Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Conversation with Gerald Finley, Part 1

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

A Conversation with Gerald Finley, Part 1

Article excerpt

At the lovely Eliot Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Gerald Finley and I had the following conversation . . .

Leslie Holmes: I'm going to quote a reviewer, to start off with. I don't know if you read your reviews.

Gerald Finley: I try not to get influenced that way.

LH: This was a man from the New York Magazine, reviewing you, after your performance of Oppenheimer [in Dr. Atomic] at the Met. He said, "Finley sings with the mellow baritone of a man about to stride into legend."

GF: [laughs]

LH: How does that make you feel?

GF: Well, I hope it's the right kind of legend.

LH: It kind of makes you wonder if, maybe, you are dead.

GF: Of course, it's wonderful that people express themselves, and that they've enjoyed your performance. And the ones that get written down are, obviously, the ones which other people become aware of. But, for me, sometimes the most gratifying are the ones from individuals who have made an effort to come out and give up their evening to share [in the performance]. If you've touched them, somehow, that's a huge and wonderful thing.

LH: You created the role of Robert Oppenheimer. What's it like to create a role, working with the composer [John Adams] and [director] Peter Sellars?

GF: Fundamentally, it's one of the great experiences of collaboration. For the most part of our life, we're reading off scores by composers who aren't alive, and a lot of the effort in trying to understand what a composer means, by how he notates things, can be a mine field. In recent years, part of the experience I've had, as a growing singer, is singing music written many centuries ago, and having people who say, "Well, OK, since there were certain instruments made in a particular way, the articulation has to be in this way, which means that the whole breathing structure of the arias has to be in a different way." So, you think, "Wow! This is a way of looking at this repertoire." So, a lot of that is guesswork, and you have to trust the musicianship of learned people who have done research on a scholastic level. In the end it is, of course, about communication. I mean, for us performers, essentially what we're trying to do is bring the notes from the page into the sound world, and offer communication and experience to the listeners, which, somehow, means something. Fundamentally, working with a composer, who's living, and interpreting it with the help of a director like Peter Sellars, you can ask them questions, such as, "What do you really mean, here?" "Is it OK if I don't take a breath in this place?" Often, the response will be, "Well, if it's going to make it better, yes." Literally, the marks on the page, by the composer, are his best attempts to get what is inside him into a communication medium. All he has is black lines and black dots. And then, he hands it over to the performer.

LH: I have great empathy for the composer who puts these black dots down on the page, and then just hopes that they will be pulled off in the way he envisioned them. There are going to be a lot of performers doing that composer's work who are not near by.

GF: Absolutely.

LH: I suspect it's gratifying sometimes, and not so gratifying other times.

GF: I think that's right. There is an ideal that the composer has in mind, and when they reach the human frailty of real performers, who are struggling with the situation . . . an opera house, the tough union rules about how long the chorus can rehearse, the air conditioning system causing havoc, and many other things. I think of the extreme frustration that Samuel Barber must have felt the [opening] night of his Antony and Cleopatra, at the Met, where people were so distracted by the production that they really didn't have a chance to assess the music. And, or course, because the production - through pure and, sadly, not uncommon technical difficulties on set - the impact of the opera was, really, very marginal. …

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