27 March 2011

Interview: Daniel Okulitch on ‘The New American Art Song’

When bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch strides onto the stage of Weill Recital Hall tonight, March 28, the occasion will be newsworthy for a number of reasons. It’s the young Canadian’s New York recital debut (and a rare appearance by him on any recital stage), in a program of art songs by four acclaimed, living American composers — three of whom will accompany him on piano.

That alone should be enough to spur you toward Carnegie Hall tonight. (As of this writing, some tickets are still available.) Yet even more exceptional is the fact that the performance coincides with the release today of an album that records this material and makes it available to an audience far beyond 57th Street. In an era when fewer and fewer record companies are investing in young talent, and when more and more singers are relying on new technology (do-it-yourself audio and video recording, YouTube, increasingly fancy websites) to make themselves heard, Okulitch has got a commercial CD, which you can purchase through Amazon or download on iTunes.

Isn’t opera glamorous?
Okulitch, under 50 lbs. of latex, as the Brundlefly, with Ruxandra Donose in Shore’s The Fly, Théâtre du Châtelet, 2007.

Okulitch’s commitment to contemporary music — and contemporary composers’ commitment to him — is hardly new. In addition to the world premieres of Howard Shore’s The Fly (Paris and Los Angeles, 2007) and Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket (St. Louis and Wexford, 2010), he’s garnered praise for his roles in Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, to name only those that spring first to this writer’s mind.

For the new album, Okulitch performs song cycles by Lowell Liebermann, Ricky Ian Gordon, Heggie, and Glen Roven, the mastermind behind the project. Eager to tell me more despite the hectic schedule of preparations for both the album and the recital, Okulitch — a guy so unfailingly nice that he makes other Canadians look like rude bastards — took time to answer a few questions by e-mail.

Glen Roven: Conductor, composer, performer — and record producer

WVM: How did this project get started? Who approached whom? Where did you record?

DANIEL OKULITCH: Glen Roven actually approached me nearly two years ago out of the blue by sending me some of his pieces and a bio, saying he was interested in working with me. Honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought at the time, since I’ve been approached before by composers and had their music not turn out to be anything I wanted to work on, but I did agree to meet up with him when I was next in NY, which was several months later.

We met, and he played through a fair amount of the songs he had written, and I was immediately more interested. They were interesting, beautiful, unique, and imminently singable. He also said the magic words that he wanted to do an album with me, since he had recently been given the position of Head of Classical/Broadway/Children’s music at the boutique label GPR records.

Jake Heggie
When I like a singer, I give her a cartoon.
When Jake likes a singer — often the same singer! —
he gives her a song cycle.
Life is unfair.

We decided on a the theme of contemporary American composers, and narrowed the list of composers to include Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon and Lowell Liebermann, whereupon I contacted each of them to see what I might want to record.

It was a long process of finding the repertoire I responded to, then finding times when we could all actually get together to record, and when, also, a date might work for the actual recital, since the main point was having the composers themselves on the album and at the recital. As it happens, we did get all of the composers on the album, and 3/4 on the recital. Given how busy we all are, I think that in and of itself was quite a feat.

We recorded over a 2 1/2-week period in NY in February and March in the Sound Associates studio in Hell’s Kitchen. Those were some intensely long days.

As Willy Wonka in the world premiere of Ash’s The Golden Ticket
Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2010

WVM: Is it important to you to document your voice at this stage of your career? Why (or why not)?

DO: There is no way any singer, I suspect, is ever 100 percent happy with their recordings. But, if I wait until I’m perfect before I record anything, I’ll never step in front of a microphone at all. I believe I’m growing into my instrument more and more ... I think of myself as a late bloomer in that regard, and with that comes much more ability to make the musical choices I want. I don’t think of recording as leaving a sort of legacy, simply trying out a new medium (for me) to express myself.

WVM: How did you select the material for the album? Why these composers, why these song cycles?

DO: Jake, Ricky and Glen were all composers I was familiar with, but it was Glen who recommended I listen to some of Lowell’s works, which I was immediately impressed by. The selection of pieces was strictly intuitive; if I had an emotional response to them, and felt like I could bring something to them, they went in one pile. If not, I moved on.

Ricky Ian Gordon

Ricky and I actually sat down in a few sessions at his apartment while he played through piece after piece to see how they felt. Somehow what we came up with was a cycle of pieces that thematically seemed to flow, and felt somewhat autobiographical. (I stress “somewhat.”) There were experiences in my life that the pieces mirrored, and so the cycle Quiet Lives was born. It isn’t all previously unrecorded material, but it is material never before presented as a cycle. He, as was the case with each of the composers, was very open to adjusting the keys to suit my range. It was a luxury.

WVM: Of the composers whose work you’re performing on the album, Glen Roven’s is least familiar to me. What can I expect? What’s it been like to work with him?

DO: Glen’s music is wonderful to work on because it is very emotional music — it’s direct, vibrant, and very much interested in communicating the poetry. Some of them are very operatic, and others more irreverent and fun. He’s very easy to work with, in that he is happy to adjust notes, keys, tempi, to suit the singer, and has a continually upbeat and supportive attitude. He really is the driving force behind this album.

Lowell Liebermann

WVM: Already you’ve performed in an impressive number of contemporary operas, including two high-profile world premieres. What changes in your approach when you’re singing Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking as opposed to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro? Do audiences respond differently?

DO: You know, I’m still working on making less difference in my mind between performing my contemporary operas and my classic repertoire. There are some vocal challenges, to be sure, but the main thing is mental.

There is an immediacy with the language in, say, Dead Man Walking [libretto by Terrence McNally], that makes me more bold, more free as a performer. This is turn affects my voice, and I’m trying to bridge this gap, to feel as free in Mozart as I do in Contemporary. With each passing year I feel I get better at it. When I’m 70, I’m sure I’ll be a master, but by then it could be people won’t want to hear me.

Okulitch as Heggie’s Joseph De Rocher
Dead Man Walking, Fort Worth Opera Festival, 2009
Photo by Ellen Appel©

I feel audiences do respond differently to the contemporary repertoire, simply because the language is more immediate and accessible. And, in some cases, the plots are too. Not always, mind you, but in some cases. I think a good production, honestly presented with compelling direction, can be enthralling no matter what the era, however.

WVM: On the album, you’re performing material in your native tongue, including settings of poems by truly great poets, such as John Milton and Gwendolyn Brooks — with a couple of surprises, too. (Spike Milligan! Dorothy Parker!) Do you read much poetry apart from lyrics? Is there a particular poet whose work you’d like for someone to set to music so that you could perform it?

With Robynne Redmon (Sister Helen) in Dead Man Walking
Fort Worth Opera Festival, 2009
Photo by Ellen Appel©

DO: I’m somewhat erratic in my poetry reading ... if someone sends me works of a particular poet and I like it, I’ll devour their work for a time, but then go many months without reading another poem, save for lyrics. Recently I read James Kavanaugh, There are Men too Gentle to Live among Wolves, and was struck by much of it. I’d be interested in having someone set parts of it to music, absolutely. It’s a tricky thing, though, when one has a connection to a poem .... you almost want to have several composers set it and then you get to choose which you like best.

WVM: The most important question of all: how can my readers acquire the album?

DO: The album is available through Amazon, and on Itunes. Available March 28th!

NOTE: Daniel Okulitch spoke to me about portraying Mozart’s Don Giovanni at New York City Opera in November 2009. That interview can be found here.

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