Tomotaka Okamoto Going Strong as ‘Sopranista’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Born Dec. 3, 1976, in Kochi Prefecture, Tomotaka Okamoto graduated from the Kunitachi College of Music in 1999. He studied at Conservatoire du 16e Francis Poulenc in France, finishing with a first-place award in 2002.

Tomotaka Okamoto, a “sopranista,” has a miraculous singing voice. He can sing in both soprano and men’s vocal ranges. Clad in flamboyant costumes, he masterfully sings songs in various genres, from classical music, such as baroque and opera, to musical and pop songs.

Last year, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his debut CD and released “Anata ni Taiyo o,” a best-of album commemorating the event, from the Universal Music label.

The album contains 15 songs. The title track, “Anata ni Taiyo o” (Here’s the sun to you), was written for Okamoto by Chiharu Tamashiro, one half of Okinawa Prefecture-based duo Kiroro. The lineup of new songs and pieces Okamoto regularly sings also include “Amazing Grace,” “Ave Maria” by Caccini and “Ai Sansan” originally sung by Hibari Misora.

Okamoto has started a nationwide concert tour with 30 performances, which will continue through July. On Jan. 25, he will perform at the Bunkyo Civic Hall in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.

The first thing people watching Okamoto’s performance notice is probably his appearance. His tousled hair and gorgeous costumes wrapping his large figure look amazing.

However, what amazes everyone most is his voice. He sings high notes effortlessly with power and finesse. His low notes rock. His unadulterated voice, which has a range of about three octaves, reaches the hearts of the audience with ease.

The way he uses dramatic gestures and sings each song expressively shows his joy of being able to bring his songs to the audience.

The cover of “Anata ni Taiyo o,” Okamoto’s best-of album commemorating the 20th anniversary of his debut CD

Okamoto was born and raised in Sukumo, Kochi Prefecture. Before he entered elementary school, he was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which causes the death of leg bone cells. Therefore, he lived in a care facility in Kochi, which was a three-hour drive away from home, from the time when he was a first grader all the way to when he was a fourth grader.

Okamoto’s family loves music. His parents met in a choir, his elder brother loves heavy metal and his elder sister plays the piano. After he finished with his treatment and returned home, he immediately started taking piano lessons.

When he was in junior high school, he joined a school brass band and played the saxophone. He cannot forget the power of the sounds when all the members started playing together, which gave him goosebumps. He thought of becoming a teacher to teach wind instrument music and music in general because, “I wanted to feel that sensation all my life,” he said.

On the other hand, he also became fascinated with music programs on NHK, particularly by performances by the late Keiko Nakajima and Kumiko Mori, both singers who performed in operas and musicals.

“They looked so happy singing in powerful voices and shaking their bodies big time. I had an inferiority complex about my plump figure, but I decided to stop feeling embarrassed about it,” he said. He started singing during breaktime at school.

In high school, he also dedicated himself to the saxophone. To attend a music college to become a music teacher, he had to study singing as well. So, he started taking singing lessons. That was when he was told for the first time how unique his voice was, because he could reach the soprano range without singing falsetto. He was also warned that his voice was so distinctive that he might not be accepted to a music education course at university, which trained schoolteachers. So, he took an entrance exam for a course for studying singing and passed it.

At a crossroads

At university, Okamoto learned about songs that suited his vocal range and singers whose ranges were similar to him. He also did research on castratos, male singers in the baroque period who were castrated to avoid their voices changing, and studied their repertoire. He thought himself a countertenor, a male singer who mainly sings alto, and introduced himself as such at concerts.

However, countertenor Akira Tachikawa told him otherwise. In 1998, Okamoto made his professional debut in a concert to reprise the Japanese premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral” as the soprano soloist. Tachikawa, the alto soloist at the concert, said to Okamoto, “Okamoto, your voice is not countertenor. The way you produce your voice is different.”

He was dismayed but found the answer in an Italian dictionary: “Sopranista,” which means a male soprano singer. Since then, he has been introducing himself as a sopranista.

At university, he learned classical music, baroque music in particular. But he was of two minds whether he should continue pursuing classical music. During his university days, he started visiting schools across the country to give concerts. The experience gave him conviction: “Children don’t care if I have a special voice or not. Making myself satisfied and making the audience happy are not the same thing,” he said.

Breaking genre barriers

Even when he was singing songs from classical music, what ran through his mind were the faces of the audience and the singers who had influenced him during his junior high school days. The songs he wanted to sing were not limited to classical music but included musicals and J-pop songs as well. After graduating from university, he went to France to further study singing, but he felt ambivalent about his future, being caught in a dilemma.

“I wanted people to enjoy my songs as entertainment. I also wanted to aim for higher as an artist,” he recalled.

Studying in France gave him new awareness. Many teachers asked him why he sang only the baroque repertoire.

“They told me, ‘Your voice is suited to singing Verdi and Puccini.’ But I thought I shouldn’t sing ‘Madama Butterfly’ [by Puccini] because I’m a man,” Okamoto said. The teachers’ words made him aware of the walls he had built for himself.

His fondness for his hometown was what guided his path. People from there are not very familiar with classical music. Would they appreciate his concert from the bottom of their hearts if he sang only classical repertoire? This question to himself led to his decision to sing J-pop, musical songs and even old kayokyoku pop songs. If he sang classical music songs, he added bold arrangements to them. All this contributed to form his own style.

“It looks like I’ve spent 20 years shedding what I imposed on myself out of my own prejudice, that I shouldn’t sing a woman’s song because I’m a man, or that I shouldn’t sing enka Japanese pop songs because I’m a classical music singer,” Okamoto reflected thoughtfully.

His goal now is the fusion of entertainment and art.

“If the old folks in the countryside don’t enjoy listening to it, then it’s out of the question,” he said mischievously. Of his current dream, he said, “There are countless halls and theaters in Japan. I want to go to every one of them.”