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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Why Daniel Okulitch Is Not Afraid Of New Music

By Joseph So on March 7, 2017

Daniel Okulitch (Photo: Rob Daly)
Daniel Okulitch (Photo: Rob Daly)

The Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch shares his thoughts on his career and on tackling new music.

Daniel Okulitch is the archetypal new generation of opera singers. Not only does he have a beautiful voice, a surfeit of musicality, solid foundation and excellent training, he’s also blessed with leading-man good looks, an athletic figure, and a charismatic stage persona that makes him a stage director’s dream. He also happens to be a quick study, not an inconsiderable advantage when it comes to learning new repertoire. Combine that with a willingness to face the challenge of the new, there’s little wonder he’s in demand. His schedule the last few years includes an extraordinary number of contemporary operas, many of these world premieres — Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, Herman Broder in Enemies, A Love Story, Lt. Horstmayer in Silent Night, Lyndon B. Johnson in JFK, and Joseph De Rocher in Dead Man Walking, this last to come in Vancouver this spring. It all started when he took the opera world by storm as Seth Brundle in Howard Shore’s The Fly in 2006, generating a huge amount of buzz — pun intended — and putting him on the operatic map.

That said, Daniel Okulitch is also a fine Mozartian, regularly taking on both the Count and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, as well as the title role of Don Giovanni. Just last November, he added Leporello in Don Giovanni to his repertoire, for the first time at Opéra de Montreal. My experience of Okulitch onstage was as Count Almaviva and Don Giovanni, both at the Santa Fe Opera. Given his stature as an internationally ranked artist, having sung at prestigious houses the likes of La Scala, Paris, and Madrid, it’s curious that Okulitch has yet to sing opera in Toronto. So far, his appearances here have been limited to a recital at the Glenn Gould Studio, and a run of Messiah this past Christmas with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — “it’s my first!”

It is his affinity for new music that’s bringing him back to town this month, to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival, in the world premiere of Owen Pallett’s Songs From an Island.  We recently met for a chat, during which he shared his thoughts on singing new music, and on his burgeoning career. A real feather in his cap is the feature in the June 2016 issue of Opera News — when you’re the cover boy in one of the most prestigious opera magazines on the planet, you’ve arrived!

JS: Welcome back to Toronto. We don’t get to hear you very much here — I only recall a recital at Glenn Gould Studio, although I did hear you last summer as Don Giovanni in Santa Fe. I read that you’ve just sung your first Leporello. How does it feel to go from the Don to the servant?

DO: Yeah, it was just last month in Montreal. Singing Leporello — vocally it feels really easy. It’s lower, and I consider myself a bass-baritone. It’s more of a character role, so it feels less stressful in that sense. However, when you’ve done Don Giovanni for 10 years like I have, there are certain things that are automatic. With Leporello, I have to consciously tell myself – this is not your moment to sing! I have to continually remind myself not ever to go on automatic pilot.

JS: It’s all muscle memory isn’t it?

DO:  It is all muscle memory! You hear a musical cue, and you want to jump in. I didn’t have as much trouble when I did the Count for the first time. I’ve done Figaro for years, but Figaro and the Count don’t sing together very much. Leporello and Don Giovanni sing together all the time! The amount of focus it took surprised me, but it was fun, and I hope to do it again.

JS: Let’s talk a bit about your background. You were born in Ottawa, and your family moved to Calgary. And I read that you come from a family of scientists…

DO: Yes, my father is a geologist. When I was three and a half, he got a job with the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary, and we moved there. My grandfather was an astronomer, and he was Dean of Science at UBC.

JS: You made your debut as Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors?

DO: Yes, I was 12!

JS: Wow, you’ve had a very long career already!  What year was that?  I guess that’s a roundabout way of trying to find out how old you are.

DO: That was 1988. I’m 40. I consider my career started when singing was my only job, when I sang Schaunard in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway La boheme.  Prior to that, I was still in college. I sang Morales at Calgary Opera, also Benoit/Alcindoro. I did Masetto with Dayton Opera, things like that. That would have been in the early 2000’s.

JS: So you began in very standard repertoire stuff — Figaro, Count, Masetto… Did you sing other Mozart roles? Like Papageno?

DO: No, I’ve never done Papageno. There has been a trend for light lyric baritones to do it, but if you go back not that many years, it was sung by darker voices, voices with more weight. It doesn’t go very high or low — it’s more of an acting role.  I’d love to do Papageno; it would be a lot of fun!

JS: With your personality, you’d be a terrific Papageno and other comic roles.

DO: Funny that unless people have seen me do it, they don’t think of me in comedy. I love doing comedy! I’ve just done Leporello, and I’ve done La Calisto (Jove) in Cincinnati.

JS: Oh! Is that the one you were in drag??  I saw pictures of it on the internet.

