Backstory: Gerald Finley
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Backstory: Gerald Finley

The baritone revisits key moments in his career by way of Opera News coverage.
by Fred Cohn. 

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Illustration by Gary Hovland
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  From the Archives   

2012 was the
year of the Finley
“Song Champion.”
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Backstory Finley Archival cover 316

SOON AFTER GERALD FINLEY'S 1998 Metropolitan Opera debut, he got a call from a PR agent, offering to help “get your message out there.” “I asked, ‘What is my message?’” Finley recalls. “I couldn’t think what the angle might be. They said, ‘Think of yourself as a top-level brand of baked beans.’ Well, I’m quite happy being ordinary baked beans, thank you. I just do what I do, with feeling.”

True enough, the Canadian baritone’s “message” may best be apprehended in his performances. In recent Met seasons, I have seen him as a rapacious Figaro Count, ferociously eyeing each woman who passed in front of him, and as a Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress whose gentlemanly exterior almost, but not quite, hid the devil underneath. The sorrowful intensity of a 2014 Zankel Hall Winterreise was made all the more potent by the classical restraint of his interpretation. If Finley’s work represents a brand, it’s the most complexly flavored brand imaginable.

Finley’s 2013–14 Winterreise performances, with pianist Julius Drake, marked a climactic moment in his career-long embrace of the song literature. Indeed, when it comes to song, he does have a message to impart, and he has consistently proclaimed it in these pages. In his very first opera news profile, an October 2000 “Sound Bites,” Finley talked about the centrality of the song recital to his career. He returned to the subject in “Song Champion,” a cover story I wrote for a special issue (July 2012) devoted to the art song. “I’m thrilled about that article, and that there was an editorial mandate to devote an issue to the subject,” he says now. “It had a big resonance.”

That article ends with a charge addressed to the next generation of singers: “This is important. If you don’t know how to sing songs, you don’t know how to sing.” Last spring at Juilliard, I watched Finley put his advocacy into action, leading a revelatory master class in song. He seemed to shape the singers’ work by osmosis as much as instruction, gently showing them how to discard bad habits and acquire good new ones. Within their half-hour sessions, each of the four young performers made astonishing interpretive and technical strides.

“My hope is that art song isn’t seen as a poorer cousin to opera, with its glamour,” Finley says now. “I look at John Brancy, a young artist who’s got his teeth in it, who loves the challenge of art song. The young ones coming forward, if they can sense something in the songs of Barber or Ives or Schumann or Wolf, then we have a chance.” Message delivered—loud and clear. spacer 

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