Contemporary Classic
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Contemporary Classic

DANIEL OKULITCH has forged a reputation as a top Mozartean and a potent interpreter of modern operas. This summer, he returns to Santa Fe Opera for the title role in Don Giovanni.
by Oussama Zahr. 

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Photograph by Dario Acosta
Mozart and contemporary have been my TWO BEST FRIENDS.
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As Don Giovanni, at Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2015
© Cory Weaver
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As Mr. Know (aka Willy Wonka), in The Golden Ticket at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 2010
© Ken Howard

WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE to have dinner with Willy Wonka at a quiet French bistro in New York City, if Wonka were a man on death row secretly harboring same-sex desires while slowly turning into a human-sized insect?

It would be quite pleasant actually, because that would mean you were diving into a croque-monsieur across the table from Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, whose conversation—much like his career—is guided by a politic approach and lively intellect. Okulitch has split his time pretty evenly between Mozart and contemporary opera, portraying some of the most memorable film characters of the past fifty years in adaptations for the opera stage. His resumé includes the operatic avatars of the aforementioned master chocolatier brought to life onscreen by Gene Wilder, Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle in The Fly, Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking (rechristened Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s opera) and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.

It’s perhaps an unexpected career trajectory for someone who got his start in Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant Broadway production of La Bohème, but Okulitch speaks with relish about the complexities and dramatic possibilities of contemporary opera. He remembers first encountering it in the form of Dead Man Walking, during an apprenticeship at Cincinnati Opera in 2001, while he was still a grad student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. 

“Cincinnati Opera was going to be doing it the following year, and Henri Venanzi, the chorus master, had an advance copy of the score,” he recalls. “I was looking for something—some piece that I could connect with that would set me apart. I said, ‘Can I just look through the score?’ I flipped, and I looked at any long section in the score that was solo, and I photocopied it. I photocopied huge parts of it, took it home, and I said, ‘Oh, this confession scene is something else.’ I learned it, because again, at that age, there’s a lot of baritones-slash-bass-baritones struggling to stand out from the herd. That piece, at that time, was my gateway drug. 

 “What’s funny is, I got the idea from a CCM alum who came and gave a talk to us artist-diploma students,” he continues. “She said her career started with one aria. It was ‘What a Movie!’ from Trouble in Tahiti. She could act the hell out of it. It got her work—it got her job after job after job and won competitions—because she owned that piece. I took that to heart and thought, ‘I can sing other things well, it’s true. But I feel that this shows what I’m real-ly about.’”

Dead Man Walking’s confession scene went on to play a similarly significant role in his life: he won competitions with it as a young singer and still uses it occasionally to audition for newly written operas. But he was able to slip out of its grasp long enough to audition for Luhrmann’s Broadway Bohème a year later.

AT TWENTY-SIX, Okulitch had just finished his artist diploma at CCM when he and some friends made the drive to Chicago to audition for the Broadway-bound show. “I’d watched some of his movies before, so I understood his style,” he says. “I thought, at the very least, I don’t have to worry about going too far in this audition, so I was wearing an electric-blue shirt and my leather jacket and jeans. I had been working as a waiter, so I had a fistful of singles in my pocket—which kind of suggests that I might have been working at a strip club, but no. I go in and say, ‘I’m here to do Schaunard’s aria.’ I come in, and I leap up on the table, and I throw money in the air”—he sings the opening line of the monologue—“It just comes down, raining and raining Washingtons. I don’t think I coached it a whole lot, but they were just impressed by the chutzpah of doing this.” Chutzpah was enough; he won the part and sang it on Broadway eight times a week for seven months in 2002–03. 

In conversation, Okulitch has a canny glint in his eye that could be mistaken for mere focus, but it’s more like the self-awareness of someone who knows that making a career in opera is equal parts talent, luck and creating opportunities for yourself. As a student, he applied only to Oberlin for undergrad and CCM for grad school—“I really put all of my eggs in one basket,” he says—and he was admitted to both. When he arrived at San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and had to pick his “Death by Aria” solo—a tradition in which the young artists present an aria on the main stage in front of their coaches, peers and SFO administrators—he naturally chose Dead Man Walking, which had just had its world premiere in San Francisco. Afterward, he says, “a patron came up to me and said, ‘You know, you got a lot of…. That was pretty bold doing that here. I can put you in touch with Jake Heggie.’ So she did.” That led to his first big leading role—De Rocher in the Canadian premiere of Dead Man Walking, at Calgary Opera in 2006.

Okulitch admits that any of this could have blown up in his face. “I didn’t find out until years later. Richard Miller [his instructor at Oberlin] and I were having dinner at some sort of function, and he’d had a drink or two,” he recalls. “He says, ‘You know, Daniel, you weren’t really my first choice at all to get in.’ Because he only accepted four students a year. I go, ‘Really?’ He goes, ‘Well, no. Some other people decided not to come, so you got bumped up.’ I went, ‘Oh my God.’ I just laughed—the way your life hinges on so many things. I don’t know who these people were that didn’t come, but I want to send them a thank-you card.”

