17 November 2009

Interview: Daniel Okulitch on Don Giovanni

Daniel Okulitch recently made his New York City Opera debut in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a new production directed by Christopher Alden. It’s a big moment for the company, which has returned to its home base at Lincoln Center. But it’s also a big moment for the young bass-baritone from Calgary.

We got to know each other in 2008, when Okulitch sang the lead in the world premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly, at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet; I heard him again as Joseph DeRocher, the condemned man in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, at Fort Worth Opera last spring. His willingness to take on such dramatically demanding roles is remarkable, and impresarios must be increasingly aware that, if they need a very tall guy who can sing while ripping a man’s arm off, or while doing push-ups, or while hanging from the ceiling or stooping under 50 pounds of Latex costuming, Dan is their man.

Moreover, he’s able to project dense texts cleanly and tellingly, over thunderous orchestrations, and to create fully dimensional characters. As Seth Brundle, he adroitly negotiated the transitions from nerd to lover to monster, from man obsessed to something not human; as DeRocher, he located the lonely vulnerability of a murderous brute.

Hearing him now in standard repertory, I was able to appreciate the warmth and amplitude of his tone, the excellence of his Italian, and the mastery of his dynamic shadings. Okulitch is quite simply a wonderful singer. Yet Alden’s staging is, in its way, no less demanding than those of The Fly or Dead Man, and I’m conscious of how much more accomplished — at everything — a young artist must be, in order to succeed these days.

Daniel Okulitch took time out from a punishing performance schedule to answer a few questions by e-mail.

Polymorphous: Okulitch, center, with his NYCO cast mates.
Clockwise from lower left: Joélle Harvey (Zerlina); Kelly Markgraf (Masetto); Gregory Turay (Don Ottavio); Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira); Stefania Dovhan (Donna Anna); Jason Hardy (Leporello)

Teresa Stratas likes to say that “Mozart is honey for the voice.” Safe to say she had more down-time between performances?

Ha. Yes, I suppose so. This first week has been a tiring one, with only one day off in between shows. While some may say, “It’s only Mozart,” it is still a big, long sing, a very physical show, emotionally demanding, and the level of vocal and dramatic commitment is taxing. That being said, singing Mozart properly is very, very healthy for the voice. In my career I have tried to balance the contemporary opera I do with Mozart, to keep me honest, to keep me healthy. All your problems are revealed in Mozart — the music is so exposed, so it’s a good way to test yourself.

We spoke briefly about the different colors your voice takes on in this music, as compared with the contemporary works I’ve heard you in. How much of the difference can be attributed to the musical language? To the English language? To the characters you portray? How do you find your sound in a score?

This is an interesting question. Singing contemporary operas in English is always a challenge vocally, since they are often angular, and even if not, the act of singing in English, in the style they often require, can seem like a different animal altogether than singing Mozart. In my growth as a singer, this is something I am working to unify more. I’m glad that in Giovanni you are hearing a wider range of colors, since I am trying to sing with a healthier, more full sound which allows the natural colors of my voice to come through. I am rarely thinking of particular vocal colors (with the exception of the Serenade, where I consciously do some straight tone and a much more intimate dynamic), but rather, the dramatic intention, and allowing that to “color” the voice. The trick, as always, is to not let the intensity of the drama rob one of your voice, which I find more difficult to do in contemporary operas, perhaps because of the immediate, visceral connection to the language.

As Joseph DeRocher, in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking
Fort Worth Opera, 2009

One reason writers (and stage directors) are drawn to Don Giovanni is that so much is open to interpretation. For example, in the libretto, the Don and other characters talk about his successes with women, yet in most productions, we see no evidence; likewise, we have only Donna Anna’s word that he forced himself on her. How do you see the character? If you were directing this piece, what would you emphasize about him?

Too often Giovanni is played in a rather one-dimensional way ... either as a complete brute and sociopath or a somewhat shallow Cavalier who is simply trying to have a good time in his own way, and is continually showing the audience how great it is to be the Don. Both are boring to me. In this production we allow moments where Giovanni is alone, or observing other characters, and there is a sense of inner conflict or regret, or fighting a growing sense of unease, which he then must chase away in the only way he knows how: pursuing sex and women and extreme sensation. There is humanity in Giovanni, even in his most despicable moments, that has to come out. Even the most amoral seducers have moments of insight or analysis or perhaps times of loneliness. As archetypal as he is, he is still a person with complex feelings, and I would try to direct (and play) him as such. The interesting part of Giovanni is not the façade, but what is underneath it. How much self-awareness he has is up for debate and varies from production to production, but no matter what, I am not interested in the typical “Good Ol’ Giovanni,” where everything on the page is taken literally.

Physique du rôle: With Jason Hardy as Leporello

The Alden production is yet another that relies on your physicality, whether you’re stripping to your shorts or dragging Jason Hardy around the stage. Does being in good shape give you an edge over other singers? What’s the downside — if any?

I ate a lot of gelato over the summer* so had to hit the gym again for this show. [Smile] Chris [Alden] warned me, so I had a little lead time. I can’t speak to whether being in shape gives me an edge. I don’t think it hurts to be in shape, no matter what, and it does allow for a certain directorial freedom by then knowing that I will be comfortable with taking my shirt off if it is called for. The downside can be that there are those who will say that I might be cast more on appearance than vocal ability, but I work hard, so that once I open my mouth to sing, it is hopefully clear that I am there on my vocal merits, as well.

A New York City Opera debut is a career milestone, and you’re appearing in a role that has an especially distinguished history with the company: Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey are just two of NYCO’s revered Dons. At what point do you block out this kind of background noise?

One has to block out this noise, because it doesn’t serve me, my nerves or my performance to think on it. Ramey and Treigle are two of my idols, so I don’t dream of being considered in the same category as them. With a role such as Giovanni, it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn to the great interpreters of the past. One can’t avoid it. My Giovanni is not the definitive one — no Giovanni is, since no one will ever come to a consensus on who was the “best.” I do my Giovanni my way, to the best of my ability at this time in my life, in this production. Some will love it, some will hate it. What more can I do?

Okulitch as Olin Blitch, in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah
Boheme Opera, 2006

How do the acoustics in the renovated theater seem to you? Is it a comfortable space in which to sing?

I really enjoy singing on this stage — we get a lot back from the house and I don’t feel we have to push. Our set is particularly kind, since the walls and floor reflect the sound out into the audience. So far, I think the renovations have been an improvement, and I believe there are more yet to come.

Where do you go from here?

Next I perform in Little Women** with Calgary Opera, then the title role in Le Nozze di Figaro in Vancouver, and finish out the season in St Louis as Willy Wonka in the world premiere of The Golden Ticket. I’ll open the 2010 season in LA with Figaro again, which I’ll repeat in Arizona, and have a few other things cooking which I won’t speak of just yet. [He concludes with another smile.]

Daniel Okulitch appears in Don Giovanni again on Friday, 20 November, and Sunday, 22 November (matinée).

*NOTES: Okulitch was singing the role of Theseus in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at La Scala. And avoiding gelato in Milan is like avoiding sausage in Germany: it cannot be done.

** In Mark Adamo’s opera, Okulitch sings the role of Professor Bhaer, whose Act II recitation of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” is a highlight of any performance, and a brilliant showcase for the singer.

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