Who is Gregory Finney? As he puts it in one of his biographies, he’s “a predominantly Comedic Baritone with Tenoristic leanings and background”. This is an artist who is a bit of a chamelon, able to sing high or low, play comic or serious. Escamillo (Loose TEA Music Theatre ) AND Alcindoro (Against the Grain).
Finney will be back with Loose TEA Music Theatre for roles in their double bill Love in the Age of Autocorrect beginning August 21st.
Originally from Cape Breton Island Finney’s opera career started out by something he calls “a bit of a happy accident”. Trained as a classical actor through the Royal Conservatory of Music in Speech and Drama, he continued his studies with a Music Degree, double majoring in Music Theatre and Vocal Performance from Acadia University. He’s sung in honour choirs (Nova Scotia Youth Choir, National Youth Choir), Professional Choirs (Toronto Mendelssohn Singers), Musical Theatre (Footloose, Beauty and the Beast, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) Operetta (Die Fledermaus, Countess Maritza, The Merry Widow) and Opera (Figaro’s Wedding, La boheme, Die Zauberflöte, La Donna del Lago) and has a number of Canadian, New York, and World Premieres under his belt.
On the occasion of his appearance in Loose TEA Music Theatre’s Love in the Age of Autocorrect I ask Finney 10 questions: five about himself and five more about his portrayals.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’m like my mom for sure! She’s a spitfire, that Sheila Finney. She’s a very stubborn, strong, and overly-supportive person to everyone. She’s become the matriarch even on my father’s side of the family. We get riled up easily, but we calm down just as fast.People will be surprised to know that I’m like her a lot in that I’m constantly worrying about something. I come off pretty calm and collected, but inside the brain it’s a whirlwind of panic, anxiety, worry, celebration, music and wait-am-I-supposed-to-be-somewhere-else-right-now? She gave me the fearlessness to try anything at least once, and being open to appreciate new things. That’s the only way I was able to open my mind up from my pretentious beginnings as an all-black wearing aspiring Thespian to a working opera singer.
My dad gave me this pretty badass beard though, so it’s kind of a wash.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
I think the best thing would be that I get to combine three of my favourite things: Singing, Acting, and making music with others. As someone usually cast in a comprimario role, I find myself getting to sing some of the most beautiful ensemble music in the world. Also, I get to flex my comic chops a lot in these roles usually. The worst thing would have to be either A) the pay rate disparity between union and non-union performers and B) the amount of times I’ve told someone about my show and I get “I’ve never heard of that one…” in response. I just try to use that moment to teach them a bit about it, and hopefully talk them into maybe seeing their first Opera.
3- Who do you like to listen to or watch?
First up, Beyoncé is my spirit animal.
Other than my colleagues in rehearsal (I know it sounds dorky – but I love it, I’ve learned more in the wings watching my coworkers than ever have at the crook of a piano), in my down time I don’t tend to listen to Opera/Classical unless the mood strikes me (I’m always up for a good Verdi or Mozart break though). If you see me around town, I’ll have my iPod blasting – seriously, BLASTING – and it can be anything from The Band to Aretha Franklin to Naughty By Nature to Swedish Folk Music to my Cape Breton/Celtic Favourites. The majority of my music tends to be R & B/Hip Hop or classic Motown era soul or any singer who seriously commits to their vocal production. Current artists on regular rotation include Pharell, Emeli Sandé, Frank Ocean, Adele, Florence and the Machine, Aretha, Candi Staton, and a TON of Otis Redding.
I’m a big fan of TV and Movies that don’t tend to challenge me intellectually. I love a good brainy artsy film, but I find I like to escape into explosions, magic, and fighting. So, anything with Sally Field, Meryl Streep, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Jennifer Lawrence for truth onscreen. Or Dragons. Or LOTR. Or Harry Potter. Or any of the Marvel Movies… I’m pretty easy in the theatre to be honest.
