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Interview with Gerald Finley: his career and upcoming feature, 'Winterreise'

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Acclaimed recitalist and one of opera's most versatile baritones, Gerald Finley, makes his debut with the Celebrity Series of Boston on 7 February with Schubert's beloved song cycle, "Winterreise." In conjunction with Finley and pianist Julius Drake's tour, Hyperion Records will release the musical duo's latest CD, featuring "Winterreise," in March 2014.

Born in Ottawa, Canada, Finley found his way into singing at a very young age as a chorister. His studies brought him to the UK, where he began to flourish in other vocal genres, namely opera. The baritone, who has since mastered Mozart, pioneered contemporary works, and taken on Wagner, puts his illustrious career into perspective and shares his approach to one of the cornerstones of Lieder, "Winterreise."

Melanie O’Neill: I wanted to start off by talking a little bit about your opera career. You have a pretty unique repertoire. You’re particularly well known for Mozart roles, but you've also been very active in contemporary opera and have participated in numerous world premieres. How did you first get involved in contemporary opera?

Gerald Finley: Well, actually, someone asked me to do it. It was a situation where I was in London looking for a project and one of the composers of the time, Mark-Anthony Turnage, was writing a piece and it needed a young baritone who could portray a soldier who was wounded in the first World War. It seemed to be a good fit, so that was it. That was in “The Silver Tassie” in 2000, so it worked out well.

MO: You've participated in four world premieres, I believe. Was it your friendship that led you to continue appearing in contemporary operas?

GF: Well, yes. My involvement in Mark’s next opera wasn't until 2011, so 11 years later. But, once that was seen as part of what I did, I got involved with Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho, and while I was doing that, directed by the American director, Peter Sellers, he had a new project with John Adams. During the Saariaho project, “Dr. Atomic” was put together and there it was five years later, John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic”.

MO: What are some of your favorite aspects of working on a new opera?

GF: The fun about working on a new piece is that you've got the benefit of asking the composer if that’s really what he wants to write. I think that contemporary composers are faced with the challenge of trying to establish their identity while not making the music too difficult. One of the joys that I've had, working with those three composers in particular, is that they’re quite melodic. They don’t write music which is just, sort of, words to random pitches. There was a time, perhaps, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s when that sort of style was seeing how the human voice could be stretched and used as an expressive device, but not necessarily as a singing device, which depends very much on the old style of linking notes together so that they sound like they belong to a tune. So, they respected that very much. John Adams grew up in sort of a big band household. Mark Turnage’s involvement in jazz is something that he very much incorporates into his new opera works; therefore he is very aware of melody and tunefulness. Kaija Saariaho’s upbringing in Finland was very much part of a great choral scene. Each one of them had a great relationship with singing and that was really important. It’s great to feel that they are really respecting the singers’ needs.

And as I say, it’s wonderful collaborating with somebody who’s alive and has reactions to contemporary life and is really dealing with issues that are relevant to our contemporary society. They are creative artists and they’re making something for the first time. It’s lovely that they will come to the performers as colleagues and say “Is this manageable?” and you can come back and say “Would you like it in this way?” and they adapt, accommodate, or rewrite, or they say “no, that’s how I really want it” and you have to deal with it.

MO: Recently you’ve also added several Wagner roles to your repertoire, the most recent being Amfortas. Not a typical move for somebody known for their Mozart roles. What made you shift your sights to Wagner?

GF: Well, Wagner is very much a singer’s composer. It’s interesting, I think there’s-- not a sacred entity of Wagner singing-- but Wagner singing is often seen as the preserve of people who have large voices in terms of volume and size. But, the idea that the orchestra is very big, that you have to make a lot of sound, perhaps, that you as a person are probably a large person in order to create that sound—I’m not of that description, necessarily. In fact, Wagner himself, was very anxious that the words be very understandable. When he was writing for the singers of his time—which is quite interesting because we were just talking about working with composers of our time—of course, he was dealing with Italian-trained singers. They didn’t necessarily have large voices and the orchestras of the time weren’t necessarily as loud as they can be today because of technology and the way instruments are made these days.

From my access to the music itself, I feel quite justified in saying that I’ve trained as a classical musician and, hopefully, my singing is of a well-schooled Italian style. What I enjoy about singing Wagner is the line, the music, and the passion. Yes, I’m 20-25 years along in my career and I have gained a certain maturity of sound and maturity of style. I didn’t begin with Wagner. I think it is something that, like any long-distance athlete, you get better at as you get older. You need to build up stamina, you have to know how your technique works and build up over long, long periods of time. Mercifully, some people have the confidence to say “I may be able to handle that.”

