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First Play: Joyce El-Khoury, Hallé Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi, Écho

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Robert Rowat

"Making this album was a dream come true for me and an absolute labour of love," says Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury.

The fruit of that labour is Écho, due out Sept. 8 on Opera Rara. It's a recital of mostly rare, 19th-century arias originally championed by Julie Dorus-Gras, the soprano who created a number of roles in operas by Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Halévy and Berlioz.

El-Khoury has already recorded two complete Donizetti operas for Opera Rara: Belisario (2013) and Les Martyres (2015). Écho is her first album of arias, and she's in excellent company with the Hallé Orchestra and conductor Carlo Rizzi.

We contacted El-Khoury recently to find out more about the motivation behind her new, pseudo-historical project. Here's that conversation:

Our first reaction when we listened to this new album was, "Woah! She sounds like Callas!" It's not necessarily the timbre (although there are comparisons to be made), but the intensity and the decisions you make. Do you get that a lot?

Yes, I do get that a lot and I take it as a compliment. Callas was a great instinctual and emotional artist — attributes I try to bring to my own singing. She was very brave with her musical choices and, without doubt, respectful to composers' wishes. However, because of the vocal similarities, I make sure to limit my time listening to her. To be true to my art, I have to be my authentic self rather than consciously (or unconsciously) imitating someone else, regardless of how great they were.

In addition to being a great listen, your new album is also a sort of musicological project — a tribute to 19th-century soprano Julie Dorus-Gras. What drew you to her story?

Initially my interest in her was piqued when I recorded Donizetti's opera Les Martyrs. She was the original Pauline. Eventually, with the encouragement of the record label, this interest was developed and eventually morphed into the theme for this recording.

What do you think has changed for singers since her day?

Ha! It would be easier if you asked what hasn't changed, as virtually everything has. One thing she didn't have to deal with is social media, for instance. Every event in an opera singer's career is almost immediately reported, discussed and dissected in the public arena, almost before the last note has stopped resounding. There's also the international travel. Dorus-Gras was able to build her career in a relatively small, contained geographical area with limited travelling. Not so today, of course.

Pitch would also have been different in her time and orchestras were far smaller in actual numbers and sonic power. I suppose the biggest difference is that she would have been working with the actual, living composers by and large, whereas today, unless you specialize in contemporary works, the opposite is true.

In the album's notes, you say you're "a perennial student of this wonderful art form." What did you learn from making this new album?

I learned that I really enjoy the challenge that the bel canto repertoire presents to a singer. I also learned that I get an extra kick out of working on neglected music, to try and give it a platform to be heard.

Some — a lot, actually — of these arias are notoriously difficult to sing, and yet you seem to dig into them with gusto. Are you an adrenaline junkie? Or is this music actually easy for you to sing?

Well, of course, it's not in any way easy, but I guess I must be doing my work correctly if it sounds easy! All the years of training and intense study prior to the recording are to thank for that. All that said, I do find that my instrument, while of course challenged by this repertoire, given the right amount of preparation, flourishes in it. It suits my timbre, range and technical strengths.

Who's your wonderful, clarion-toned Edgardo in the Lucia duet?

Wonderful, indeed! American tenor Michael Spyres. We first met while recording Les Martyrs and I'll take the liberty to say that we immediately bonded over our love for lesser-known works. He is also a champion of unusual works and brings great skill and musicality to his singing. A great artist and generous collaborator! He actually released his own recording (Espoir) with Opera Rara at the same time as I did [and] I had the opportunity to record a duet for his disc as well!

Meyerbeer, Halévy and the other composers of the French grand opera tradition are not so popular today. (Admittedly, their operas are really expensive to produce.) Why do we need to give their music a second chance?

Well, a lot of the lesser-known works by these composers are hidden musical gems. So much music was written in the 19th century, it is easy for these hidden masterpieces to disappear from view. If this recording does anything to revive and promote such jewels, I would be very happy. The operatic firmament needs good-quality works to present to the public. As much as I love them, a constant diet of La Traviata, La bohème and Carmen, etc., is not going to be enough to sustain public interest moving forward. Unusual and neglected repertoire can stimulate and challenge audiences in a different way.

Écho will be released on Sept. 8. You can pre-order the album here. El-Khoury's 2017-18 season includes Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with Kansas City Opera, Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata with Opéra national de Bordeaux, and Musetta in Puccini's La bohème with Teatro Réal Madrid. She's a featured soloist at Hannover's NDR Radio Orchestra's season-opening gala on Sept. 9.

More to explore:

You'll love this violin cover of 'Marietta's Song' from Korngold's Die tote Stadt

30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2017 edition

10 opera singers making Canada proud in 2017-18