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Gerald Finley explains how he pushes insinuation over power in Verdi’s ‘Otello’

Gerald Finley explains how he pushes insinuation over power in Verdi’s ‘Otello’
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As his 60th birthday creeps up early next year, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley is savouring the changes in his voice, especially some new, darker colours.

To that end, he has been taking on roles in operas by Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. We last saw him in Toronto singing the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff at the Canadian Opera Company in 2014. Now he is back to sing Iago in the COC’s season-closing production of another Shakespeare-inspired drama, Otello.

Gerald Finley built his early career singing Mozart operas and art song. Later, he championed new works as well. He premiered the role of Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ 2005 opera Doctor Atomic. Its big aria, ‘Batter My Heart,’ has become a modern classic, a staple of the baritone repertoire.  (CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY)

Ottawa-born Finley, who has made his home in England for many years now, is part of a strong international cast. Company music director Johannes Debus leads the orchestra. The production, originated by the English National Opera in 2014, is directed by American David Alden.

The opening performance is on April 27 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Finley built his early career singing Mozart operas and art song. Later, he championed new works as well. He premiered the role of Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ 2005 opera Doctor Atomic. Its big aria, “Batter My Heart,” has become a modern classic, a staple of the baritone repertoire.

“It was like a gift from the ether,” says Finley on how the opera and the subsequent album recording has resonated with audiences around the world.

“I’m always seeking out new work now, because composers of today need to produce the operas of tomorrow,” he says. He even went to the opening night for Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus, presented by Toronto’s Against the Grain company a few weeks ago.

“It’s exciting to broaden one’s idea of what vocalism is and to experience a new style of vocal communication,” says Finley of the experience. It also helps him see the core pieces of the canon in a fresh light.

Verdi and Wagner are good examples. Their operas are usually associated with big voices delivering arias in a grand manner. But Finley, who has sung in Bayreuth, the epicentre of all things Wagnerian, says this may not be the ideal.

“I have a view that the style of Wagner has gotten slightly out of control,” he ventures. The style of singing is called “the Bayreuth bark.”

“This is not something Wagner would ever have countenanced,” the singer says. “It’s not in the scores at all, but it’s come to be expected as a way of graduating into this section of the singing world where power is everything.

“My hope is that the Wagnerian repertoire will re-embrace more nuanced ways of singing,” he adds.

The baritone has a similar view of Otello’s friend-turned-nemesis, Iago: “The whole idea of Verdi singing is about line. It’s about holding passion and releasing passion. In the case of the bad guys, like Iago, it’s about finding insinuating techniques. It’s all absolutely there, written clearly mezzo voce (half voice).

“I think this role could be entirely sung with insinuation, half voice, half glee: everything’s half,” Finley says. “That’s a colour you don’t hear spoken about often in Verdi, as a style.”

He loves that Alden is sympathetic to this approach, as the director has taken the time to learn the music as well as the libretto. “(Alden) knows exactly what’s in the score, what’s marked. He knows the tempi and dynamic and other instructions. He’s read it, and he has memorized it,” Finley points out.

For him, the key to great interpretation is to treat old operas as if they are brand new.

“I try to treat everything I do as a first go. It keeps me thirsty. It keeps me searching. I like to think that I never rest on what I did. The voice is always changing. Every time I wake up, it has new strengths and new weaknesses. There are always adjustments you need to make.”

It sounds like a fine recipe for coping with life in general.

Otello is at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., until May 21. See coc.ca for information.
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