“Beautiful and lush, and so very personal”: Miriam Khalil talks COC’s La Bohème and the life of an artist

Miriam Khalil

This Mother’s Day will be accompanied by a family first: I will take my daughter to her first opera at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). The opera is Puccini’s La Bohème, and she will see acclaimed Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil sing the role of Mimì (which she alternates with American soprano Angel Blue). She is especially eager to experience the beloved opera that inspired Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Rent. And she has pronounced the chance to see Khalil, a Toronto-based artist and graduate of the prestigious COC Ensemble Studio, “amazing”.

Khalil has performed in several other productions of La Bohème, and returns to the role of Mimì in this COC production. She describes Mimì as a “very simple and honest person” who lives alone, embroidering flowers for a living. Young and passionate, she loves life and lives in every moment. Though she is self-sufficient, her health is frail. Khalil believes that “she has had financial help in the past from male suitors, but has not necessarily been in love before.” She is thus open and susceptible when she meets Rodolfo: “he speaks in poetry, and though he is being very showy in his sentiments, she recognizes that they are kindred spirits. He speaks her inner feelings and describes his life the way she sees beauty in everything.” 

For audiences who, like my daughter, are attending their first opera, La Bohème is an ideal introduction to the artform. In four acts, La Bohème tells the tragic love story of the seamstress Mimí and Rodolfo. Their story is set in Paris’ Latin Quarter in 1830, where four young Bohemians – writer Rodolfo, artist Marcello, musician Schaunard, and philosopher Colline – aspire to live as artists. The opera opens with the friends shivering in their drafty attic apartment. Mimí lives next door, but the artists have yet to meet her. They owe their landlord rent and are too poor to afford fuel, so they feed the fire with pages from Rodolfo’s manuscript to keep warm. It is Christmas Eve, and Rodolfo’s musician friend wants to go out, but Rodolfo prefers to finish the article he is writing. At this moment, Mimí walks in, asking for a match to relight the candle that the wind has blown out. Struck by Mimí’s beauty, and seeing that she is feeling faint, Rodolfo sits her down. When she tries to return to her home, the draft blows out both of their candles. In the dark, Rodolfo secretly pockets her house key to spend more time with her, catalyzing one of the most poignant scenes in operatic history. “I love the characters and the sweeping music,” Khalil enthuses. “We are presented with these very simple sketches of artists and bohemians, and the music fills in the story and the limitless emotional depth of each of them through the musical score”. 

Miriam Khalil as Mimì and Joshua Guerrero as Rodolfo in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

While La Bohème is eminently relatable, a little preparation ahead of seeing a performance will further enhance the experience, especially for young or first-time audiences. Any time Khalil goes to see an opera for the first time, she likes to read about the story and to listen to the music beforehand. “It’s always great to come to a show with a little bit of familiarity,” she advises. Inevitably, “with the music from La Bohème, a new opera-goer will find that they recognize so much without knowing that they will have heard it in a movie, tv and commercial soundtrack.” As my daughter has already done, watching Rent, the musical, is also a great way to prepare: ”It is based on La Bohème, and though the names change a little bit, the characters are mostly modern versions of the bohemians.” 

Khalil has appeared on opera stages across Canada, the US and Europe; and is a founding member of Against the Grain Theatre. A frequent recitalist, she will also be performing “1001 Nights: Tales of the East” with pianist and conductor Topher Mokrzewski on May 14, in a program focused on composers who drew their inspiration from Eastern themes or used text by Eastern poets – as well as a few Arabic songs. The concert is a part of the COC’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Finally, on May 17, she will perform Mimí in COC’s Opera for Toronto event, featuring cast members from the mainstage production of La Bohème, accompanied by the COC Orchestra, at the Joey and Toby Tannenbaum Opera Centre. (Opera for Toronto is a new initiative to introduce opera to new audiences by invitation and free of charge.) Earlier this year, she received a Juno Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year for her album Ayre Live, which is a fusion of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Sephardic folk melodies and texts composed by Osvaldo Golijov.