I did start with Hans Sachs, which is the longest baritone role in the entire repertoire. It is, perhaps, like going from the 400 meters to the marathon in a very short step, but I did have very good vocal preparation and coaching. Over the years, when you know you’re going to do a Wagner role, you do decide that you’re going to pull yourself together and deal with the issues of stamina and build yourself up accordingly, so I did and the reward has been very great.

MO: It must be great to have the flexibility to sing in both styles.

GF: Yes, after my Hans Sachs I did go and sing “Don Giovanni” and, I have to say, the Don Giovanni that followed Hans Sachs was probably different than I had sung it previously, just because the voice was in a much different place. I am thrilled to be able to do both, but I wouldn’t necessarily switch back and forth too quickly. From Amfortas to my next Mozart role has been a good four or five months, so that allows me a bit of transitional time.

MO: Another stand out in your repertoire is the sheer number of languages you sing in: the standard Italian, French and German, but also Russian, Czech, and English. Are there particular roles that you have had a strong desire to sing?

GF: Yeah, I think that is probably the way it goes. I think the Czech repertoire is particularly interesting. Janàček, his music is very singable in a folk-melody sort of way. He uses a lot of folk tunes in the basis of his writing, so it’s very colloquial, really, and easy-going. Conversational, almost. It has been thrilling to try to sing Janàček in the original Czech. I’m going to be doing the Forester in “The Cunning Little Vixen” in Vienna this year, so I’m having to revisit that language and it’s not easy-- at all. But, I’ve always enjoyed the coaching sessions. There are very good language coaches around that help you deal with the peculiarities of each language. I’m also singing in Finnish this year, as well as Swedish. Russian is easier because it’s sort of the Italian style of singing, so it’s all about vowels and good long lines. Tchaikovsky was a wonderful line-writer. When the music and the words fit together in a sort of nationalistic way, it’s very rewarding to feel you’re getting the flavor of the music as much as the language.

MO: The same linguistic diversity is present in your song repertoire. You have released recordings of songs by Ravel, Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Ives, among many others. Many singers are fascinated by a particular style or genre and specialize in that style, but you seem to have a much wider spread. What has driven you to explore and record songs that are so contrasting, not only in language but in style as well?

GF: Well, I don’t know. I think I’m just curious about everything. I’m very blessed with a very flexible vocal instrument and I’d like to think that my curiosity allows me to delve into the works of different composers. The song repertoire is interesting because you deal very much with the poetry of a particular nationality. There is less Canadian repertoire than I would have liked. I haven’t by any means discounted a survey of Canadian poetry and song-writing. In fact, I’m involved in a project at the moment that is revealing some Canadian composers’ song repertoire which has not yet been recorded, so that’s exciting.

In the meantime, as a growing singer, you figure out what things you respond to. Charles Ives and Samuel Barber were obvious for me. Not only were they North Americans, but they came from the Northeastern states. Samuel Barber was trained in Europe, and that was similar to my background, so I had a very close affinity, not only to his life, but to his world view. From that point of view, he was a natural fit for me to sing his repertoire. Charles Ives: eclectic, grew up in New England with a bandmaster as a father. The scenarios he eludes to in his songs are gems and are very familiar to me simply in location and atmosphere from my own personal experiences growing up in Canada.

Then, of course, there’s the major repertoire of Schubert and Schumann, the fundamental songwriters. They are absolutely fundamental to any song-singing career. The apparent simplicity of their songs reveal a beauty and complexity, once you really get into them, that is very, very rewarding, but they’re hard. I’ve recorded less Schubert than I thought I might because it’s a really difficult thing to get absolutely right and I think everyone’s personal response to a Schubert song is different. But I’ve enjoyed my journeys with Ravel, Mussorgsky, and Ned Rorem. They’re all vibrant songwriters with very distinctive voices and each encounter has been very rewarding.

MO: Your song repertoire is much broader than that of most opera singers. Do you consider song and Lieder to be just as critical to your career as opera?

GF: Yes, my career is, in fact, in three parts because I also try to do as much choral and concert repertoire as I can. I grew up as a choral singer and that’s always been close to my heart. So, it is really a tripartite career. I do value each of them as an essential ingredient to my vocal development and to keeping in good form.

Every time one switches from opera (or concert) to song singing the scale has to be reduced quite a lot and the intimacy is increased. You have to rediscover the refinement of a pure and direct communication with an audience who have nothing between you and the music. I enjoy working as an individual on song repertoire with my longtime collaborator, Julius Drake. That is a partnership which we have enjoyed over 20-25 years and, as musical brothers, we find that, after a period of time, when we’re not together doing this stuff, we do miss each other. So, that is always lovely to revisit.

