Soprano Joyce El-Khoury is taking on the role of the vengeful wife of a Byzantine general in Donizetti’s Belisario this weekend. Sir Mark Elder is conducting a live performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican this Sunday, as well as making a studio recording for Opera Rara. We spoke to her during a break in recording sessions.
Belisario isn’t a particularly well known opera. Can you tell us a bit about the story and the character you play?
My character is Antonina and she was an actual historical figure. She was the wife of Belisarius – Belisario in the opera – who was the foremost general of the Byzantine empire under Emperor Justinian. According to historical writings she had significant power and influence over her husband. She seems to have been highly independent and strong and very individualistic. In the opera she’s introduced at the very beginning when she has just learned that her husband, Belisario, has had their son killed – so she plots her husband’s downfall, creates evidence against him and he’s thrown into prison for high treason. It isn’t until after Belisario has been punished and his eyes have been gouged out that she finds out the truth and her son is in fact alive.
But your character only really appears at the beginning and end of the opera – it must be quite a challenge to create a dramatic arc that’s believable for the audience?
Exactly, the audience doesn’t have a chance to get to know or understand her – we just see her plotting and she’s not very sympathetic. But if we stop ourselves and think about it, her actions are the result of really believing her husband had her son killed. The interpretation and emotional content has to come out in her two big scenes.
What’s Donizetti’s music like to sing?
The arias are so masterfully written by Donizetti to express her pain and the cabalettas have such fiery intensity. As a character she’s unapologetic and impulsive and her music really matches that. The range is huge so demands tremendous command of the instrument – the music is really representative of her psychological and emotional distress.
Have you sung much Donizetti before?
This is my first time singing Donizetti and I’m finding that it suits me, and my voice really likes it. It’s written in such a way that allows me to make full use of my instrument. I’ve come from the bel canto school and here in Donizetti I’ve been able to use all of the skills that I’ve been cultivating over all those years. I have to really make sure in this that my intonation is accurate and my dynamic range is really in full functioning form. I have to turn to the music detail to inform the psychology and the emotions of the character – for example every grace note, every tempo marking, every dynamic marking has to be inspired by the drama and it just thrills me to work on this kind of role.
Did you know the opera before you started work on this recording?
No. I had heard of it but I had never heard or seen it because it’s very rarely done, which hopefully will change now, because this piece is a gem. We’ve been sitting in rehearsals doing these recording sessions and hearing the orchestra and this music is so colourful, it’s fantastic. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Mark Elder and I’m learning so much from him about how to listen to the music and respond, it’s been really inspirational, a real pleasure.
Donizetti’s 'Belisario' will be performed this Sunday, 28 October at 7pm in the Barbican, London, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a studio recording of the opera will be released on the Opera Rara label