Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In a Word... Soprano Miriam Khalil

The Baby, The Family and The Voice
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Praised for her alluring stage presence and distinctive vocal tone, Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil is described as being “a lush lyric with spinto overtones” (Opera Canada) and “on the road to future greatness” (Classical 96.3 FM). Credits include Almirena in Handel’s Rinaldo and Cleopatra inGiulio Cesare, both with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, UK; Mimi in La Bohème with Opera Hamilton and Against the Grain Theatre (AtG); Musetta in La Bohème with Edmonton Opera; Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Opera Lyra Ottawa and AtG; Frasquita inCarmen with Pacific Opera Victoria; the Governess in The Turn of the Screw with AtG; and an Opera Gala with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. She was heard recently with the Thunder Bay Symphony in Raminsh’s Requiem, made her debut with Opéra de Montréal in their annual Gala and sang Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Symphony Nova Scotia. An alumna of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, she also holds degrees from The Glenn Gould School and the University of Ottawa. In 2007 she won first place in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, Great Lakes Region, and is a previous member of both The Steans Institute for Young Artists at Ravinia and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, UK. As a founding member of AtG, she is excited to help shape Canada’s most exciting young opera company.

CHARPO: Thanks much for taking the time - I feel like I've made the tour of the entire Against the Grain (AtG) operation only to discover I haven't found the melody yet! Before we dive in, tell us about your relationship with this unique company.

KHALIL: My relationship with AtG started in the early days when my husband Joel Ivany dreamed of having an opera company that was wholly accessible; one that would allow us to choose the works that spoke to us most and to be able to work together on the same projects and be in the same city doing what mattered to us both. I am now a founding member. I work with Joel on his librettos, I act as a sounding board to his ideas and I sing in the productions that are most suited to my temperament and voice. All the works that I’ve sung with AtG have been directed by Joel and it’s interesting to discover how we work together as a team but also as a singer and director. I have very strong ideas, and so does he. It can be tricky if our particular interpretations don’t coincide. Staying open to the other person’s ideas while keeping in touch with our own artistic impulse is what we try to keep in mind when working together.

CHARPO: Now some of these questions are going to sound enormously sexist...well, so be it. For starters, you've just had a baby and you have Pelléas coming up at AtG and Susanna in Nozze at Pacific Opera next month. Knowing that singers are booked years in advance, was planning a baby like planning the storming of Normandy?

KHALIL: I spoke to many singers with children about having a baby. It was interesting but everyone pretty much told me the same thing. There is no good time to have a baby. It will always seem like the wrong time until you have one, so if you want children, have them and everything will fall into place eventually. Both Joel and I come from big families that are close to one another, and having children was something we had talked about very seriously. When we got pregnant last year, we were very happy but hadn’t planned it into our schedules. It worked out eventually but there were some engagements that I couldn’t do because of my due date. Naturally, I felt sad that I couldn’t take part in these wonderful opportunities but at the same time, opportunities will always come and go, and it’s not every day that you can have a baby.

CHARPO: The photos we see of starlets who weigh 60 lbs. less after giving birth are a nice fantasy, but forget issues of weight - I wonder about perils posed to, say, diaphragm strength. Did you get advice from other singers about handling the possible dilemmas?

KHALIL: When I found out I was pregnant I spoke with my teacher, Wendy Nielsen, about what it would mean for my upcoming engagements. I also spoke to singers who had just had babies and were singing within six weeks of delivery. I wanted to know how difficult it would be and what to expect, always trying to keep in mind that everyone’s experience is unique. Everyone I spoke to said that it was difficult but do-able. They said it’s crucial to stay positive and although there would be sleepless nights and fatigue, the body knows what to do and you must trust the process. I worked out and sang throughout my pregnancy, and that has certainly been helpful in my recovery. The toughest is coming back into it slowly and patiently knowing that it will not immediately feel the same. But every muscle can be retrained, and ability comes back quite quickly considering the vast changes that the body goes through in the weeks during and after pregnancy.

at this stage, it’s crazy to think that anything about this career is easy

CHARPO: I suspect Joel is the perfect father (correct me if I'm wrong) but there are now two schedules that have to be juggled with a little creature who pretty much treats the best laid plans with "screw that noise". The family must have to make huge adjustments! How?

