Interview: Gerald Finley on Die tote Stadt, Doctor Atomic and roles for the future

'Of course I enjoy doing those things like Figaro and Papageno; but I know how to do "good" and what I'm really interested in now is "bad"'

23 January 2009

Gerald Finley (Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke)Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley is a singer who seems unable to put a foot wrong.

He has been at the top of his profession for two decades, with a repertoire spanning three centuries of opera – from Purcell to Adams – and is equally at home in Russian, French, German or Italian as he is in English. A prolific recording artist, this year alone sees him on Chandos' new Dido and Aeneas – opposite Sarah Connolly – and there are recordings with Julius Drake of Ravel and Britten in the pipeline, to add to their highly acclaimed recordings of Schumann, Barber and Ives from last year.

In the first half of 2009 he appears in the Royal Opera's hotly anticipated UK stage premiere of Korngold's Die tote Stadt before reprising the role of J Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams' Doctor Atomic at English National Opera, already sung to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. And as if that wasn't enough, Finley sings his first Captain Balstrode in May (in the ENO's new Peter Grimes) and plans have just been announced for Iago in December, in concert with the LSO.

I speak to him in the middle of the rehearsals for Die tote Stadt and it's with Korngold's opera that the conversation starts. This is no doubt a breakthrough for the Austrian composer's rehabilitation in this country, yet does Finley feel that Die tote Stadt can live up to the 'forgotten masterpiece' hype?

'It was obviously a very important piece in its time', he tells me, 'and I think Korngold probably had the most advance press of perhaps any composer until Britten and Tom Adés, so the expectation on him was so enormous. And to have the double premiere – in Hamburg and Cologne [in December 1920] – obviously caused such huge excitement. To be hailed as a work from the new master obviously meant something. Of course we've had so much more music since then – we can hear a lot of Straussian elements to it – so it's not quite as unique I think in its initial impact.

'But I think what's fascinating and something that I've certainly benefitted from in getting to know the opera more and more is the fact that it's inherently complex as a piece of music. The layers of writing are incredible; the resources of the orchestra are huge. We're hearing Korngold beginning to originate a musical language: a musical language that we accept now, since we've come to understand it through the film music that he went on to sustain his career with. As contemporary listeners we're very familiar with that style, so hearing this opera isn't perhaps as stunning to us as it might have been had we heard it in its time. Although I think it certainly earnt its accolade as one of the finest pieces of its era.'

Although singing two roles - Frank, a friend of the main protagonist Paul, sung in this performance by Stephen Gould; and Fritz, the Pierrot - Finley will not spend anywhere near as much time on stage as either of the two principals. Yet he gets one of the opera's two hit arias, the Pierrot's moving 'Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen'. It's not a bad deal, I suggest.

'The two principal roles are incredibly demanding, the principal tenor role is really one the most difficult in the repertoire, as is the soprano role, so as a supporting character I'm very pleased to be part of a very major presentation while perhaps spending a little less time on stage. It's not that different to doing Yeletzky in the Queen of Spades, for example, to come on and sing a famous piece. And it's an aria that obviously became a centre-piece of Korngold's repertoire: he used to play it at parties and he quotes from it later in the opera. It comes at a point in the opera when there's a depth of longing and passion, and reflectiveness needs to happen: it couldn't be either of the main characters so the baritone got it. That suits me fine!'

Gerald Finley as the Count, Le Nozze de Figaro, Royal Opera House (Photo © Bill Cooper)Leading the run is German conductor Ingo Metzmacher. Is it an advantage to have a conductor who's a specialist in twentieth-century music rather than someone coming at Korngold's score, steeped in the late Romantic tradition of Puccini and Strauss?

Finley thinks so: 'He's very able to look at the specifics of the writing and understand what the newly developing colours have to offer. He's all about trying to get the textures layered in an appropriate way so that the themes come out but also the colours. It's a huge orchestra with so many different variations of themes that are going on, being thrown throughout the orchestra. It's wonderful and one of the benefits of not being a main part is being able to listen to this glorious stuff, hearing the off-stage bells, organ, children's choir, women's choir. It's an absolute feast of musical invention.'

