Facing the music: Gerald Finley

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a life-changer, he’s sung Wagner on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and last danced to Tom Chaplin. The Canadian bass-baritone tells us about his musical life on and off the opera stage

Vinyl or digital?

Digital. I am so happy to have access to long-lost singers and historic recordings on various platforms. John Charles Thomas, the American baritone, is now easily accessible to all. I love searching out repertoire that is suited for my voice, and sharing it with audiences. I am excited that people all over the world can share concerts and performances. Now, if we could just make sure that performing artists get their fair due in exploitation rights...?

What was the first record or cd you bought?

The first record I was given was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubert Die Schöne Müllerin it was a life changer. The first records I bought were Monty Python’s Flying Circus, then Genesis.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

Anything choral or a capella. It was my musical upbringing and I love to luxuriate in the harmony of blended human voices.

If you had time learn a new instrument, what would it be?

I definitely would love time to improve my piano playing. I am so envious of the pianists that can play songs and lieder so beautifully. It would also allow me to learn my singing music much more quickly.

Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?

At school in Canada, my parallel love was science and I might have been a vet. My fascination with the natural world continues, and I can still imagine myself in the medical profession. I am not sure I would have been any good at it, so I am happy that music became the career focus. The science community did not suffer as a result. With John Adams’s Dr Atomic my life joined up briefly again.

Where is the most unusual place you’ve performed?

For a BBC documentary Holocaust Memorial, I sang in the hospital block at Auschwitz. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I sang a couple of lines from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the summit of Kilimanjaro climbing for @HelpMusiciansUK. Not really a performance, but it froze the guides who had helped me climb.

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

The performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht at the Royal Opera in September 1985. Electronics, wandering trumpet player in the auditorium; it was really the total modern opera experience.

We’re giving you a time machine: what period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?

I would love to travel to the time when Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn were the heroes of the day, 1790-1810, what a time to be in Vienna!

Gerald Finley as Count Almaviva (with Camilla Tilling as Susanna) in Mozart’s Nozze Di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, 2014.
Gerald Finley as Count Almaviva (with Camilla Tilling as Susanna) in Mozart’s Nozze Di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

What - in your opinion - is the best new piece written in the past 50 years?

Yikes, to think that Benjamin Britten is almost out of that 50 year period! Since then... I have such fondness for the music of Kaija Saariaho and also John Adams, both have written wonderfully soul-searching and beautiful music. There’s been wonderful pieces, too, from Mark Anthony Turnage, Einojuhani Rautavaara, John Rutter, Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen: how amazing is the music being produced today!

What was the last piece of music you danced to?

I danced in my kitchen to Tom Chaplin’s latest solo song Hardened Heart on Radio 2, in front of my 15-month-old daughter. She laughed.

What’s the most overrated classical work? - ie is there a warhorse whose appeal you really don’t relate to?

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I played the clarinet in my school band and we played it at every concert. I was in front of the bass drum, and every time I hear it now I want to shut my ears from the remembered pain.

‘She knows how to wear opera costumes!’ Lady Gaga
‘It would be fun to hook with Lady Gaga - she knows how to wear opera costumes!’ Photograph: Marc Piasecki/GC Images

Which non-classical musician would you like to work with?

I already have: when Paul McCartney wrote his Liverpool Oratorio, I was part of the working ensemble. Linda even made us some veggie meals between sessions. It would be fun to hook up with Lady Gaga, she already knows how to wear opera costumes!

What do you sing in the shower?

Excerpts from whichever concert or opera that I recently finished performing; it is almost a cool-down for my brain and soul.

Gerald Finley gives the UK premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s song cycle True Fire with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London on 15 December.

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