With her robust performance schedule, Khalil knows the intricacies of an artist’s life firsthand. And La Bohème’s depiction of the artist’s life feels astonishingly current in the light of widespread funding cuts to health care, education and the arts, coupled with soaring housing costs. “This career is not easy,” Khalil remarks. Yet while the constant uncertainty of pursuing art is “ever a challenge”, she concedes that artists do live their lives “pursuing our inner truth”. And this pursuit is “priceless”, despite the steep challenges of early days “when we’re trying to establish ourselves, and find out who we are as artists, and what we have to say, and how to say it.”  

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

The ultimate lesson is simple and clear: “you have to be passionate and dedicated to music and constant personal and artistic growth.” This is crucial because ”there will be a lot of people that will try and give you advice… almost always based on their experience.” Your passion and dedication will allow you to “listen carefully, but also know that this is not necessarily going to be your journey. Remain open and flexible, and don’t let fear guide or stop you. There will be obstacles, but the more you overcome them, the stronger and more confident an artist and person you will be.”

In the end, “it takes years, YEARS to get noticed.” And during this time, it’s critical not to “get bitter. Keep your head down; do the work. You will fail, but you will also succeed. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Just keep going.”

Where does so focused a work ethic and such dogged persistence lead? For Khalil, it has led to “getting to work with great colleagues” and “music making” –  in the opera and at concerts and recitals.The “big bonus” of this hard-won career is the “privilege of sharing this experience onstage with an audience, and having the characters come to life in real time while soaring with the music”. And nowhere is this privilege greater than with La Bohème, with its diverse human experiences, intimate glimpses into the minutiae of daily life, and exquisite music. Wrapped in the COC’s sumptuous staging, these elements are fantastically relatable for all audiences – from the most seasoned opera aficionado to my daughter and other first-time opera goers.

Though she closes with a final appreciative comment about La Bohème, Khalil might just as well be describing the hard-won career of an artist: “It’s incredibly beautiful and lush, and so very personal for each person that experiences it.”

Miriam Khalil’s Advice for Aspiring Artists

In addition to having a full performance calendar, you are a co-founder of Against the Grain Theatre and the busy mother of a young son. What advice would you like to offer to younger artists about achieving a healthy work-life balance, especially in a career that requires travel?

This is a very good question. In the past, before my son started school, he would travel with me and my husband, depending on the engagement. He is in school now, and we are aiming to try and have one of us at home with him while the other travels. What is great about Against the Grain Theatre is that it is in Toronto, where we live, and it allows for both my husband and I to be at home while practising our art. This is a huge advantage.

What I would tell aspiring opera singers is that this career can be difficult because of all of the travel that is required. It means being away from loved ones and often means being alone in cities where you don’t speak the language. You have to be comfortable with the idea of being on your own. 

In terms of work-life balance, I think if you want a family, then have a family. It certainly makes things more challenging, but in my experience, it also makes life more fulfilling. I have always wanted to be a mother, and I have loved every minute of it. Before becoming a mother, I was a singer first. Now my family comes first. I sometimes don’t have as much time as I once did to pour into my music, but the time I have is much better spent and much more precious. It’s the same with the time I have with my family; it is cherished. When things get very busy, we have help from family, friends and caregivers, and we simply take it one day at a time. Things tend to work themselves out. 

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

News You Can Use

What: La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini; a COC co-production with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera; Conductor: Paolo Carignani and Antonello Allemandi; Director: John Caird; Revival Director: Katherine M. Carter

Performed by Angel Blue and Miriam Khalil (Mimì), Atalla Ayan and Joshua Guerrero (Rodolfo), Andriana Chuchman and Danika Lorèn (Musetta), Lucas Meachem and Andrzej Filończyk (Marcello), Brandon Cedel and Önay Köse (Colline), Phillip Addis and Joel Allison (Schaunard), Donato Di Stefano (Benoît and Alcindoro), Taras Chmil (Parpignol), Samuel Chan (Customs House Sergeant), Jan Vaculik (Customs Officer)

La Bohème is sung in Italian and presented by the COC with English SURTITLES.

When: On stage until May 22, 2019

Where: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: coc.ca

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/ Sesayarts Magazine, 2019

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.