Matteo El-Khodr, The Compelling Countertenor

Nelida Nassar  01.06.2014

Matteo El-Khodr, a gripping countertenor with vibrant interpretations of Baroque opera, effortlessly communicates through his voice the various moods of the soul. His bel canto roles are rich in ornamentation, power, nuance, dramatic beauty, and melancholy, as well as both softness and fury. El-Khodr was trained in the singing style of Francesco Tosi, the author of the first historical treatise of vocal technique that was the first full-length essay on singing providing a unique glimpse into the technical and social aspects of Baroque vocal music. Tosi, along with El-Khodr’s professor at Paris Ecole Normale, Agnes Mellon, communicated to him the rules of and the passion for bel canto. He masters the Baroque style to perfection, and his repertory ranges from medieval music to contemporary works, including the Romantic lieder of 19th century German composers. El-Khodr is clearly obsessed by the arias he sings, gripped by their meaning from their first to their last notes. Never overplaying his roles or sinking into that very old-fashioned and corny style of adding superficial tricks to poignant arias, he has excelled on the strength of his vocal timbre and color nuances, particularly in the arias written for castrati.

El-Khodr recently shared the stage at the Opera of Lorraine, France with prominent countertenors Max Emanuel Cenci and Philippe Jaroussky where he played the following role of Mandana, a woman betrayed — passionate, furious, electric, hysterical and loving. This recent re-creation after three centuries of neglect of the opera by Calabrian Artaserse Leonardo da Vinci has brought a welcome addition to the countertenor’s repertoire. His rendition was crisp improvising his appoggiatura, own graces and divisions on the spot in the performance.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which El Khodr sang few months ago during his last Beirut’s concert, is also an ideal work for his vocal style. The music moved from dramatic and tormented to pathetic, and then to joyous, and the artist messa di voce was superb and moved with great agility and gradual crescendo and diminuendo from the bass and mid-range to the high notes while sustaining a single pitch.

El-Khodr has worked with world-renowned conductors such as Diego Fasolis (Barocchisti) Christophe Rousset (Talents Lyriques), but his greatest wish is to sing under the baton of the energetic and gifted Mark Mikowski for whom he has a particular affection and respect, a wish that may be granted soon.

El Khodr was born into a family of Levantine origin (a Greco-Lebanese father and a Turkish mother), he felt at an early age that he was unlike other boys. While his classmates enjoyed playing at being firemen or soldiers, he was interested in painting and the archeology of the Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan civilizations, but, above all, it was music and especially opera that fascinated him. His parents were always encouraging, and they provided him with twelve years of piano lessons as well as theater and painting classes. The opera was especially honored at home, where every Sunday morning his family listened to Maria Callas, Kiri Te Kanawa, Emma Kirkby or James Bowman. El-Khodr emulated the voices he heard, and with his child’s range and tessitura, he particularly was attracted to the roles of Michaela in Carmen and the soprano parts in Bach’s cantatas. Gradually, those around him realized that his voice was very different from that of most singers.

However, his musical journey started in a restaurant in Beirut at a celebration for his mother’s birthday. Summoning up all his courage, he sang the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. This moment changed his life: a music agent happened to be present that evening and having “discovered” him soon took him to Paris to sign a contract with Universal Music France. Endowed with a natural and accurate technique despite having never taken any singing lessons, he was admitted to the Paris Music Conservatory. His childhood leisure pursuit turned into a career and a passion.

In our fast-paced and frenetic world, which devotes so little time to the joys and torments of the heart, El-Khodr keeps singing Baroque music, because, as he says: “If I do not sing I die. I live to sing”. He admits having stage fright in spite of his confidence in his technical abilities. For him, finding scores and melodies is like treasure hunting. For example, he will not hesitate to travel to Naples, Italy to search its libraries for unknown arias – some of them perhaps never sung before! An outgoing, expressive and sensitive artist, he also possesses great stage presence. He immediately feels his way into the character of the role he is playing. This theatrical ability is essential in bringing out the best in the music and especially in conveying the intense emotions of an operatic work. A concert or opera in which El-Khodr is appearing always promises music-making of a very high order.

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