January 7, 2009 / 12:38 PM / 10 years ago

Baritone Finley sings the song atomic

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Canadian baritone Gerald Finley began his operatic career as a birdcatcher in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” He’s graduated to bombmaker — atomic ones.

Gerald Finley (R) as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Kristine Jepson, portraying his wife Kitty, perform during a dress rehearsal performance of John Adams' and Peter Sellars' opera," Doctor Atomic" at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco September 28, 2005. REUTERS/Dino Vournas

Finley, 48, is the lead in “Doctor Atomic,” the opera by American composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars about J. Robert Oppenheimer who, as scientific director of the Manhattan Project, is known as “the father of the atomic bomb.”

The opera, set in New Mexico, where the first bomb was exploded, had its premiere in 2005 in San Francisco, with Finley singing the title role. Since then he’s sung it more than 40 times in Chicago, Amsterdam and most recently in New York.

“I’ve created the tradition of Oppenheimer because it’s a very demanding role, I’m on stage for 62 of the 65 minutes of the first act,” Finley told Reuters in a recent interview at a Starbucks in London.

In February, he will bring its explosive mix of high-impact music and probing, thought-provoking drama to the English National Opera in London for nine performances. In the meantime, the Netherlands Opera version is on Opus Arte DVD OA 0998 D.

Finley’s laid-back demeanour gives nothing away to nearby coffee drinkers who little suspect the presence of a bombmaker in their midst.

Here’s what he had to say about “Doctor Atomic,” why he’s taken on “darker” roles, his love of American song and why he’s happy he didn’t become a veterinarian.

The following is an edited transcript.

Q: “Doctor Atomic” has received mixed reviews, many of them raves but some nonplussed. What do you think?

A: “It’s very engaging as a topic, let’s face it... and John (Adams) likes to say we’re living this metaphor so why not spend some time dealing with it, and I think that’s fair...Yes it is American navel gazing, I suppose, but who better to look at it than an American with an international view?”

A: And the music? Your aria at the end of Act 1, set to John Donne’s poem with the line “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (Oppenheimer named the bomb test site “Trinity”) is a knockout.

Q: “That aria is incredible. I’m a human being, it does stretch me to the edge of my resources. When I was rehearsing I was very tired and I said to John, ‘I think I’m going to need some safety moments...it lies very high.’ He said I’d rather not rewrite but I could give you some alternatives.

“John is very melodic, there’s tune all the way through. But it’s hard to count, he’s fiendish rhythmically. You can’t imagine how many times in the piece our hearts skip a beat.”

Q: It’s a long way from the birdcatcher Papageno to the Faustian role of “Oppie.” Have you gone over to the dark side?

A: “To be honest, Papageno is great and he’s fun and there are a lot of guys that can do Papageno in perfectly wonderful ways. It’s kind of like my decision to go from Figaro (in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”) to being the Count (Almaviva). Figaro can bounce, he can be the cheeky lad, he’s got that element of steel behind him... but for me, it’s the Count.

“There’s something about being the Count...It’s about being able to say these characters struggle with their dark side. They have to live in societies...and society needs them to be strong and weak, so there’s always a lovely choice in doing these roles what you reveal.”

Q: You have a recital career as well, and while your latest disc is Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” (Hyperion CDA67676) what really seems to get you going is American song — Charles Ives (two discs on Hyperion), Samuel Barber (a Gramophone magazine award winner). You’ve been living in London for years, but did you leave your heart in North America?

A: “It’s because it’s my language, it’s my poetry...I know exactly every element of the coloring, the inflection... The songs of Barber, who comes from a quasi-European tradition, I can deliver in a type of singing I would call vernacular which seems very, very close to me. I hear the sounds of the bands that Ives has around him. I grew up with that.”

Q: Any regrets about not pursuing your youthful dream of becoming a vet? One report said you didn’t see much future in handling lamb droppings.

A: “I’ve been like a kid in a candy shop since I was 20.”

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