Joyce El-Khoury is not only a powerful presence, an exceptional soprano, and a strong operathlete, but she’s made it part of her life’s work to advocate against bullying. Throughout her travels, Ms. El-Khoury uses her own experiences with bullying to help be a voice for this social epidemic. Physical health is extremely important for performers to be conscious of, but mental health is an equally important component of total health & wellness that is all-too-often overlooked. We are honored to share Ms. El-Khoury’s interview with the OPERATHLETIC audience.
Ms. El-Khoury has performed a myriad of soprano dream roles including Mimì, Violetta, Rusalka, Marguerite, and more at some of the world’s leading opera houses including the Bayerische Staatsoper, De Nederlandse Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Diego Opera, Korean National Opera, Dutch National Opera, and Welsh National Opera, among others. She is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, and she is a First Prize winner in many competitions including the Loren L. Zachary Competition, the Opera Index Competition, the George London Foundation, and the Mario Lanza Vocal Competition. On February 28th & March 11th, 2016, you can see her sing Maria Stuarda with Seattle Opera. To learn more about Joyce El-Khoury, visit her website at http://joyceelkhoury.com/.
We so appreciate that Ms. El-Khoury is sharing her personal, health, and operatic journey with OPERATHLETIC. Mental health issues, including bullying, are often overlooked or underestimated in terms of long term affects on both mental and physical health. It’s time we all take a stand against bullying, and Ms. El-Khoury makes an excellent leader for social change. Thank you, Joyce El-Khoury, for sharing your wisdom, courage, and story with OPERATHLETIC!
Q: What makes you so passionate about the prevention of bullying?
Bullying is often considered a childhood ‘rite of passage’, but I believe that it is something that can and should be prevented. I was bullied as a child and throughout my teens. It made those transition years, which are by nature uncomfortable, even more so. I felt the effects of bullying very deeply, and it played a big role in my wavering self-esteem and self-worth as a young adult. Any involvement in bullying does not bode well in adulthood. Studies have proven that children who are bullied, who bully or even witness bullying can grow into adults who have emotional and/or psychological problems. We must remember that children spend the greatest portion of their days in school and if they are being tormented, we cannot deny that this will be detrimental to their development.
The problem has grown since the birth of the internet. When I was a child, I had the comfort of being able to escape into the happy and comforting environment of my parents’ home, knowing that I could forget about the bullying for a few hours. These days, children and teens are continuously connected through social media, making it almost impossible to have a peaceful retreat even once at home.
I would like to add that bullying takes many different forms. The most obvious and well-known is, of course, physical bullying; but there are many others which are just as damaging, if not more so. For example, purposely leaving someone out of an activity is considered bullying. This is why it is imperative that teachers and parents regularly check-in with the children and provide them with an opportunity to get things off their chest and receive help. The truth is that I can talk about this for hours, but the most important thing for me is to express that bullying should not be taken lightly. I am a pretty well-balanced and successful adult, yet I can still remember the smallest details from that part of my life. It has stuck with me, and in many ways has been a blessing in disguise because I wouldn’t be the strong and willful person that I am now had I not been bullied. That being said, I did have emotional challenges and obstacles because of bullying and now feel a strong sense of responsibility toward this cause. I am compelled to speak about it because even if I am able to comfort one child who is being bullied by saying: “Look at me… your life can be great too!”, then it is worth the effort.
Q: How have your experiences with bullying shaped you as a person & artist?
A: Most artists are extremely self-critical. We set such high standards for ourselves, and if we fall below the standard, we are very quick to go down a path of belittling or devaluing ourselves. Now, if you’ve grown up with others criticizing you, their voices tend to resurface in these moments of self-doubt. An artist has to have a balance of self-doubt and tremendous confidence. The doubt must be there to motivate us to keep searching for artistic excellence and the confidence must be there in order for us to get in front of thousands of people and bare our souls. Most of us vacillate between the two, still searching for balance, and that’s ok. For me, the quest for this balance is not only what keeps me churning away, but also what inspires me to make my art as truthful as possible. I am constantly looking for the humanity and vulnerability in my onstage roles. Having been bullied, and witness others being bullied, I cultivated a heightened sensitivity to my surroundings and people in general. I am able to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and can usually feel what they are feeling. I have learned to do that exact thing with the characters that I play, which I consider to be a gift.