4- What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Oh My Goodness!! I’d love to be able to A) Ride a horse B) Swordfight (not fencing) C) Combine the two. I have a real thing about wishing I was a real live medieval knight. I don’t know why? But I always thought I’d be good in a joust. It probably stems from my Tolkien addiction – I want to ride a horse with a broadsword aloft and yell “Forth Eorlingas” just once before I die. I also wish I could tumble. I’m a pretty physical actor and I’m a fairly good dancer so I wish I could just rip off a back flip or a side aerial once in awhile.
5- When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
I like to eat. A lot. I enjoy Whiskey and Prosecco while I eat and lighter beers like pilsners and lagers. I also go through serious bouts of ravenous reading – but then I stop and it takes a while to get that momentum back up. I spend a lot of time on imgur.com laughing at things. I have roommate dates where we like to make dinner together and catch up on our favourite TV shows. I also like escaping from the city to somewhere where there’s water. I grew up on the Atlantic Ocean and I miss it a lot. I can trick myself sometimes with Lake Ontario because I can’t see the other side of it, but you can tell it’s nowhere near as deep. The blue is a remarkable colour in the north Atlantic. You don’t see it anywhere else. Oh, and I like to have dance parties in my kitchen/living room/wherever I’m standing.
Five more concerning the upcoming works from Loose TEA Opera…
1- Please talk a bit about the roles you’re singing and how you approach this kind of part.
Well for this double bill of one-acts I’m kept pretty busy. In the Mozart Andrew & Andrea (Bastien und Bastienne) I play Mark Z. (Colas). If you know the story of Cosi Fan Tutte at all, this was sort of the precursor to that work with my character being the prototype for Don Alfonso. The good thing about it is, it’s Mozart. So the shapes and the melodies are very familiar and singable and easy to commit to memory. With a role like Mark Z., he’s cocky, smart, well-to-do, good-looking and unfortunately is entirely aware of all these things. It’s a fun conceit to be working in for someone as self-deprecating as I am all the time. He thinks everything he does is the best thing for any situation – as we all know someone like this we’re all well aware that this is not always, in fact is rarely, the case.
The Stravinsky poses a bit more of a challenge for me. The role I’m playing is of the Father. This has been adapted from the original character of “Mother” which was written for a Contralto. The range sits well, although it is quite low at points, but the style of lyricism is a bit foreign to what I’m used to as a Lyric Baritone. There are distinct differences in writing for the female voice and the male voice. I’ve dealt with this sort of thing before when I played Prince Orlofsky in Toronto Operetta Theatre’s DIE FLEDERMAUS. The tessitura remains similar, but it’s the flourishes and the navigation into the extreme ranges are different between men and women, so it takes a bit of time to finesse it so that I still sing the line Stravinsky intended, but not sound like a man pretending to be a woman. The shows themselves are quite funny so obviously I feel right at home. I don’t think (Loose TEA Artistic Director) Alaina relies on me being funny, the material is funny and as long as we’re doing our work right, then the audience will laugh.
Gregory is a funny guy, Mark Z. isn’t really a funny guy, but he sets up some funny situations. It’s all part-and-parcel with the marrying of acting and singing for this genre. I view Opera as a play. But the language that the play is written in is Classical Vocal Music, and the Playwright is the composer AND the librettist.
2- What do you love about Loose TEA and this kind of operatic project?
I love working with companies that young people are steering. Don’t get me wrong, I revere the old guard and continue to admire and learn from them all at any opportunity I get, but with Opera as it stands in today’s current climate, I think it’s up to us (the new guard, if you will) to redefine what “Opera” and “Going to the Opera” mean in the 21st century. Gone are the days of putting on a tux or a gown on a Tuesday night to sit through a presentation of Carmen. I think our first step is to make it part of popular culture again, like it was back in the day when Opera Stars were the matinee idols, not just the movie stars and the photoshopped men and women in glossy magazines. Every time I meet someone who’s come to the opera “for the first time” to one of my shows, I usually hear these two things. “Wow, that was so great!” and “I understood WAY more of it than I expected to.” People get scared of the foreign language thing and forget that we’re telling a story. We’re going to act it out for you, trust me you will understand it all. I think the first step is getting that reaction from new audiences, while not alienating the purist/classicists. It’s a delicate balance, and that’s why I like working with companies like LooseTEA. It gives the public a new perspective on some very old stories with very contemporary themes. I also like the intimate venues. Smaller houses allow me to connect with my audience on a more visceral level.
