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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 7

Canadians Abroad: Gerald Finley

by Philip Anson / May 1, 1998

Version française...


finley1.jpg (14999 bytes)Montreal-born 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 Met performances.

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 repertoire.

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 Papageno."

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.


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