DO: That’s a scary series of pictures (big laughs)!  I’ve also done LBJ in JFK, a completely comedic role, and it’s coming to Montreal in January 2018.  Also, The Last Savage in Santa Fe was broadly comedic.

JS: Do you do Figaro in Barbiere?

DO: No, that’s too high — lyric baritone land! I’ve always had the ability to sing some high notes, but I just don’t like staying up there. That’s the challenge. I was asked to do Valentin (Faust) at one point. I can sing those notes, but I’d be unhappy at the end of the evening. Recently I was in conversation with a company to do Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic. I have all the notes, but I’d have to be in the most perfect shape of my life to do it. On the other hand, roles like Leporello, I can get up there and not be in perfect shape and still sing it. Those are the roles you want. If the stars have to align perfectly for you to sing a role and not fail, it’s not for you!

JS: What about Onegin?

DO:  I’ve been asked a number of years ago. I would do Onegin, it’s just that the last 20 minutes is a killer. Everything up until then is great for my voice. I think I can do it if I have enough time to prepare, and I wouldn’t want to debut in a big house.

JS:  You sing a lot of contemporary music, what draws you to it? Or was it more or less an accident? 

DO: [Pause] It wasn’t necessarily an accident. When I was still in school, trying to work out the kinks technically, it was easier for me to sing contemporary English repertoire. I speak French, but in Italian and German, I had this idea of needing to sing in an operatic way that’s not entirely natural. If it’s in English, the expectation wasn’t there. It was just in my school years.  I felt all my dramatic instincts could be used in this rep because there wasn’t this expectation of perfect bel canto or perfect Mozart line that I was still struggling with technically. People started encouraging me in that vein. What started out as a means to an end, I grew to really like it. It has made me a better musician, having to learn this complex music. As time went on, I was able to apply those principles to the standard repertoire. I love doing the premieres (of contemporary works), I love the freedom of it.

JS: What about the vocal demands of contemporary music? 

DO: That can be very tricky. It depends on the composer. Some are more adept at writing for the voice. The joke among singers is — you have to be careful about telling the composer what you range is! It’s a joke, but…

JS: Not all contemporary composers write gratefully for the voice.

DO: No. but when you look at things like Wozzeck and Lulu, we are not going to say they are written gratefully for the voice, but they are written intelligently, and if you work on it enough, you’ll find the line in it. It’s highly angular and challenging music, so we’ve grown from the bel canto principles where it’s purely about the beauty of the voice, to something where you do actually want angular things, for the dramatic effect.

JS: You’ve had pieces written with your voice in mind, such as the Owen Pallett piece? What else have been written for you?

DO:  Not so much written for me but tailored for me. When I did The Fly, we had long sessions where I could say (to the composer) this works for me, and that doesn’t. Howard Shore was very amenable to that. Also with art songs, I’ve worked with Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, and they’ll change keys and adjust things. They want it to sound right for your voice.

JS: Does Owen Pallett write gratefully for the voice?  What are your thoughts on singing this piece?

DO: Absolutely.  Owen and I talked about the piece last year while he was still writing it, and I sent clips and sample material of what I sang for him to listen to, all of which showed what my voice was most comfortable doing.  The music sits perfectly where I like to sing.

JS: How long did it take you to learn the piece? Is it tonal and accessible for the singer and the audience?

DO: The music hasn’t been difficult to learn, compared with some other new works I’ve done.  He writes tonally and the musical language feels familiar.  Rhythmically there are some syncopations and turns that catch you off guard if you’re not paying attention, which I like. Owen has a unique style and approach, quite unlike other pieces I’ve done.  He loves long drawn out moments where the music lingers in the air, repeated themes, all very atmospheric.  It feels very intimate.

JS: Since I am not familiar with the piece, can you say a few words about the meaning of this work? Does it “tell a story”? 

DO: Owen has told me that the pieces are part of what is/will be a larger cycle of songs, in which there is a larger story being told.  I feel like Owen would be best qualified to discuss that narrative arc.

JS: How does this piece compare to the other pieces you have performed?

DO: Very different!  I haven’t done much in the way of new concert works with orchestra, though of course I’ve done a fair amount of new art song.  These pieces feel very specifically composed for voice and orchestra — I’m not sure if they could function if reduced to piano accompaniment.  They feel like a definite part of a larger narrative arc, and one that I could see being staged, perhaps with dance, video, etc.  It’s exciting to be here for the beginning part of it.  Musically these songs feel unlike the other new pieces I’ve done.  These aren’t part of the Neo-Romantic school of art song of which I’ve done a fair amount, but rather feel like a bridge between Classical and Pop or electronica.  I think you can hear those influences quite strongly.

JS: Thanks Daniel for sharing your thoughts with us, and toi toi toi for the premiere!

You can hear Daniel Okulitch sing the world premiere of Owen Pallett’s Songs From An Island this Wednesday, March 8, at the TSO’s New Creations Festival.  Full details here.


Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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