Canadians Abroad: Gerald Finleyby Philip Anson
/ May 1, 1998
baritone Gerald Finley made a critically-praised Metropolitan Opera
debut as Papageno in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte last February.
La Scena Musicale talked with Finley in New York between two
Gerald Finley received his formative musical training in Ottawa,
Ontario. Like singers Daniel Taylor, Kevin Reeves, and David
Thompson, Finley received his first introduction to choral music
from Brian Law, choir director of St. Matthew's Church in Ottawa.
After Finley's voice broke he continued to sing in the Ontario Youth
Choir, Ottawa Music Festival, Ottawa Cantata Singers, Ottawa Choral
Society, and the NAC Opera Chorus, where he got his first taste of
opera during the now-defunct Festival Ottawa.
Though Finley intended to study science at the University of
Western Ontario or the University of Toronto, he auditioned in 1978
for David Wilcox, former director of London's Royal Conservatory of
Music (RCM). Finley was accepted in 1979, completing a final year of
music school at Ottawa University before he left for England, where
he now lives with his wife and two young sons.
Finley found the RCM system ideal because students could perform
on weekends with professional choirs and orchestras. "One day I'd be
singing close harmony and Elizabethan madrigals at the Lord Mayor's
Supper in the Guildhall, the next in a small opera chorus in the
country. I can't imagine a better way to learn the profession."
After the RCM, Finley sang with the Cambridge Singers during his
three years at that university, where he also studied French,
Italian, and theology.
In 1986 Finley gave up his other choral work to join the
Glyndebourne Opera chorus. Then as now, Glyndebourne's year was
divided into the summer festival season, where Finley did chorus
work and understudy roles, and the winter tour, where he sang roles
he had previously understudied. In 1988 he took on bit parts, as a
sunglass vendor in Carmen or as Flora's servant in La
Traviata, also covering Guglielmo, Sid in Albert Herring
(which he sang on tour) and Nick Shadow. Meanwhile Glyndebourne paid
Finley's tuition at London's National Opera Studio, a private
training institute. The next year (1989) was Finley's annus
mirabilis. Roger Norrington hired him as Papageno for The Magic
Flute, Finley's first Papageno and his professional debut in
German. Soon after, Tom Graham of IMG became Finley's agent and
English mezzo Louise Winter became his liebes Weibchen.
Finley was honored to sing Figaro at the 1994 opening of
Glyndebourne's new opera house, but Papageno became Finley's vehicle
to international renown. In 1990 he did the Glyndebourne tour in
Peter Sellar's controversial Flute and in 1995 John Eliot
Gardiner invited Finley to tour Europe in his Flute (recorded
on DG Archiv). It was in Amsterdam during that tour that
Metropolitan Opera artistic administrator Jonathan Friend heard
Finley and offered him his Met debut.
As well as opera, lieder have been important to Finley from the
beginning of his career (he has performed lieder recitals with
Julius Drake, Malcolm Martineau, and Roger Vignolles). His recent
CBC disc Songs of Travel reveals a sensitive and experienced
interpreter of art song. Finley loves lieder because they are
challenging and have unlimited potential for refinement. "Lieder
require superb technique, a huge resource of colour and depth of
understanding. I learned so much from hearing Fischer-Dieskau, Prey
and Schreier, who all had a marvellous span of color, dynamics and
intensity. I began by singing Wolf's very characterful songs. I sang
my first Winterreise five years ago and I've done it a dozen
times since then. I won't pretend to have mastered it yet. I regard
it as a dramatic piece, and I am a dramatic performer. I'm not one
to invest Winterreise with delicate poetic inflections. My
life experience is still naïve and raw, and that's how I sing it."
Finley regards the recent spate of lieder recordings by very
young singers with bemusement. "Lieder interpreters get better with
age. Older singers with a lifetime of experience interest me most.
When singers reconstruct or deconstruct Schubert and perform new
versions, that certainly adds a reason to listen to their
recordings. In some cases it is the only reason. I suppose whatever
attracts new audiences to classical music is good. After all, we are
in the entertainment business."
Finley considers English song as difficult to perform as German
lieder. "The English language is not easy to sing. If you are a
native English speaker you have to overcome many habits of spoken
English — stress, vocal production, and vowel formation. Spoken
habits don't work for singing. You have to get the unique English
flavour of our diphthong-rich language, the "ings", the deep "l"s,
"d" and "g" and so on, without corrupting the voice. This is
achieved through modification and delay. But if you sing English the
same way you learned to sing French or Italian, people will have the
feeling it would have sounded better in French or Italian." Finley
doesn't have much affinity for modern American song but he hopes to
add compositions by Canadians John Greer and Derek Holman to his
Does Finley feel threatened by the new spate of excellent young
German baritones such as Holzmair, Goerne, and Quasthoff? "Not
really. There have always been many good German baritones. I am not
German but I have excellent German diction coaches. I have
encountered resistance to me as an anglophone singing German roles.
John Eliot Gardiner got several expert opinions on my German diction
from the Deutsche Grammophon people before I was asked to record
The Mozart baritone roles continue to be Finley's bread and
butter. He has done Guglielmo, Papageno and Masetto — Don Giovanni
awaits. He enjoys Benjamin Britten and wants to sing Billy
Budd. He sang the Count and Olivier in Strauss'
Capriccio; he is keen on the Barber in Die Schweigsame
Frau and perhaps Jochanaan. He dreams of singing Onegin, a
perfect lyric middle baritone role for him.
Finley has appeared on several Deutsche Grammophon recordings
through his work with John Eliot Gardiner. Future recording projects
include Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress for Chandos, a
shared disc (with Canadian tenor Michael Schade) in Hyperion's
Schubert series, and a French melodies album for CBC Records to be
recorded in June 1998.
Finley's future engagements include Figaro, Papageno and
Sharpless at the Opéra de Paris and Figaro at Covent Garden. The Met
has offered him Papageno again in 1999 and Marcello in 2000. In
December 1989, Finley will sing Mr. Fox in San Francisco's world
premiere of Tobias Picker's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Finley is
particularly excited about a new production of The Magic
Flute at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002. Finley has no opera
scheduled in Canada ("It is unfortunate, but Canadian opera houses
don't ask far enough in advance and then they often want you to sing
for less than usual") but there are plausible rumours that Finley
will perform a song recital in Montreal next season.