few times, but now I'm going to start learning Russian. When you sing Russian but are having to memorise a translation, there's a little bit of a barrier there that I want to get out of the way.
I'm also doing another Opera Rara recording, a solo disc this time. It's a very exciting project – this will speak to the opera nerd in you! It’s a tribute to Julie Dorus-Gras and the operas she premiered in the 1830s: Guillaume Tell, Les Huguenots, Robert le diable, Les Martyrs, La Juive… After I recorded Les Martyrs, the label wanted to do a special recital disc and then they realised I would be suited to other repertoire that Dorus-Gras sang, so we're going to record various arias that she created and performed. It includes Der Freischütz in French! Have you ever heard of that? She sang it in French under the title Robin des bois. Tasty stuff.
Finally, if you woke up and discovered you were a mezzo for the day...?
When I started, I was singing Carmen. And then I was singing Dorabella as well because my voice was really round in the middle, so I sang a lot of mezzo stuff. But if I was a mezzo now, I'd want to sing Carmen... and Eboli because she's fabulous.
Renata Tebaldi recorded “O don fatale”. It was quite late in her career.
I'm going to have to go looking for that!