The secret behind Gerald Finley’s rise

It all started 25 years ago, when Gerald Finley successfully auditioned for the Glyndebourne chorus. From the sidelines he observed every baritone who took centre-stage, and a few years later, in 1989, his work paid off when he was cast in a small role in Britten’s Death in Venice. This was followed by Papageno (Die Zauberflöte) for Glyndebourne on Tour. In 1994, Finley’s was the first voice to be heard in the new Glyndebourne theatre, singing Figaro’s opening lines in Le nozze di Figaro; now he is returning to the Sussex Downs in the title role of Don Giovanni, opening on July 4.

What is so remarkable about the Canadian baritone’s advance up the career ladder is not just that he has stayed faithful to the company that gave him his first break: he does, after all, live conveniently close to Glyndebourne and believes in its long rehearsal periods. No, it’s also the impression Finley gives of having enjoyed an effortless rise to the top.

In the wake of his early Mozart triumphs at home and abroad came high-profile parts in operas by Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Debussy and Britten, as well as roles written for him by Mark-Anthony Turnage (football- hero-turned-war-victim Harry Heegan in The Silver Tassie) and John Adams (pioneering nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic). Along the way Finley has built an equally starry reputation as a recitalist, the latest manifestation of which is his new CD of Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

Finley’s progress seems almost too good to be true, but when you meet him, you can understand why. He is not a fusspot or a neurotic singer. At 50, he has experience, professionalism, charm, curiosity and the sort of self-knowledge that precludes arrogance. And that’s not even mentioning the voice – a warm, smoothly produced, well-projected baritone, to which he applies masculine vigour and a keen sense of musical style.

The perfect package? Montreal-born Finley, who studied at the University of Ottawa before becoming a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, has not had a completely smooth ride. His marriage to English mezzo soprano Louise Winter, with whom he has two teenage sons, recently broke up (he plans to remarry in September). And he admits to a hang-up about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great German baritone of the postwar era, whose recordings haunt many of his successors. It is for that reason, Finley says, that he still has not sung Schubert’s song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin, a staple of every aspiring baritone’s repertoire.

But, as he points out during a rehearsal break at Glyndebourne, he has worked hard for his success. “I’ve never gone beyond my safe limits. I’m in a profession that is littered with horror stories about people being pushed too much or not keeping their minds on the job. I tell myself, it’s OK, don’t get eaten up. But I feel I have to keep moving as a musician. I’m not there yet. It’s a constant search.”

A bit like Don Giovanni’s search for the perfect woman? Finley has substantial experience of the part, having first sung it in 2000 in Israel under Antonio Pappano. “We had 10 performances, all concerts,” he remembers, “and in between he and I would hang out in a bunker room in our hotel in Tel Aviv, which had a piano next to the car park. We’d spend hours going over the recitatives, constantly tweaking it to get the language right and catch the enjoyment of the character.”

I ask him if he sees Mozart’s seducer as a threat to society, or merely a charmer who takes one risk too many. Finley’s analysis seems to involve a bit of both. He equates Giovanni to “a banker or hedge fund manager whose only motive is his own gain, without thinking of the consequences for other people. He sets out to prove himself at others’ expense, using their emotional currency until the situation becomes too risky, then backing out with no apparent consequence to himself.”

But what about those women? Why can’t Giovanni form a stable relationship? “I don’t want to tar him as a typically insen-sitive male,” says Finley. “He is acutely sensitive to female-ness: that’s his way of trying to complete himself. There is a void in his life – maybe there was a humiliation when he was younger, which shows itself in a more aggressive side, as if he is determined never to allow himself to be vulnerable again. He is not looking for the ideal partner. He wants to take elements of each woman he encounters and make a composite of the ideal. That’s why he keeps a catalogue [of conquests], why he has the urge to keep going, even though his experience should be complete. He is like a gambler who is always willing to take an extra throw of the dice.”

Finley himself has reached a stage in life when he can afford a few risks – one of which will come next summer, when he essays the role of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, again at Glyndebourne. For Finley, the shift into Wagner represents a turning-point in his career – away from the lyrical baritone roles that have defined his career so far, towards the dramatic bass-baritone territory that will exploit the expanding deeper register in his voice.

“It’s the most throwing-my-hat-in-the-ring gesture I’ve ever done,” Finley enthuses, describing the role of Wagner’s cobbler-poet as “a marathon. I’ve already had [older-generation interpreters] Gwynne Howell and John Tomlinson telling me I will hit the wall after the first scene of the final act. Each said ‘you will not believe how you are going to feel at that point in your first performance, because you’ll wonder how you are going to make it to the end.’”

More Wagner is on the horizon, in the shape of Amfortas (Parsifal) at the 2012 Salzburg Easter festival, conducted by Simon Rattle. He also has a world premiere in his sights – Turnage’s Anna Nicole next February at Covent Garden, in which he will create the role of Howard K Stern, boyfriend of Anna Nicole Smith, the American model who died of an overdose of drugs in 2007.

By then, Finley says, he will be ready to sing his last Giovanni, a move he equates to “leaving my youth behind”. If Finley’s maturity turns out anything like his youth, the best is yet to come.

‘Don Giovanni’ opens on July 4 at Glyndebourne,

‘Songs and Proverbs of William Blake’ is released on Hyperion

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