Q: When did you begin your fitness journey? What inspired you to start?
A: I started giving my health a really hard look 5 years ago. I had often struggled with keeping my weight under control, especially in my late teens/early twenties. The number on the scale was always the one thing by which I measured my self-worth. One day I decided that enough was enough. The scale cannot give an accurate reading for health or fitness and what matters is not the number, but how one feels in their own skin. I yearned for that feeling which I often read about.. the one where people exclaim how energetic, focused and inspired they feel after a run. So, I decided to start running. With the help of a running app, I hit the pavement. At first I could literally only run one minute before cramping and feeling like I was going to suffocate. I worked through it out of sheer determination, and soon I was able to run long distances. Now, part of my routine is to run 10Ks. On performance days, or days where I need to take it easy, I run a maximum of 5K. When I can, I push myself as hard as possible. Running has not only helped me become healthier, but it has taught me a great deal about self-discipline, mental clarity and above all, meditation. When I run I have a sense of oneness with nature and the people around me. I run for physical, mental and emotional health, not the scale.
Q: How would you describe your weekly exercise routine?
A: I run 4-5 times per week, sometimes more. I work it around my rehearsal and performance schedule and try to get it done in the morning right after breakfast. It serves as a mental and physical warm up for the day. I always find it easier to get my voice warmed up after I’ve had a run. If I have access to a gym, I enjoy doing some weight training exercises. The most important thing for me to listen to my body as it usually gives signs of what it needs.
Q: Do you follow a specific diet or nutritional plan?
A: I EAT CLEAN! I try to eat 6 small clean meals every day. I avoid processed foods and drinks. What’s great about this “nutritional plan” is that there really is no plan. It is about being conscious not to put chemicals in our bodies. When we eat REAL, unprocessed food, our bodies thrive. It’s amazing how many chemicals we can put into our bodies if we are not mindful. With travel and challenging scheduling, it is not always possible to eat clean meals. I’m human and sometimes I fall off the wagon, which can lead me to feeling sluggish and cranky. If that happens, I dust myself off and start again. It’s really about balance, as well as questioning everything I put into my body. As singers, our bodies are our instruments, and if we don’t take care of the instrument and fuel it properly, how can we expect it to play at the highest level? Usually when I arrive in a new place, I immediately stock my kitchen with clean foods to ensure that I’m well nourished, hence avoiding the temptation of stopping in a coffee shop and eating a dozen donuts. 😉 I’ve recently started taking oatmeal on the road with me so that when I wake up in a new apartment or hotel, I have a clean breakfast at my fingertips. I indulge in whole wheat pasta on performance days, which works great for me, especially when I am singing Violetta in La Traviata! Also, on travel days, I usually carry a little container of unsalted almonds… again… avoiding the donuts!
Q: How did you discover your passion for singing?
A: According to my parents, by the time I was four years old, I had already discovered my love of singing. They tell me that I used to stand in the middle of the living room and serenade their guests. I have no recollection, but there are some photos…. Singing was always comforting to me, especially during my teenage years. I sang in school and church choir and although I enjoyed it, I never considered making a career of it because I had terrible stage fright. In fact, I was so afraid of singing in front of anyone that I would only sing if I were home alone. One day, my parents came home and caught me in thebasement belting “I Will Always Love You”. Shortly after, I grew tired of the stage fright, and I was determined to get over it. I told my mother that I wanted to start taking singing lessons. I began studying with Karen Spicer, who taught me about the wonderful world of opera. She encouraged me to apply for the Voice program in my hometown university of Ottawa, and the rest is history!
Q: What is your advice for those trying to pursue a career in opera?
A: The one thing that I find myself repeating to young aspiring singers is: DO NOT LOOK FOR SHORTCUTS IN YOUR ARTISTIC JOURNEY. Do not seek the easy way to do things. Exploration of one’s vocal instrument, and artistic spirit is most rewarding in the long run. It can be tempting in the beginning to want to skip some steps in the hopes of achieving quicker “results.” However, like the building of a house: If the foundation is unstable, the house will eventually collapse no matter how wonderful it may look on the outside.