The late, great Jessye Norman once declared that “Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons”. With a wide palette of operatic characters in his repertoire – from Hans Sachs to Onegin, from Iago to Golaud – Gerald Finley has defied being pigeonholed. Perhaps that puts him in prime position to take on the seven “quick change” baritone roles in David McVicar’s new production of Britten’s Death in Venice at The Royal Opera.

Gerald Finley
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

It’s thirty years since his house debut, singing a Flemish Deputy in Don Carlo – “You share it with five other eager baritones... it was like a group audition!” – and when we meet, I ask Finley how his voice has changed over the last three decades.

“I think I’ve become a better singer – thankfully,” he confesses with disarming candour. “I wasn’t really a very good singer to start with. I didn’t understand the mechanics of it, making the voice ring free. I grew up in a choral background where you’re always in a restrictive vocal situation because you’re trying to modify your sound so you blend. What I didn’t realise was that the physical way you make a sound – particularly in the British choral tradition – is to make quite a straight tone and that constricts the way the air goes through your larynx. So I had to unshackle myself from my original style through singing lessons in New York with a teacher who trained me like an American footballer, which freed up the mechanics of my voice.”

Finley explains that he didn’t always have such a diverse range of roles. “At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh,” he adds modestly.

Has it been a deliberate decision in his career to avoid typecasting, keeping lots of options open? “Anyone who knows me well would say that keeping my options open is probably my best and my worst trait!” he laughs. “The trouble is, I love all of that stuff. I grew up thinking my future was in contemporary opera because I love being part of a creative process. My earnest desire is to be as good a classically-trained singer as possible and to find a lyricism in the music. That’s the goal, no matter what strange creations are put to a singer, that there’s still a lyricism, an emotional attachment, there’s not just a sound.”

Finley’s smooth, nut-brown bass-baritone draws out that lyricism, even in surprising role choices. When it was first announced that he was taking on the role of Hans Sachs, a lot of people raised an eyebrow. “Oh I know,” Finley exclaims. “The first person that had to be convinced was me!” He made his debut as Sachs at Glyndebourne, “a wonderful situation – a small house, Vladimir Jurowski ensuring the element of chamber music, which is the case for a lot of Sachs’ music. If you go back to Wagner’s orchestral markings, a lot of it is piano, mezzo-piano, pianissimo. To my shame, I’ve yet to get to Bayreuth so I haven’t experienced that acoustic but everyone who’s been there says you could whisper and still be heard. So I thought okay, why not? Why should I shy away from one of opera’s great characters? It was a wonderful experience because it broadened me as a singer, it broadened me as an artist”

In Death in Venice, Finley sings seven roles – everything from an elderly fop to a gondolier, a hotel manager to a barber, all with a certain sinister quality which haunts Gustav von Aschenbach, the author who has escaped to Venice to seek inspiration and clear his writer’s block. How different, I wonder, are these roles or did Britten perceive them as essentially the same character, Aschenbach’s nemesis?

Gerald Finley and Mark Padmore in rehearsals for Death in Venice
© ROH | Gavin Smart

“First of all,” Finley explains, “it comes from Thomas Mann because in the novella it is clear that somehow these particular protagonists have a link. They all have red hair, similar facial features and this idea of a stare or a strange look in their eyes. There’s always some feature which is provocative and makes Aschenbach uncomfortable. David McVicar absorbs this instinctively so we’ve had fun with all of that. It contrasts the grotesque element of the human form with Tadzio [the Polish youth with whom Aschenbach becomes infatuated] as a counterbalance.

“The clever thing about Britten,” he continues, “is that he had a natural dramatic instinct, so there are musical unifications. There’s this phrase uttered by the traveller in the very first scene where he has this little rhythm – it’s almost like a question with that rising inflection – which reappears in some of the other characters. It’s very cleverly done, whether instinctive or crafted, I don’t know. That’s the thing about Britten: often you wonder whether it was planned or whether it was spur of the moment, walking the marshes.”