KHALIL: One of the most common expressions that I started hearing when I got pregnant is, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I am realizing how true that is on a daily basis. Thankfully, we are really fortunate to have an amazing family and unbelievably supportive and loving friends. They have been instrumental throughout my process of healing, training, and getting back into vocal shape.  They cooked us meals, did our laundry, sat with baby while I napped, held him and soothed him while I was in coachings and sent us daily messages of support and love. We have been really lucky and our baby is so blessed to have all this love in his life. Our careers are important to both of us and we both knew that the baby would eventually make travelling and working more challenging. Knowing this, we decided to take one day at a time and work through challenges as they came. I have a few engagements outside of Toronto, while Joel directs and assists here at home. We decided to go ahead with the engagements and he would visit when he could. My parents will be with me and the baby in Victoria, and one of my best friends lives on Vancouver Island and has also been kind enough to offer help while we stage Le nozze di Figaro. This has worked out beautifully so far. We try our best to keep positive and meet these challenges head-on. It means leaning on loved ones and although asking for help can be difficult sometimes, it is liberating knowing that you can count on people and that you are not alone.

CHARPO: Knowing that there is a fairly wide streak of sexism in the opera world, have engagers expressed concern about whether you can or cannot handle hearth and home, voice and dates?

KHALIL: So far, I have not had any major issues. As I mentioned above, there were a couple of engagements I could not do due to my due date. One of them was a project that I was really looking forward to because of the subject matter. However, being part of a smaller company, I understand that hiring understudies is not always possible. The other engagement fell directly on my due date and I thought it wise to keep that day free (even though baby was a week late!) 

When I was pregnant, I continued singing until I was five weeks away from my due date. Some people showed concern, however, I was relieved that the engager had confidence in me and actually told my agents that if I believe I can do it then he was more than happy to have me sing. When I later spoke with him, he mentioned that his wife is also a singer and also continued singing into her ninth month of pregnancy. I think that having children will inevitably make things more challenging. However, at this stage, it’s crazy to think that anything about this career is easy. I truly believe that it’s imperative to try to live the life you want. Not everyone offering work is going to be happy that you are pregnant. In the same regard, there will also be plenty of people that will hire you and support your choices. I would clearly rather work for the latter.

As a singer, I am part of a team, and if I can’t hold my own then it significantly affects the team dynamic.

CHARPO: Finally, as you and Joel are both part of the same world - though often on different paths - what differences do you see in how you and he are dealt with or have to deal with things?

KHALIL: In general, being a soprano is more competitive than working as another voice type or a director. Simply put, there are more of us vying for the same jobs. Having said this, I feel very privileged because I’ve had some incredible opportunities in my career so far. 

Our process is very different, which makes it difficult to compare. Singers audition for jobs. Often we’re in a room with an audition panel for up to ten minutes. That is the amount of time it takes to demonstrate a lifetime of work and discipline. The arias we sing are completely out of context in that scenario, and often the panel’s opinion is made within the first thirty seconds. 

A director’s process, although more complicated, has more time to impress the people in charge of hiring. Directors don’t have to show their work in such a limited amount of time, but they have to be so much more creative to get work. If they are fortunate, they apprentice under great directors who eventually end up being their mentors and hopefully make a good enough impression with the opera companies to be hired again. These impressions can take weeks or months to make.

As a singer, once I have the job, I am excited to get my hands on the character that I will be playing. I can’t wait to get my voice around the notes, to feel the words in my mind and body and to collaborate and interact with my colleagues. Now that I have a baby, I also have to keep in mind how I will keep the balance of home and work. I think Joel shares these same thoughts, however, his preparation is mental only. He doesn’t have to memorize a role and get it into his muscle memory. But he does need to know what are every character’s motivations and thoughts. He also has to be able to relay this to the singer/actors in order to get his desired effect from every scene. This is a different kind of preparation and a different output of energy.

How we are dealt with is tricky to describe. As a director, Joel is responsible for the environment around him and making singers comfortable with the situations presented to them. I am in charge of myself and my interactions with my colleagues. Joel is viewed as a leader, which can be a great thing if all is going well. As a singer, I am part of a team, and if I can’t hold my own then it significantly affects the team dynamic. I cannot be sure that everyone will fall in love with my instrument or agree with my character choices. I am only in charge of how I deal with what comes my way, but not how the entire opera unfolds (like Joel).

With regard to having a baby, I still cannot answer this question. While we were pregnant, Joel’s contracts were thankfully not affected. I think (and hope) that we live in a world where we are treated equally for the most part. Having a child might mean that I will have to weigh my decisions more judiciously, but the same goes for Joel now. We are not just responsible for ourselves, but our little one has a say now, too.

Ms Khalil's website
Ms Khalil will be performing with Thunderbay Symphony tomorrow night 
She will also be performing as Susanna at Pacific Opera, April 24-May 4
She will also appear as Mélisande in Against the Grain's production of Pélleas et Mélisande, June 19-25 

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