Opera after COVID: A Conversation with Gerald Finley

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erald Finley is one of the most accomplished and celebrated baritones of our time. His track record is impressive: Grammy for Best Opera Recording 2012 (Dr. Atomic), multiple award-winning performances on CD and DVD and a wide-ranging repertoire of roles performed in major opera houses. Finley is equally at ease performing Handel, Wagner, Tchaikowsky, Verdi or Adams. His mark on the art song and Lieder repertoire has been equally profound with several iconic recordings that now set the standard for the genre. It seems as though everything he touches turns to gold. Every role, every production becomes a “Finley” production marked by his ferocious energy, artistry, talent, scholarship and that golden voice! It also doesn’t hurt that this Canadian native is universally known for being a down to earth, super nice guy and simply, a wonderful human being. Mr. Finley is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He even has his own postage stamp and in 2014 (because, why not?) he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Help Musicians UK. Any artist, even with a fraction of such a stellar career could probably rest on their laurels, safe in the knowledge that they have nothing further to prove, but not Finley. He continually works on his craft, exploring new projects, new possibilities and new dimensions of himself and his voice. Even now, when most singers are out of work–Finley is super busy performing, recording, giving masterclasses as well as supporting his fellow musicians.

Early this year I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Finley. Being a great fan, I was curious about his take on the COVID crisis, its long-term implications and what, in his opinion, the way forward would look like.

Please talk about your COVID experience. How are you getting on and getting through it?

The main thing about this vacant period is having much less pressure to perform. It has been forced upon us, but I think there is much to be gained. I actually did not sing for two months, having lost a Carnegie Hall recital, a favourite opera role, and some wonderful concerts with many wonderful colleagues. It has been very hard to hear of the impact that this enforced lack of audience performances has had not just on artists and support staff but also on organisations trying to plan and offer things to their audiences. 

For me, I am taking the time to really look at the future and enjoy the learning process of repertoire that I might have previously learned in the usual “need to know by” scheme. I am really trying to practise as much as I can with a good critical ear and feeling, continuing with my teacher and pianists as the digital means allow, and also talking about how we can reach our audiences so that they are still there when we do see them face to face again. My responsibility as a father to a young school child is very engaging and makes me realise how important music is to these wonderful open hearts.

I am also having time to connect with younger singers and that is very inspiring, to hear such good and keen talent, and insisting to them that this is an unusual space in their lives when performing is being diverted to digital means.

Can you see any silver lining to what is happening? Are there any learning moments that are valuable?

It is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with my loved ones, and share with them the excitement of a few music events that have been very local. I have a role as a father and husband, and that has been critical in this challenging time. I have needed their support as much as they have needed mine.

As well as the chance to really address the continuing growth of my voice and selected repertoire, it makes me able to connect more spontaneously with colleagues who are challenged in the lack of work. I am part of the Momentum Now scheme and I hope to share my platform in the years to come with young singers who might need that little support of a brief but important concert appearance. This takes understanding and cooperation from promoters and colleagues, but it is hopefully a way to keep the interest in what we do as a live event very active.

I also am enjoying the opportunity to experience the creativity of those who are using the digital medium to promote and to perform to a wide audience, and to understand that if live events are to be extra special, then the media performances also can be exhilarating and moving. It causes me to try to embrace the forced arrangement of digital performance which I have resisted over many years, believing that it makes the use of the classical voice less appealing, as microphones still have some way to go to equal the raw emotion of the live voice in a communal space. However, the advances that the large digital platforms are making to address sound quality and internet speed and data transfer may eventually make it more “real.” If we are to endure the lack of public events, then these technologies will become very important!

Can you discuss some skills and experiences that are now helping you the most? Anything that surprised you?

Regular time for practice is the most beneficial thing! The use of phone filming and technology for my own work is really a surprising tool. Getting to know what works in an intimate way and that the camera can be a friend as well as a harsh critic. It has made me realise that video skill needs to be practised as well.

