Gerald Finley’s soaring musical career reaches new heights

Gerald Finley is the patron of the competition. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

It has been another busy and successful year for the talented bass-baritone, Gerald Finley. First he was featured on a Canadian stamp. Then he was made a Commander of the British Empire. Now he’s in Austria starring as Lear in the prestigious Salzburg Festival production of the same name. ARTSFILE caught up with the former chorister at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church and the result is the following.

Q. Big news for you this year. First you’re on a stamp. Not too shabby. And then you are named a Commander of the British Empire in June on the Queen’s birthday list. Your reaction?

A. It is obviously humbling and yet a pleasure to receive honours such as these. To be on a stamp is astounding, an opera stamp, at that. My profile in the U.K. is high because of my activity at the Royal Opera, where I have performed many roles. I have many supporters there, and I try to be part of as much charity work as possible.

Q. Have you received your CBE officially?

A. The ceremony of presentation has yet to be arranged. It is a bit complicated with my active performing schedule. I hope that it will be within a year. It may be presented by the Queen, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, or Prince William and will take place either at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. I have been fortunate to meet the Queen on a few occasions, once at Windsor for a concert when I was a student at the Royal College, and more recently at a reception at Canada House in London.

Q. You were also singing some Canadian music  on the BBC this summer. Do you enjoy being a representative of Canada abroad?

A. I feel greatly privileged to be a representative for Canada wherever I go. One of the pieces I sang was by Healey Willan. Many of his songs are to be published and recorded for the first time by a group called the Canadian Art Song Project. I always feel the sense of history of great Canadian singers, and if I can be half of what they were, then my sense of duty is fulfilled. Our breed is feted throughout the music industry.

Q. You are in Salzburg, Austria at the opera festival performing in Aribert Reimann‘s Lear as Lear. Tell me about the role?

A. The role of Lear is a very demanding one, from the musical as well as dramatic side. It is complex and demands great concentration and stamina. The descent from an all-powerful man to a dying, mad, weak human is crafted well in the opera. Our production (by Simon Stone) tries to portray this in a modern context of a high profile business man, losing the fight against dementia and age. The storm scene is enacted with real rain on stage. That is a first for me, but rather refreshing. The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, so an amazing musical team.

Q. Do you like modern opera?

A. I think modern opera is absolutely necessary for artists of all disciplines. We need to experience contemporary music and theatre together to probe deeply into challenging times and social change. Composers need to explore their creativity to enable audiences to experience music in different forms so that the new tonalities and musical language can have emotional impact, and not feel alien or exclusive. Audiences need to accept that they need to continue trying out new operas, til we find the good ones! Verdi didn’t write 100 per cent successful ones, he stuttered at the start, too.

Q. This is a role written for the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Does that add some extra weight to your performance? Do you think about this?

A. DFD was a hero of mine, because he made classical song (lieder) sound natural and very intimate, thanks to the recording industry. His artistry was sensed by all yet he was extremely sophisticated. I am glad he asked the composer to write such a role. My voice and dramatic instincts are quite different, as is the production (he had a long flowing white beard and it was set realistically in a mediaeval setting) so I have no fear of comparison or weight of expectation.

Q. Salzburg is a beautiful city. And with its connection to Mozart there is something special. about the city. Have you been there before?

A. I could hardly believe my luck when I first went to sing in Salzburg, being able to visit the birthplace of Mozart and see the graves of his sister and wife, during a quiet snowfall in January many years ago. However, Salzburg was a tough place for Mozart and it is strange to see it so linked with him now, even the airport bears his name. The summer festival is the most important classical music festival in the world and it is amazing to work here and be immersed with so much music and talent in a few weeks. I have enjoyed singing the great Mozart-Da Ponte operas here. Lear is also a great privilege.

Q. This fall you are back in London. Is there a highlight or two there?

A. I have an amazing London start; I open the season at the Wigmore Hall in recital with pianist Julius Drake, then sing Mephistopheles in Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust with Sir Simon Rattle, the first of three collaborations with him this season, next in Berlin for Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, then next spring as Amfortas in Parsifal in Baden Baden and Berlin. As well as a recording of Pelleas and Melisande being issued; does it look like I like to work with him?

Q. Who else is on the disc?

A. Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Kozena are the Pelléas and Mélisande. Franz Josef Selig sings Arkel, and Bernarda Fink sings Genevieve, all extraordinary singers. The orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra.

Q. Early next year you are playing Baron Scarpia in Tosca with the Royal Opera. Is this a new role for you? Do you relish doing it? Why?

A. This will be a new role for me, and I look forward to it so much. It is not a long role but it has great impact. I hope that it will play to my strengths musically, vocally and dramatically. And fellow Canadian and stamp portrait singer Adrianne Pieczonka is the Tosca. A good night for Canadian singing.

Q. Do you like playing villains?

A. I like the music that villains bring out of composers. I cannot say that I ‘like’ playing them, but singing their music is very satisfying.

Q. Can you  tell me a bit about your great uncle William McKie? He was obviously important to you.

A. My great uncle William married my father’s natural aunt, Phyllis Ross. Sir William McKie had an amazing natural elegance and yet musical acuity that made him an extremely well respected organist in his day. His origins in Melbourne, Australia, were far from his immense position as Music Director of Westminster Abbey, organist at the Queen’s  wedding and Coronation. My initial encounters with British musicians were made easier by mentioning his name, it was like that then. He encouraged my father to guide me to St. Matthew’s Church choir, and then when he retired to Ottawa he gave advice and wisdom as I decided my path to be in music. I suppose his faith in me and knowing his prestigious position made me work that little bit harder to justify his trust in me.

Q. Any plans for a North American gig or two?

A. I am singing Thais at the Met in November and December (not on cinema sadly…). I will be giving a masterclass at Taberet Hall on Dec. 4 to uOttawa students. I will then give recitals in Toronto on April 22 at Koerner Hall, and on May 6, in Montreal at the Conservatoire de Musique.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.