Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury made her European debut as Violetta in La Traviata with the Welsh National Opera (WNO) this month.
When did you first realise you had a talent for operatic singing?
“From birth. When I was three or four I started singing. Obviously I don’t remember, but my parents tell me whenever they had friends round the house for dinner, I would just stand in the middle of the living room and sing for them.
So I think this was when they became aware of my need to perform, but it wasn’t until I was around 11-years-old I discovered it for myself. I discovered Whitney Houston and started singing all her songs.
But I had the worst-case of stage fright you can ever imagine and I couldn’t even sing in front of my parents. I would lock myself in the basement when no one was home and then I would sing. Then one day, by accident, my parents heard me and realised I could sing.
But it wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 where I started taking singing lessons. They were classical lessons, but I thought they would help me improve my pop singing technique. I didn’t want to be an opera singer at all!
I had the general perception of what opera is to most people, the big fat lady with the horns. I thought that was what it was, so I really didn’t want any part in it. But I auditioned for the Ottawa University music program and my parents and voice teacher at the time encouraged me so I auditioned and got in.
The first opera we did was Carmen and even since then I never looked back, I just fell in love with opera and the rest is history.”
What is your favourite role which you have played?
“I always say ‘oh, this is my favourite!’ Violetta is such a complex character, she goes through a very interesting journey where she changes a lot in the course of the opera.
So it’s a very interesting character to play. I love her music and her strength. I love everything she stands for toward the end. I’m very inspired by that.
Do you still get nervous?
I think it would be a shame not to get nervous because when adrenaline kicks in, the performance has a different and very special energy and I think the audience can pick up on that. I get more nervous for a smaller audience. The more people there are, the less nervous I am.
I think with a smaller audience it’s more intimate, everything is more exposed and you see individual faces. I get nervous about silly things. Instead of worrying about missing high notes I worry about tripping on my dress.
What are your plans for the future? Will you be returning to the Welsh National Opera soon?
I have 15 performances left with the WNO. We finish the La Traviata tour on April 20th and I’m going home to Canada to do a recital. Then over the summer I have some work in America. Then I’m back in Europe with the Munich Philharmonic in September.
What was your first impression of Wales and Cardiff?
Its really beautiful, I’m really looking forward to touring because I’ve been told we’re going to see some really beautiful places. Everyone in Cardiff has been so warm, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Everyone has been so nice to me, and I feel like when I leave in April I know I’m going to shed a tear or two because I’ve just fallen in love with the people here. It is fantastic.