MOZART AND NEW MUSIC may seem like mismatched cornerstones upon which to build a career, but for the forty-year-old singer, whose voice has a round, dark cast and a buzzy quality that cuts through an orchestra without pushing, they are perfectly complementary. “I was never going to be a Billy Budd or a Valentin or anything like that,” he says, referring to roles just beyond his vocal range that are touchstones for lyric baritones with leading-man aspirations. “It’s been part of the plan with my teacher. My agent was finding roles in contemporary opera that can feature you and get press and attention—but that also showcase dramatic ability and musical ability with complex compositions. Then, [it was important to] maintain vocal health and credibility within the business by also focusing on the Mozart, the Escamillos and lyric roles like that. Mozart and contemporary have been my two best friends.” 

They are two friends he often sees back to back. His schedule this season includes the role of Lyndon B. Johnson in David T. Little’s new opera JFK at Forth Worth Opera, which he performed in April and May, followed by Don Giovanni at Santa Fe in July and August.

Little’s opera—a psychological, perhaps even psychedelic, exploration of John F. Kennedy’s last night before his assassination—is an important premiere that comes when the composer’s cool factor is at its zenith, and it’s Okulitch’s fourth contemporary opera with Fort Worth. Darren K. Woods, the company’s general director, was an early Okulitch supporter. “He had a fearlessness about him that I just loved,” recalls Woods of Okulitch’s first audition. 

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A s Joe De Rocher in Dead Man Walking at Calgary Opera, 2006
Courtesy of Calgary Opera/Trudie Lee

THE VALUE OF A GOOD first impression is hard to overstate, but high-profile assignments have not just fallen into Okulitch’s lap. He campaigned for coveted projects—Howard Shore’s Fly at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet and L.A. Opera in 2008, Charles Wuo-rinen’s Brokeback Mountain at Teatro Real in 2014that have become major signposts in his career.

 “I contacted Charles, and I met with him and expressed my interest in it,” says Okulitch of Brokeback Mountain. “Then he talked to [Teatro Real’s then artistic director Gerard] Mortier about me and my agent. We had an audition. Had another work session with him. The whole time, I was actively pursuing doing this project, because, I don’t know, I just thought I had something to say in that role. I really felt I did. Sometimes, I just get a feeling about that. I had a feeling about Dead Man. I had a feeling about The Fly, Willy Wonka even, and Brokeback, as well.” 

If his audition was anything like the final product, it’s easy to see what the creative team saw in him. When he appears onstage, Okulitch’s Ennis moves slowly and deliberately. His stillness feels loaded with emotional weight, and he immediately becomes the focal point of the action, as the other characters and Wuorinen’s restless score skitter about him. And when he opens his mouth, a resonant drawl comes out, like pitched speech that can’t quite take flight as singing—an expression of Ennis’s existential loneliness, an operatic soul divided against itself. Only in the opera’s last moments, when he finally admits his love for Jack after his death, does he sing fully sustained notes. “He’s the embodiment of [the role] as far as I’m concerned,” says Wuorinen. “After such a commanding performance and such a complete understanding of the role, my strong desire is for him to do it again.”

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© Dario Acosta
Fashion styling by Cliff Hoppus; grooming by Affan Graber Malik

OKULITCH HAS AVOIDED THE TRAP of trying to imitate the screen performances that came before him. “I had a naïve idea when I was younger that the same process that you could approach a theater or film role with would be totally transferable to opera,” he says. “It’s not. There has to be more of a monitor in opera, because there’s a lot more going on—conductor, orchestra, catching your lights, what your body is feeling like that day vocally, that high note might be tricky for you. Håkan Hagegård talked about it as the master puppeteer. He’s the master puppeteer, and his character is just out in front of him—which I like more and more. You can invest all of your rage and pain and sadness into a role like Dead Man Walking, and you might shred your voice in the process if you let that rage and anger get to your throat.”

He has likewise learned to shake off the anxiety of influence that comes with singing classic repertoire. For a number of years, he says, “I let myself be influenced by expectation that Giovanni should sound a certain way. I tried hard when I did it at City Opera to forget about the fact that legendary singers have sung it, either there or fifty feet away from that. It was still difficult for me to totally put that aside. As I’ve gotten older, and as I have gotten more comfortable with myself, I know that all anyone expects and wants is for you to be you, and that your sound has to be you. That’s what we crave. We will forgive all manner of vocal imperfections for honesty.” spacer 

Oussama Zahr is the managing editor of Gotham and Capitol File magazines. He also writes about opera for The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section. 

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