Joyce El-Khoury is the very picture of a successful, confident, glamorous opera star—so much that it is almost impossible to imagine her ever being bullied.
But the fast-rising, raven-haired soprano, who has appeared everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to the Dutch National Theatre and London’s Barbican Hall, says that’s exactly what happened throughout her younger years at a string of Ottawa high schools after her family emigrated from Lebanon when she was six.
“Kids picked on me, bullied me, but I don’t really mean beating me up—bullying has so many forms,” the star of Vancouver Opera’s upcoming production of Die Fledermaus tells the Straight, opening up about her ordeal to mark Pink Shirt Day (Wednesday [February 25]). “There was name-calling, teasing, neglect—always being the last person to be picked for the team,” she says, visibly still pained by the memories. “It would be Sunday night and I had this ball in my stomach because I knew school was the next day.”
El-Khoury was too ashamed to tell her parents, and she says teachers never stepped in to protect her. So the opera star is speaking out for Pink Shirt Day in the hope of helping others, even offering up two free tickets to her VO opening night in a contest via Twitter to get people involved in the cause. “I want to make sure that children and teenagers know you can come through it and have a great life,” she stresses, sitting before rehearsal at the VO’s Maclean Drive headquarters. “It doesn’t mean you deserve what’s happening. It can make you stronger and a more sympathetic member of the community.”
For El-Khoury, of course, singing was the way out. Though the bullying had taken a toll on her self-esteem and she suffered severe shyness, she always had a remarkable voice. “Singing for me was the only thing I could do in my classes that no one else could do. That’s where I was untouchable,” she recalls.
El-Khoury sang in a choir, but her parents didn’t really understand her full ability till they overheard her singing Whitney Houston alone in the basement one night. That led to voice lessons. When it came time to pick her postsecondary studies, and El-Khoury was considering nursing after years of work at the children’s hospital in Ottawa, her parents encouraged her to first follow her gift. She auditioned for the music program at University of Ottawa and got in—though she wasn’t sold on the form of opera just yet.
“I thought training at music and opera would help my pop career,” she admits. That all changed, instantly, when she was researching her role for a production of Carmen and heard a recording of Maria Callas (to whom her radiant soprano is sometimes compared in reviews) singing the role of the fiery gypsy. That was it. “I thought, ‘This is so freaking cool.’”
The rest is history. El-Khoury not only looks the part for Italian-opera roles in the likes of La Bohème and La Traviata, but has the heart and voice to fill them, too. That’s why her appearance in Die Fledermaus here is special: she’s never sung the lead role of Rosalinde before, and it’s a comedic, waltz-flavoured German operetta by Johann Strauss II. El-Khoury is having a riot doing the Champagne-light farce: “I’m used to dying and being miserable on-stage,” she jokes. It helps that Rosalinde is a dramatic opera queen. “The characters are larger than life, with bigger gestures,” she says of the story of mistaken identity, masked balls, and lighthearted revenge.
These days, nothing seems to scare El-Khoury, however. She has been in back-to-back new roles for almost an entire year, from the lead in Romeo and Juliet in Austin to Les Martyrs in Amsterdam. And she’s so in-demand around the world, she’s given up her Philadelphia apartment to live on the road.
She’s come a long way from those days trapped in a cycle of bullying. Still, it’s surprising to hear she wouldn’t change a thing about her past. “It wasn’t pleasant; I wasn’t a happy person,” she says, and then adds with defiance, “but it made me who I am: strong and determined. So I hope that I can begin to talk to children about it.”
Vancouver Opera presents Die Fledermaus at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (February 28), and March 5, 7, and 8.