There's no doubting the incredible precocity of Korngold, who was only a couple of months past his twenty-third birthday when he completed the score, in August 1920. However, did he have the maturity to keep all these rich elements under control?

'Die Tote Stadt is such a huge explosion of invention and I feel there's that youthful exuberance and a feeling of "well, why not? I'm just going to throw everything at it and impress people and I might have the talent to." The later music – such as the Violin Concerto – has a more refined sound and employs a more crafted way of composing. For me, it's simply his genius at orchestration that was such a wonderful thing; it was that which served him so well in his career as a film musician where he really became a surpreme craftsman with that talent.'

The dual part of Frank and Fritz in Korngold's opera is just one in a long line of important roles Finley has been able to tackle on the Royal Opera's stage and the singer can be seen on the company's publicity posters around London. When I ask him about being a poster-boy for the company he laughs, but goes on to explain the special relationship he has with Covent Garden. 'My first appearance here was in 1989 as the lowly friar in the Don Carlo at that time, with Dennis O'Neill. It's a hugely rewarding relationship to have when you are invited to partake in projects year by year. The UK is my home and it's something, from a domestic point of view, to be singing in my "home" opera house and when I visit Canada it's as a refreshment to get my soul back a little bit.'

He talks with enthusiasm about his long, fruitful relationship with English National Opera, too, and will bringing his renowned assumption of the role of J Robert Oppenheimer to another UK premiere: Doctor Atomic which opens at the Coliseum only a matter of days after the run of Die tote Stadt comes to a close. Finley now lives in the UK, based in Sussex, not far from another regular stamping ground, Glyndebourne. As well as venturing into the heart of the Verdi baritone repertoire with Iago in December, Finley's long term plans include Wagner's Hans Sachs in the Sussex festival in 2011. What, I ask, made him feel it was time to tackle these roles?

Gerald Finley (Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke)'For me, I've always enjoyed the challenge of incredibly complex characters in the repertoire and there's none quite so fiendish – in a way of trying to discover what his character is – as Hans Sachs. The way he's given a rough ride for the ending where he extols the German tradition, for example. It's a character I'd hoped to have come to at some point, it's come perhaps a little sooner than expected but by the same token Glyndebourne is a space that I know very well. It's a perfect acoustic and a working environment in which director, conductor and artist can collaborate to enhance everyone's natural abilities.

'That's really why I'm so excited to be taking it on; because not only is it such a wonderful singing role, but it's also a wonderful acting role and in some ways almost the heart of any baritone's dreams. It's good to be tackling him at this stage, because I know he's going to grow and I know it'll take time – I'm already trying to learn the score as advised by some Hans Sachs ahead of me – and I feel he's worth exploring. I don't think it's a daunting challenge in terms of vocal Fach because you have Wolfgang Brendel – who I think is a beacon for me in the vocal colours that he is able to employ – so I'm not afraid of that. In addition, I think I'm starting to sing a little bit better and I feel that my voice can probably grow into that area in a way that will last me a nice long time.'

Having mentioned Brendel, I ask Finley if there are any other singers he particularly admires.

'I think probably José van Dam is an artist who I've held up as somebody to aspire to. His wonderful career as a Mahlerian and his relationship with von Karajan were things I respected a great deal. It's similar with [Mirella] Freni, who did her big singing on record first and then grew into the roles on stage. She would learn them – and learn them very well – then sing them beautifully without the challenge of trying to be heard over a large orchestra in the opera house. OK, no-one's going to ask me to sing Hans Sachs on record yet, but I think Glyndeborne is just about the next best place to do that, in terms of intimacy.'

Is there anywhere he doesn't see his voice going?

'I'm singing Iago because I think my voice needs a chance to see really whether that's going to be something that will become my style. I have to say I've got great support in Tony Pappano with various other lyric Italian baritone roles which we're discussing at the moment. I think the voice is an organic thing and we're going to have to see. I wouldn't say the sky's the limit but I need to see where my resources are going to be at their optimum. That's why these adventures are exciting.'

Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni, Theater an der Wien (Photo © Rolf Bock)Talking of Iago, I bring up an old interview in which Finley mentioned enjoying playing characters that are liked. It seems like he's moved on from this, I point out.  

'I'm actually more interested now in looking at characters who aren't generally liked. What I'm trying to do is to look for the redeeming features within a negative character or a character that's perceived as generally a bad egg. The interesting part of being an actor is trying to reveal qualities of a character that are surprising or, at least, unexpected for their depth. Of course I enjoy doing those things like Figaro and Papageno; but I know how to do "good" and what I'm really interested in now is "bad".' And they don't come much worse than Iago? 'Indeed, and yet it's the way that someone is bad that can fascinating.'

I mention Finley's forthcoming role debut as Balstrode in ENO's Peter Grimes – opening in May – as another role that poses these challenges.

'Absolutely. And Nick Shadow was something I tried at Glyndebourne a few years ago and that's the sort of way I'd like to anchor myself. It's an age thing as well', he adds, 'and I think my voice has probably got a darker quality these days which can allow a hint of whatever perceived malevolence can be. And I've definitely got Scarpia in mind.'

So it's the combination now of charm and evil that is proving most attractive? 'That's the clue, it's the charm, the seduction with perhaps the basic malevolence behind it. And Don Giovanni's been a great character study from that point of view because you can use that charm and know that although you're trying to get the audience to find you attractive, you're actually asking how unattractive this attractive man can be. I'm very pleased to say that Don Giovanni is still very firmly in the repertoire.' I mention a keenly anticipated Glyndebourne Don Giovanni in 2010 directed by Sam Mendes in which Finley's due to star. 'Yes, and I've got another lot of further opportunities as well that are coming. So I feel I'm consolidating my library as far as he's concerned.'

Finally I ask about the challenges of opera in these financially chaotic times, how does Finley see the future panning out for this most expensive of art forms?

'My experiences recently with the HD transmissions from the Met into cinemas prove that there's still an amazing appetite for high quality music. The economics of it are difficult but there's always going to be a premium for the top end of things. It's a question of where we target and how much of that top end we keep investing in because there is a trickle down effect. There is the idea that we are nurtured by the best that can be and I would be very, very disappointed if funding was reduced in this country because of the Credit Crunch. And I mean particularly at the high end – things like the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera. I think more than ever opera is the type of art form where people can come and forget their troubles and look at other peoples' dilemmas; hence there's a great amount of passion that historical and literary characters have gone through, showing that humans have to survive on hope, somehow, and opera certainly provides that.'

Gerald Finley in Doctor Atomic, San Francisco Opera (Photo © Terrence McCarthy)I point to the differences in the escapist Die tote Stadt, set mostly in a dream, and the political and scientific realities at the centre of Doctor Atomic.

'Doctor Atomic is not just about the atomic thing but it's also about our attitude to cutting edge science, the whole idea that we must question the morality of scientific advancement: is it for the benefit of science or for the benefit of humanity? We need to be very reflective on where those developments are going because they do have a huge impact on our future.

'I'm so pleased that Doctor Atomic is coming at a time where there's great hope for America and the world. Hopefully there's a balance of optimism in these gloomy times but the opera does examine how an earnest bunch of creative and clever people can make something incredible. It then became something used in a devastating and terrifying way but that's not what they had in mind. They wanted to defeat tyranny and they wanted to take all their talents and turn them into something positive. I suppose as artists we're trying to do that as well.'

By Hugo Shirley

Die tote Stadt opens at the Royal Opera House on 27 January

Doctor Atomic opens at the Coliseum on 25 February

Photo Credits: Portraits of Gerald Finley (Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke); As Don Giovanni, Theater an der Wien (Photo © Rolf Bock); As the Count, Le Nozze de Figaro, Royal Opera House (Photo © Bill Cooper)In Doctor Atomic, San Francisco Opera (Photo © Terrence McCarthy)

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