Daniel Okulitch, ‘The Last Savage,’ Santa Fe


okulitch_savage_santa_fe_7-11
Poster image from Santa Fe Opera’s “The Last Savage”
Photo from company website


Singing Naked—And Not Just in the Shower

“The Last Savage”
Opera in three acts by Gian Carlo Menotti
Directed by Ned Canty
Starring Daniel Okulitch, Anna Christy
Presented by Santa Fe Opera
July 23 and 27, 9 p.m.; Aug. 11 and 15, 8:30pm; Aug. 18 and 25, 8 p.m.

The Chippendales Effect in opera is like a reverse Title IX for tenors, baritones and basses. Why shouldn’t men be offered as many opportunities to appear onstage as scantily clad as women? Daniel Okulitch, who will be wearing a Tarzan outfit as the title character, Abdul, in “The Last Savage,” the very comic, 1963 opera by Gian Carlo Menotti at Santa Fe Opera through Aug. 23, has performed in some pretty skimpy costumes. Over the last few years, he sang naked in “The Fly,” appeared in his skivvies covered in neo-Nazi tattoos in “Dead Man Walking,” and was scheduled to sing a skin-baring “Don Giovanni” at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis this spring. Unfortunately, a serious car accident on April 5 forced him to drop out of that production. He fractured a cervical vertebra, and was ordered by doctors to wear a not-particularly-sexy neck brace for three months.

“It really got in the way of my workout schedule,” Okulitch said, only half-kidding. “There is no greater motivation to stay in shape than to be half-naked in front of thousands of people.” Welcome to the new world of opera. Okulitch blames the public’s thirst for singing beefcake on the Internet (see video below), but also because of the advent of live simulcasts. With high-definition televised broadcasts streaming performances from some of the leading opera companies in the world to local venues all over the United States, singers now have to be ready for close-ups. The simulcasts have become hugely popular, an affordable way for people to enjoy top-notch opera. The downside for the singers is that it is no longer possible to be an opera star by virtue of just your voice. “You have to have the musical technique, but you also have to be able to act, and your looks matter more,” Okulitch said.

Which means you have to go to the gym regularly, if you’re a “Barihunk,” like Okulitch. Barihunks.com is a website dedicated to “The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera.” A few clicks around the site will yield a selection of up-to-the -minute news, editorials, and, of course, photos and videos of the opera world’s leading hunks. The site was abuzz the day after the singer’s recent accident, when he was removed from a totaled vehicle in Los Angeles with the help of the “jaws of life.” “We took this news particularly hard, as Okulitch has played a major role in the success of this site,” the anonymous blogger and voice of Barihunk.com wrote. “His performance in ‘The Fly’ and willingness to own his sexiness and to celebrate it onstage has helped make opera attractive to a whole new generation. He is a gifted singer and performer and every day that he is off of the stage is a loss to opera.”

Okulitch, a Canadian singer, studied at Oberlin and Cincinnati conservatories and apprenticed with the Merola program at San Francisco Opera. He first received national recognition when he was cast as Schaunard in the Tony-winning Broadway production of “La bohème,” directed by Baz Luhrmann. “The Fly,” another high-profile role, was the operatic adaptation of a sci-fi movie from the 50’s (which had also been made into a 1986 film by David Cronenberg, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis). Okulitch played Seth Brundle, an obsessive scientist who accidentally turns himself into an insect. The production in Los Angeles required Okulitch to strip naked, the image of which promptly appeared all over the media landscape.

Okulitch has been cast in several other new operas. He recently played Willy Wonka in Peter Ash’s “The Golden Ticket,” in St. Louis and Atlanta, and Inspector Osterland in Thomas Pastieri’s “Frau Margot” with Fort Worth Opera. “Modern operas aren’t weighted down by history,” he said. “Nobody’s going to get up and tell me I’m doing it wrong.”

On the other hand, most of the new operas he has appeared in are sung in English, which he calls, “angular,” a challenge on an operatic voice. He likes to alternate modern operas with “something lyric,” he said. Don Giovanni and Figaro are favorite roles. “Mozart is healthy for the voice,” he said.

“Mozart is like a nice deep-tissue massage for the voice,” he once said during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “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.

Okulitch has been doing a lot of recitals this year. He will appear Aug. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Temple auditorium, presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association. A new CD, “The New American Art Song,” featuring works by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie and Lowell Lieberman, was released in March.

At the opera, during a recent run-through of “The Last Savage,” it became clear that mastering the comic timing necessary for his character is as much a necessity for Okulitch as is the required buffness. His character is a villager hired to pretend to be a savage, paid a lot of money to act like Tarzan, and to deliberately be captured by the heroine of the opera, Kitty, a young American college student who has come over to India with her wealthy father in order to ace an anthropology assignment. He soon winds up in a bamboo cage, singing his big aria, “”Only for you, lovely Sardula,” which he sings to the girlfriend who has talked him into the scam, lamenting, “Now I have sold my right to be free.”

Basically, Okulitch said, “Abdul is always reacting to a vast cast of very colorful characters, who are all skilled comedic actors. Abdul is a true innocent, a simple country boy from India who would prefer to be hunting, fishing and watching the stars at night,” he said. “He grows a backbone through the pieces, discovers what he wants, and then goes full Tarzan by the end.”

Santa Fe, NM
Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For culturevulture.net, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."