I am aware that audiences like to have a “personal” interaction with the artists that they like to hear and see, but I am a bit resistant myself to be too casual or open. I admire those who feel free to show their natural selves. I think I became a singer in order to play many roles, except myself! I am a very reluctant user of Twitter and Facebook, but I realise these are important ways to connect with the audience who cannot come to performances. It isn’t a natural habitat for me.

If you knew what was going to happen a year ago, what would you tell your current self?

Keep going, this will pass, and you need to be ready for when it gets going again!

If you could give yourself advice in March 2020, what would it be?

Embrace the circumstance, there is nothing you can achieve by worrying – be frugal, and do not live beyond your means, keep the artistic fire going, remember why you do what you do, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! There will be good sources of support and understanding, share those sources and keep positive. Love those near to you, you will not know how much it means to them.

Do you have any advice for current voice students and young opera industry professionals?

You will never have a period like this again in your life, when the entire industry is like a shadow! Keep working on your voice in the most basic ways because you will never have this time again. Make use of the opportunity to reach out to those you admire, ask them for advice and their time to hear you and your dreams–it works both ways!!

Do you have a vision for the opera industry and education beyond COVID?

If we singers can really concentrate on getting our instruments in top shape, then the opera industry will be renewed and audiences will want to come and experience the thrill of the encounter with the voice. Composers can then begin to use the voice again as the expressive tool that it was designed to be. I would like to feel that the singers of the world will find that they are valued for their special talent of exposing their vulnerability as a human, using their own creation of human form and psyche to express in the most universal way a path of healing, hope and betterment of our existence. Somehow, we must all manage ourselves so that the expense of fame and self-preservation doesn’t cost us all our livelihoods. Promoters are always looking for the “next new thing,” but what they forget is that the long-lasting ones will make them more money over a long period than short bursts. I would hope for more localised “companies” using local based talent, which can be relied upon for high standards. My hope is that after Covid, the Live Event will be perceived as a most prestigious and special experience.

I am a great believer in exposing children to classical music from an early age, because it is a very special time when no-one is judgemental about whether it is “sophisticated” or needs education. The great difficulty in letting children hear singing voices live is that many school teachers are afraid of their own voices! Let us support those first year teachers with music in the classroom for all–our best chance of getting children to enjoy music and singing is to make it a live natural part of their everyday experience. Perhaps more of us career musicians should get back into the classroom!

What are some of the things that you think are critical to implement in our teaching and performing to ensure our artform can be rebuilt and can thrive in the future?

I am very concerned that the very basics of good singing are being skated over. The “star” culture fosters the naturally talented to become performers before they have mastered the long tedious apprenticeship of fundamental techniques. It is required in other creative industries, why not singing? I myself had the wish to “perform” because I thought technique would come through repetition of performance. I had the youthful ignorance of what the real task was before me. I have survived, but only through a few challenging bumps which some are unlucky not to overcome. Once the freedom acquired through secure technique is employed, then artistic growth can flourish, and individual energy and gifts can be exploited and shared. Audiences will welcome the glory of the human voice in its magnificent expressivity. I believe this is fundamental in every artistic field.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Keep positive! Love what you do. We do something extraordinary and there is an audience that is out there waiting for us. Let’s give them the benefit of our tenacity and hard work, which they will appreciate beyond what they could have imagined.

Wise and inspiring words, thank you so much for your time!

Mr. Finley will be giving vocal masterclasses via ZOOM at the 4th Fresno State Art Song Festival on February 26-27, 2021. All enquiries: mbriggs@csufresno.edu

Dr. Maria Briggs

Dr. Briggs-Okunev is a Russian-born, Australian soprano. She has a Bachelor degree in piano performance, Sydney Conservatorium of Music; Masters in vocal performance, Newcastle Conservatorium and DMA in opera, Sydney University and Northern College of Music, UK. Dr. Briggs’ research is focused on training of young opera singers tertiary opera training. Dr. Briggs has sung with Opera Australia, Pacific Opera and Glyndebourne Opera Festival, UK. She joined Fresno State in 2016 as Assistant Professor of Voice. www.okunevmusic.com