Song is absolutely one third, but working with conductors on the concert repertoire is fantastic: Simon Rattle, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Alan Gilbert. It’s really important for me, because on the opera stage, conductors are in the pit and the musical relationships are sort of done at a distance. In the concert hall, you’re usually standing right next to them, so you get that real energy of direction, and of motivation, and musicality. I find it amazingly invigorating to be at the front of the stage with a wonderful orchestra, singing appropriate concert music for the baritone voice.

MO: Now, is this tour your first time singing “Winterreise” professionally?

GF: I did my very first "Winterreise" at the age of 34, but it was in a student setting; I sang it to students. I have lived with “Winterreise,” as a performer, for about 20 years, bringing it out every now and then when it’s been appropriate. The difficulty is that it’s 75-80 minutes of music straight through, there’s an awful lot of text to memorize, and for the performer, it’s not exactly an emotional marathon, but you have to at least have refinement in each of the 24 songs. I think when you approach it as a young singer you can get through it and you can say “Yes, I’ve sung Winterreise!” but as you get to know it and perform it more and more, you realize that the subtleties of each song are very particular.

You hear older singers say “You must never sing 'Winterreise' until you’re older,” but unfortunately the poet in the actual narration of the cycle is young. He’s just lost his girlfriend—perhaps his first girlfriend! But, he goes through this amazing emotional turmoil. When you do perform it as a young singer you’re very raw and very familiar with these feelings of rejection and hope, but the German poetry goes a little darker than that and becomes much more about fate and “how am I going to survive.” It becomes a much more vigorous poetic response to the situation and, in the end, becomes about life. I think that, perhaps, over a career people begin to realize that the value of the songs are much, much deeper. It’s great to have encountered it as a younger singer, but I think I know it a little bit better now.

I’m certainly thrilled to do a tour of eight performances in a row and offer it to people that have never encountered it before and, hopefully, those that have encountered it before can gain something afresh. I don’t expect for people to leave with light hearts, chatting amiably to their companion as they leave, because it’s a pretty dark experience. I think sometimes in the concert situation, it’s important for us to visit those quieter, more somber spots that, in our busy lives, we don’t have a chance to visit often. I’m glad to offer just the possibility for people to feel moved and hopefully get a sense of making a personal journey themselves.

MO: “Winterreise,” like you said, is quite a lengthy cycle. How do you go about tying the 24 songs together into a continuous journey?

GF: That comes really just through the experience of trying different things, of really managing the transitions between songs: making sure the energy at the end of one song is either punctuated or initiates the beginning of the next song. Sometimes there are long gaps in between because the scenes—sort of the placement or the reason for the next song to happen – are totally new. It feels a little bit like directing a play, trying to get the right amount of energy between the songs. What’s also important to the dramatic arc, is to get the highs and the lows high enough, low enough, and sustained enough to last all 75-80 minutes so that the audience is with you the whole time.

That’s perhaps it’s greatest challenge: to make sure the intensity never flags, but that there is varying intensity which allows people to breath.

MO: Finally, the piano parts in much of Schubert’s Lieder are very active and, in many ways, just as insightful as the sung lines. Can you tell me a little bit about this musical interaction between voice and piano?

GF: What is, for me, some of the most important and expressive music in each song is handled by the piano. It is almost the second voice. It’s not necessarily just a series of support mechanisms upon which the voice rests as it sings the text. Often it will be the atmosphere. It will be the rustling of the leaves. It will be the drops of water. It will evoke a certain scenario of a church or a graveyard with organ-like chords. It is the organ grinder’s tune in the final song. It actually plays quite an important dramatic role and, sometimes, there is a response from the singer to the actual music played by the piano. Say the wind is blowing all of the sudden, and he has to trudge his way through the direct wind. The wind is a very powerful sound from the piano and he literally has to drive through that sound. In song 21, “Das Wirtshaus,” the poet asks a question to an imaginary innkeeper, if there is any space left for him to rest in a bed, which is in fact a grave, and the response is the piano. We don’t know what the response is; we have to imagine what that response is, but there are very clearly two bars of music, which are the answer. The singer then responds “Oh, I have to go away. How unmerciful are you!” So it’s a wonderful dialogue sometimes between the singer and piano.

Julius is literally my walking stick. He is the trusty staff upon whom I depend, particularly in this cycle. We have a lovely repartee, in general terms. When we’re making music together it is very much a give and take and there are wonderful exchanges between us musically.

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