Canadian bass baritone Daniel Okulitch, 34, returns to Los Angeles Opera in the title role of "The Marriage of Figaro," opening Sept. 26. It's his second engagement with LA Opera since his high-profile turn in the 2008 U.S. premiere of composer Howard Shore's "The Fly," directed by David Cronenberg, based on his 1986 science-fiction film.
I Googled you and the first thing that came up, even before your own website, was naked pictures of you from "The Fly."
I guess that's what gets the most hits. I suppose there are things I could do to change that within Google analytics, if I so desired. It's just not all that important to me. If people really want my website, they can find that information soon enough. But for whatever reason, that's what people click on, even two years after the show.
I guess you made quite a splash. How's that been for you?
The most comments I get on that are good-natured ribbing from colleagues. It's funny, but when I was in Paris for the opening, the whole fact that I was nude onstage for what, all of 30 seconds, maybe a minute? No one paid attention, because it was Paris. But suddenly I get to L.A. and the picture that's being put out there… It wasn't the only thing they talked about. They talked about the music and the performances, but the fact that I did the scene became the selling point and the definitive part of the show. It got my name out there and name recognition in this career is helpful. You do have to prove you can sing as well.
Oh, that. Operachic.com called you "a swaggering rock star" in "Don Giovanni" in New York. Do you think that opera singers have to bring the same kind of sexual bravado that rock musicians do to the stage to attract younger audiences?
I've seen various performances with the people touted as these sort of personas. It gets them in the door, but 20 rows back, no one can tell the difference. You really can't. What's interesting about that that if you tell someone you're going to see Erwin Schrott or Anna Netrebko and they're really hot and you tell them this enough times, even if they're sitting 50 rows back they're going to think, "Wow, I'm watching a really sexy, attractive person onstage." And their brain fills in what the eye is not catching. So it's a self-feeding loop; it's a snake eating its own tail. In the end, what's going to keep people coming back is if they have a satisfying dramatic musical experience.
Except the audiences are still graying.
It's a demographic truth that as people get older, they have more disposable income, they have more time, their tastes deepen and they become the core audience. They also become the people who donate more readily. So this has always been a truism of opera, at least in the 20th century in North America, that your audience will trend a little older. I think it's great when you can bring younger people into the audiences because they bring their own energy, and once you get an opera fan at a young age, they'll likely remain an opera fan for the rest of their lives.
You've performed a lot of classic and contemporary operas, singing the roles of Don Giovanni to Willy Wonka. Do you have a preference?
I don't think I do. The plan with my teacher and my managers was always that if I do a contemporary opera, like "The Golden Ticket" or "The Fly," immediately after, the best thing to do was a Mozart. Mozart is like a nice deep-tissue massage for the voice. It's therapy for the voice, if you're doing it correctly. It shows all of your flaws, so you're going to be made immediately aware of the bad habits that have crept in; it's like doing an X-ray on your voice, a nice little analysis of how you're singing. Then you're able to line things back up and sing in a noble, classic style, which is just healthy.
Contemporary music is often very angular, and most of the time it's in English, and it's easy to let bad habits creep in, and a lot of the time it's just more taxing on the voice. And also, there's the street cred thing: If you do a lot of contemporary opera, you start to get pigeonholed as someone who only does new works. But really your bread and butter is going to be your classic repertoire. So I like to keep a healthy balance between the premieres — the more modern things, which inevitably get maybe more attention and press — and things that reaffirm that I am someone who can handle the classical repertoire.
So how did Figaro become one of your signature roles? How does that happen?
That isn't something I claimed; it's something that's claimed for me. You do it a lot, and people see you do it and you get good press for it and word gets around. I was doing "The Fly" and Plácido [Domingo] said, "What else do you sing?" I said, "I do 'Figaro,' I do 'Don Giovanni.'" He said, "We're doing 'Figaro'; I'd like to hear you sing it." So I sang it for him [in New York]. And he said, "I think Los Angeles audiences need to hear you in something more classic."
And what do you do for playtime?
I feel like my life is playtime. Outside of opera, I have a lot of little hobbies, which are kind of odd and quirky. I was learning to crack a bullwhip this year. Cooking is a big passion of mine.
I didn't know bullwhipping was a hobby.
Oh, yeah. Learning to crack a whip, you'd better believe it. It's actually something I bought thinking it would be useful for a couple of roles. And I thought, this is kind of fun, and I learned the different cracks; it's rather challenging. So I travel with a whip. You're going to make that the headline, aren't you?