Gerald Finley and Mark Padmore in rehearsals for Death in Venice
© ROH | Gavin Smart

I ask whether there is something in the way Britten wrote for “operatic” voices that particularly suits Lieder singers. “Aschenbach is the essence of the opera and Britten’s lifelong encounter with the voice of Peter Pears is something he absolutely absorbed and made part of his writing. Their Winterreise together stands as this amazing union of Pears’ ability to be a very lyrical singer in the classical tradition yet still have this sensitivity with words. Britten’s piano playing is just extraordinary – I do think it is my favourite recording from that point of view. My career has been intertwined with a lot of Britten’s songwriting. Yes, he’s got a natural affinity to the voice and what song is, but in opera, well heck… there’s Peter Grimes! If the great Jon Vickers can pull out that huge voice and make it very intimate sounding…”

I point out that Britten famously hated Vickers’ Grimes, but it shows how a role can take different voices and different approaches. Finley agrees. “In some ways that shows the solidity of a composer – I heard Sam Ramey sing Handel and thought it was the greatest singing on earth! Great music can handle those amazing infusions of sound and of artistry. With Britten, because we’re native English speakers, it’s both a challenge and a gift because if we sing like we speak then we can get into trouble because we don’t sing in a proper fluid way. So the challenge is to make the English sound natural while singing in an Italianate way. Britten wrote very intimately for voices, which is what Aschenbach has to deliver in his monologues.”

Gerald Finley in rehearsals for Death in Venice
© ROH | Gavin Smart

Because of Pears, most of Britten’s great roles were for tenor. An exception is Billy Budd, a role that eluded Finley’s grasp. “It’s just one of those career things that was always within reach,” he sighs philosophically. “I had at least three productions that I was booked for and they just went off the schedules. I would have loved to have sung Billy in the Darbies but you know, it’s just one of those things. I don’t regret it. The fact is, I was unbelievably busy and I can’t do everything!”

Finley has balanced his career between the opera stage and recital platform, relishing singing Lieder. “It’s a chance to be one’s own artistic director. After opera, it’s lovely to get back to the intimacy of Lied – it’s very good vocally for me to keep things clean and fresh and open, but also to have fun and creativity in the programming too, honouring composers and being able to share it – not that Schubert and Schumann need any advocates at all!” He enjoys a particularly close artistic partnership with Julius Drake, which he describes affectionately. “We were fortunate to encounter each other all those years ago and we got on like a house on fire!”

Then Finley springs a Lieder confession: “I was very afraid of Schubert for a long time.” Because of his iconic status? “I couldn’t sing it. I couldn’t sustain a line, I couldn’t get the lyricism. It was very tiring to sing, but I’m happy to say,” he adds without a hint of irony, “they’re now within my grasp. It’s sad that I had to wait so long for them to come, but Julius has had patience and lots of experience with other colleagues that I treasure and – this is the key – whenever I work with him I always feel like he and I are a unique partnership. We often don’t rehearse enough because we’re both so busy and that brings a certain frisson to performances, but actually the music-making in recitals can be thrilling because we can create a moment that we can build on – we’re both aware of when those moments happen – and celebrate it and keep it going. We have a good time.”

Operatically, Finley hopes the future holds opportunities to repeat some roles, especially for the houses that “took risks” on his past explorations such as Scarpia. “People wouldn’t perceive me as a natural Puccini villain, but it hasn’t gone badly. For the future, possibly Holländer, and I haven’t set my stall out for the Rheingold Wotan yet, but that may be further down the line. I can’t just cherry-pick, but Iago has been a hugely interesting role to take on, the treasure of the year. I feel like I’ve encouraged houses to look at the type of singer that I am and see that Iago may not just be the park-and-bark, angry, sinister, malevolent raven on the stage. For me, it’s Verdi for goodness sake, so the singing has to be amazing but completely believable. People ask why I’m doing baddies all the time. Well, there’s the most interesting music there.”

And if Finley woke up and found himself a tenor for the day? The question nearly stumps him. “Oh my word, that’s a really good one!” he muses. “I would say my tenor idol would be Jon Vickers because the amazing fire of passion that he could generate through that voice and yet narrow it down to this powerfully intimate sound. But which role would I choose? Wagner? Wagner has surprised me in some ways, particularly through Sachs. Maybe I’d wake up as a tenor and go ‘What baritone role should I want to sing?!’ Vickers’ Grimes was quite phenomenal and I’d probably go for a role like that because I know I enjoy playing a victim who is misunderstood somehow.’ Finley laughs. “That certainly rules out Pinkerton!”