3- Talk about the title and how these operas are being updated, made relevant to a modern audience.
The two operas (the Mozart is really an operetta in my view) deal with mixed signals and crossed-wires. They deal with miscommunication of the written word. Well, we don’t write letters very often these days, unless you count texts. Which really, we should – they’re just short letters that you don’t have to send through Canada Post. I think changing the “letters” to “texts” relieves the audience of having to justify to themselves “Why didn’t they just say it out loud? They were right there!” or “Why didn’t she give him the letter herself?” We live in an age where once a day I get an “Oops, wrong chat…” message. When you draw that parallel, the audience is given more free reign to revel in their suspension of disbelief (Wait… what? They sing EVERYTHING?)
4- Please put Loose TEA and your recent opera work into context, in a culture that doesn’t always bother with opera & classical music.
It’s my goal to remind Canada (and hopefully the World if at all possible) that Opera is more than just pretty voices singing loudly. It’s theatre. These are stories. The characters are people – often REAL people from history – that are 3 dimensional, with stakes in the circumstances to varying degrees. Yes, it’s about lovely singing – but it’s opera, the singing should be a given. We need to get back to making this theatre. Audiences are drifting away to other forms of theatrical expression because we’ve been failing them in recent history in this regard. They pay upwards to $300 a ticket or more (for a fancy seat in a fancy house) for an opera, and what we’ve been giving them is a concert where all dramatic impulse is dropped at the downbeat of an aria. Opera singers have an AMAZING capability of sound. The colours, volumes, ranges that are produced are unparalleled and to think that you can’t sing that well and act that well at the same time is ridiculous – I offer Sondra Radvanovsky’s recent performance in Roberto Devereux. I believe it’s performers like her that are what’s going to take Opera through, from now in the 21st century and into the 22nd.
LooseTEA and other opera companies I’ve sung with recently (Against the Grain Theatre, Fawn Opera etc…) are all leading the charge with this mentality. The story is now gaining more importance in the overall presentation. Audiences don’t want to just hear Rodolfo and Mimi sing that they love each other, they want to FEEL it as well – and I believe they have every right to feel it, and it’s our job as actors (yes we ARE actors and my favourite companies to work for don’t refer to us as singers: we are called actors) to guide them to this. We can’t give it to them directly, but we can show them where it is.
5- Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
There’s a bunch of them. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a shout out to Guillermo Silva-Marin over at Toronto Operetta Theatre/Voicebox: Opera In Concert/Summer Opera Lyric Theatre. When I made the conscious choice to focus on operatic rep as opposed to Musical Theatre, he took me under his wing, taught me the differences between the two genres with respect to music preparation, role preparation, hierarchies, and rehearsal ethics and etiquette. He also guided me into discovering which fach is really best suited to my skills and vocal colour. He’s been a friend, a teacher and a colleague. He’s also very supportive of young singers fresh out of their degrees (or often, still pursuing them).
Joel Ivany and the crew over at Against The Grain Theatre are very dear to me. I’ve done a few shows with them now and every time I do it’s one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life – musically and dramatically. Also, being able to present works in a new way with my peers (who in my opinion are the best in the country) makes me feel like all the years of having coffee for dinner are paying off.
I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to all the collaborative pianists who’ve helped shape my niche. Nicole Bellamy, Jenna Douglas, Michael Rose, David Eliakis, Christopher Mokrzewski, Jennifer Tung and more I’m sure I’m forgetting. These folks are the best at what they do, and they are just as instrumental (see what I did there?) at helping us singers prepare our roles as voice teachers and directors are and they never get the praise they deserve publicly.
Loose TEA Music Theatre present Love in the Age of Autocorrect,
adaptations of operas by Mozart & Stravinsky:
August 21-24 at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu
198A Davenport Road, Toronto, ON M5R 3R3
Tickets: $30 general,
$25 student with ID available on our website or at the door