Arlette Khayata: A lifetime in pursuit of musical joy

She squints, tilting her head to sense the slightest slip in harmony. The choirmaster paces back and forth hurriedly between the pianist and the singers. Her controlled arms slice through space, daintily rising and dipping as she guides the music. Her fingers pluck and point mid-air to tease out pauses and counterpoints from targeted chorus sections.

Her upper body sways, bobbing and weaving, and her feet bounce up and down as if preparing to take flight. She remains rooted in the music, as the melodies of Beatles songs flow through her being.

Music has always been part of Arlette Khayata’s life. In 1964, she began studying music under Sisters Bernadette and Marçelle at the Sainte Famille Française primary school in Gemmayze. She attended rehearsals religiously and sang in every Christmas and end-of-year concert her choir organized. 

At home, she would huddle around the piano with her siblings, dancing to the tunes of her mom’s fingers playing La Cuacaracha and Les Vagues Argentines. 

“Our celebrations always featured singing, dancing, and laughter. That is how I learned at a very young age that music gives people joy and brings them together,” said Khayata. 

Although she earned a piano diploma from Trinity College in 1975, she temporarily set aside her dreams of pursuing a music career when her father insisted she get her head “out of the clouds.” At his request, the hopeful performer majored in economics at Saint Joseph University and landed a nine-to-five job at the Lebanese-French bank. 

Khayata grew dissatisfied with the monotony of her banking job. Three years later, she quit her job, got married, and reunited with her piano and music sheets, where she felt most like herself. With her schedule freeing up, she found a new creative outlet: writing fairy tales with accompanying music for children.     

One day a foreign man knocked on her door asking for her neighbor, who wasn’t home. She invited him in. During their exchange, she mentioned she was writing a children’s book. The man asked to see it, before posing a delicate question. 

“Are you interested in publishing?” he asked, offering her a book deal with Al Ahliya. She went on to write eight more books in the same genre.

In 1993, she joined the staff of International College, a private international school, as a middle-school music teacher and choirmaster. For thirty years, she dedicated her life to shaping the youth’s budding voices and harnessing musical talent. 

When speaking of IC, Khayata’s eyes light up, fondly reflecting on how upset her students would be whenever she could not hold class. She was almost boasting about that testament. For her, however, the love of music is a life-defining mission – one that she even passed down to her children, further extending her legacy of joy and passion for music.

Carine Mardelli, one of the choir master’s former students, describes her temperament as energetic, enthusiastic, and dedicated. She distinctively remembers how Khayata would jump around the classroom in child-like excitement, emphatically chanting “Yes!” whenever her students hit the right notes. 

Mardelli was one of Khayata’s prodigies. She owed much of her onstage confidence and ease with music to her teacher, who offered her her first-ever solo. 

“She showed me how powerful my voice truly is and taught me to always sing from the heart,” Mardelli said. 

Khayata’s adventures extended beyond the hallowed halls of IC. From Paris and Zurich to Moscow and Doha, the choirmaster trotted the globe, participating in numerous choir festivals and concerts. Yet, the performance she cherishes most took place at home at the Casino Du Liban, Jounieh.

In a 2005 concert collaboration with We Group, Khayta’s IC youth chorale performed a medley of the 1992 hit movie turned Broadway musical Sister Act. During this period, an unfortunate series of bombings and assassinations had rocked Lebanon, setting off an air of anxiety and a mood of despair. The audience was in dire need of a diversion. 

Khayata was dead-set on making the concert an entertaining distraction from politics. Rumours even circulated about a potential bomb threat at the venue, but this did not deter her.  

She recalled that performance with ardor and glee, reminiscing about the trill. 

“People stood up in their seats, screaming, then rushed on stage to hug me,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. 

“They told me I had given them hope and power.”

Karim Dahdah, who performed in Khayata’s concerts as a child, remembers it as the ensemble’s brightest achievement. He speaks passionately of the dedication and camaraderie between the choristers, some of whom remain in touch 17 years later. 

“The adrenaline and dopamine rush was crazy. We felt on top of the world when we saw ourselves on TV,” says Dahdah. 

Dahdah, now a semi-professional classical singer, says Khayta discovered his talent and invited him to join her singing group. Her infectious joy and zeal for teaching made their choir a community where he felt safe and happy. Dahdah returned to his alma mater as a teacher, walking in Khayta’s footsteps by teaching his students with the same delight and enthusiasm. 

After a prosperous 30-year career at IC, she retired, leaving a legacy of glee and musical vigor. Yet her thirst for music remained unquenched, so she ventured into a new chapter of her career: leading the AUB community choir. 

Dr. Salim Adib, who co-manages the AUB choir, met Khayata in the summer of 2022 through a mutual friend. He recalls how dynamic and cheerful she was when approached to revive the AUB choir under their leadership. 

Khayata’s collaborative nature encouraged Adib to set the reinstated choir in motion. Its elan and coveted concerts had fizzled out with the departure of previous choirmaster Tom Kim and the dissolution of the music department. They met with Dr. Fadlo Khuri, the president of AUB and a lover of choral music, who supported the idea wholeheartedly. 

During her first year leading the AUB choir, Khayata put together a Christmas concert and planned a spring iteration featuring a blend of choral classics and a medley of famed pop songs. She hopes to expand the choir, which includes fewer students than AUB Alumni, by inducting more undergraduates. 

Today, Khayata carries herself well for a woman in her sixties. Besides being a dedicated choirmaster, she is also the mother of four children. 

She looks back at her life and career as various chapters of one rhapsody dedicated to the love of music. Despite her life’s ebbs and flows and the growing hardships of living in Lebanon, she has always found a glorious savior in music. The choir is her haven, where her worries melt away. 

“It’s the magic of notes and harmony; it is God’s language,” she said with a smile exuding a sense of gratification.