One of the most popular tropes in the performing arts is the star-is-born moment. It’s also one of the most deceptive. The ballerina, the hoofer, the singer who goes on stage an understudy and comes back to the wings a star is the stuff of dream, legend and even “Phantom of the Opera,” which catapults its heroine to success at the start of its plot. In real life, though, both the lead-up and the aftermath are a story of unremitting hard work.
“I find that with a career, nothing happens by accident,” says the soprano Joyce El-Khoury. “The sprinkling of the fairy dust, maybe that does happen for some people. That has not been my experience. I have built everything brick by brick.”
El-Khoury, 34, is in Washington for Washington Concert Opera’s performance of “Herodiade,” a succulent work by Jules Massenet, in which she will sing Salome to the Jean — John the Baptist — of the tenor Michael Fabiano. It’s a meeting of two rising young stars. Fabiano, who impressed D.C. audiences with a solo recital for Vocal Arts DC in 2013 and the title role in Verdi’s “Il Corsaro” at WCO in 2014, already has a major international career. El-Khoury is well on her way. Her year ahead includes debuts at both Glyndebourne and Covent Garden (both in “La Traviata”), as well as a solo recital disc scheduled for release next summer.
“Last season I had seven new roles back to back,” she says. “I was learning one while rehearsing another.”
Some Washington-area opera audiences remember her star-is-born moment — at Lorin Maazel’s late, lamented Castleton Festival in Virginia in 2010 when she jumped in at the last minute as Puccini’s Suor Angelica, a part that arguably didn’t fit her voice, and had a tremendous success.
“It was definitely a turning point,” El-Khoury said in a phone interview. “When you’re a young singer starting out, you don’t have any reviews, so that put me on the map and put my name out there. And of course the YouTube videos of that production got out. The maestro [Maazel] took me everywhere: Tanglewood, Munich, Beijing, Oman. One engagement led to another. I don’t think I would have the career I do now if it weren’t for the maestro and my relationship with the festival.”
El-Khoury’s voice is distinctive. It’s an instrument with a quality of smoky darkness, but an easy upper extension that makes bel canto roles — such as Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” which she recently sang at the Seattle Opera — her preferred repertoire right now. But she’s also just sung Liu, the slave girl in Puccini’s “Turandot” at Opera Philadelphia (where the Philadelphia Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns praised her “floated high notes that recalled the glory years of Montserrat Caballé”) and the title role in “Emmeline,” by Tobias Picker, in St. Louis this past summer. (“It’s a big voice, an important voice,” wrote the critic Sarah Bryan Miller of her performance.)
“I relate the most intensely to the roles that challenge me emotionally and psychologically and that match the strengths of my voice,” El-Khoury says of her varied portfolio. “I don’t have a cookie-cutter voice, I don’t have a cookie-cutter personality. I don’t like to be put in a box.”
Embracing uniqueness has been its own kind of battle. El-Khoury’s family left Lebanon for Canada when she was 6; she arrived in Ottawa speaking Arabic and French, but no English. And for years in school, she was bullied. “I never told my parents,” she says. “They had no idea that anything was wrong. . . . When you‘re a child and you’re bullied, you don’t know it’s not your fault.” She is now working on a project to bring awareness to bullying.
“I haven’t always fit in everywhere I go,” she says. “When I was little, I thought that was a bad thing. Now as a woman, I’m doing well; I’m confident. I now know that not fitting in is not so bad. Being unique is a wonderful thing.”
It’s certainly a useful quality in an opera singer — though El-Khoury didn’t set out with that goal in mind. Indeed, she wanted to be a doctor, but her parents, in a twist on the usual parental narrative, encouraged her to pursue her musical gift, and after singing in a production of “Carmen” at Ottawa University, she was hooked. After graduation, she auditioned, with some hubris, for five leading music conservatories, including Juilliard and the Academy of Vocal Arts. She came up empty-handed; the only schools that took her didn’t come through with scholarship money. So she spent a year living in Philadelphia — which remains her home base — and working on singing on her own.
“Eventually you kind of find your path,” she says. “I’m lucky that I have a very strong instinct and I know when something is right.” She got into AVA the next time she auditioned — and went on to the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann program after that, where she worked with James Levine.
In Washington, singing with Fabiano reprises a joint Massenet appearance when the two sang a duet from “Manon” as a highlight of the Richard Tucker Gala, an annual who’s who of young singers, in 2014. French, of course, comes easily to El-Khoury, who spoke it before she learned English. And while she is enthusiastic about bel canto — “it flies out of me,” she said of her Seattle “Maria Stuardas” — she is excited about the “gorgeous” music and “elegance” of the French in “Herodiade.”
“What I love about Massenet is he’s very specific in his writing,” she says. “He spells out exactly what he wants you to do with each note. Markings are all over the place. He tells you how he wants something to be sung, ‘avec elan et amour.’ When I’m working with bel canto, I look for the reason why the composer wrote it that way, and I color it with that emotion. Here, he’s put it all on the page.”
As for learning a new role that you may not get to sing often again: it’s the price of success. That’s especially true for a singer who says she prefers rarities, music she can put her own stamp on, to chestnuts: take Donizetti’s “Les Martyrs,” an almost unknown piece which she performed and recorded with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2014. “Herodiade” is not quite as obscure, but it’s not an opera you encounter every day.
“I adore all the research,” she says. “I feel it’s my little mission in my career, to bring life to pieces like this.”
Herodiade, Sunday at 6 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. For tickets, contact Washington Concert Opera at concertopera.org.