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Gerald Finley and other cast members of Falstaff rehearse for the Canadian Opera Company's production in Toronto, Ontario, Thursday, September 11, 2014.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In a rehearsal at the Canadian Opera Company studios in Toronto last month, bass-baritone Gerald Finley was getting some acting advice.

"It needs a bigger entrance," said director Robert Carsen as he walked Finley through his appearance in Act 2, Scene 2 from Falstaff, the Verdi opera that opened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday.

Finley has heard the word "bigger" a lot as he prepared for the role of the oversized eater, drinker and machinator who Verdi lifted from Shakespeare's plays to star in his last opera, a comedy based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

"In the first week, the comments coming back are all, 'The performance isn't big enough,'" the modest Finley lamented. "It's all I can do to remember the music, and remember what the next words are."

Of course, Finley's Falstaff has been getting bigger and bigger in the lead-up to opening night, not just figuratively but literally too. A tall man of medium build, Finley started out in a rehearsal fat suit that enlarged his belly so he could get used to moving about with extra size. With his long, slim head poking out on top, it made him look a bit like a cartoon character dressed in a barrel. By the time dress rehearsals rolled around, however, he was swathed in the full suit that pads out his arms, legs and torso as well as wearing prosthetic pieces for his face, chin, neck and chest.

"The character the audience will see on the stage bears no resemblance to Gerald Finley," Finley said.

The singer, a Canadian who lives in Britain, is fit and limber enough to have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his sons last summer. The fat Falstaff, who in this version struggles to climb onto a kitchen counter, is usually played by barrel-chested baritones who share the character's physique, men such as Ambrogio Maestri, the Italian singer who starred in this international co-production when it played London, Milan, Amsterdam and New York.

"He believes sincerely his bigness is attractive," Carsen said of Falstaff. "He's an extravagant man. He takes great pleasure in the scope of everything, including the space he occupies himself, and in others' minds. I told Gerry, 'You mustn't think he's just some big guy wandering around. He's big in his mind.'"

The role is – if you'll excuse the obvious pun – a bit of a stretch for the 54-year-old Finley, not just physically but vocally too.

First of all, everyone agreed Falstaff had to be fat. There are about 40 references to his size in the libretto, Carsen pointed out. And, in an age when audiences demand plausibly slim sopranos to play opera's consumptive waifs and suicidal lovers, the girth had to be realistic, not just Santa Claus padding. Finley's fat suit was specially made for the production by Robert Allsopp & Associates, a London prop-making and costume company that has worked on such movies as Gladiator and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The padding is then hidden under heavy tweed and wool suits for a production that is set in a colourful version of the 1950s.

It takes Finley two hours to get ready, and there is a fresh set of face, neck and chest pieces for each performance because makeup, sweat and the process of removing the prostheses make them too tattered to reuse.

"Darn it all, I think this guy could be played with a zest and energy that comes with youth and life experience, but doesn't necessarily have to come with physicality," Finley said, but conceded: "From a public point of view, there is no way you can have a slim Falstaff."

Second, the role is a new one for Finley, and marks his move from the baritone roles of Mozart – he has played Don Giovanni in the music capitals of the world – toward heavier parts offered by Wagner and Verdi, including Wolfram in Tannhauser (which he will sing in Chicago next year), Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger (which he sang to acclaim at Glyndebourne in 2011) and Iago in Verdi's Otello, which he has sung in concert and recorded, but would love to perform in a staged production.

"From a vocal point of view, I have been developing the tools to do these roles. Goodness, I've done Wagner now," he said. "My vocal capabilities have needed the support of visionary casting. I am very grateful to Alexander [Neef]."

The general director of the COC, however, thinks the casting choice is rather obvious.

"It was a no-brainer," Neef said, explaining that in 2009 he was already in talks with Finley's agent about bringing the singer back to the COC when London's Royal Opera announced it was planning a new production of Falstaff. He calls the wordy title role "the most intellectual of the baritone parts in the Italian repertoire," saying: "It's a big sing and a big learn for a baritone; it's not just a few catchy melodies." Neef was convinced Finley was ready for it – "It just made sense with the direction he was going."

For Finley, it's a belated return to the company: He has not appeared at the COC in more than 20 years. An Ottawa choirboy who left at 19 to study at Cambridge and London's Royal College of Music, he has spent his entire adult life in Britain and is married to an Englishwoman. Still, he returns every year to visit family, bringing his sons, now 18 and 22, who relish Canadian experiences. The Kilimanjaro adventure was inspired by a family canoe trip to Algonquin Park, and the younger son is now starting undergraduate studies at McGill University.

"There is this concept in the classical music industry that anything foreign is better – excellence comes from outside," Finley said, noting most Canadian opera singers live permanently abroad, often settling in Europe where the performance opportunities are more numerous. "I grew up with a sense I would have to leave to improve myself."

The COC, which is often criticized for mounting so little Canadian opera, has a casting policy of preferring the Canadian if two candidates are equal. And when one of the sopranos had to replaced before rehearsals started, Neef wound up with an all-Canadian cast this time out. Baritone Russell Braun sings the part of Ford, Quebec soprano Lyne Fortin plays his wife, Alice, and Neef describes Quebec contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the "go-to" person for the role of Mistress Quickly. When conductor Johannes Debus remarked on the all-Canadian lineup at the first rehearsal of the cast with the orchestra, he was greeted with applause.

Finley interprets that applause more as an expression of joyful homecoming than national pride.

"There's a common understanding: We have all been out there and it's so nice to come back and know there's a Tim Horton's around the corner, or you can get on the subway or walk home at any hour of the day or night and you'll be fine," he said. "Because everyone is Canadian, there are no outsiders; there is nobody we are looking after … there are no diva issues. It's so unusual and refreshing. We're a good team."

In turn, he figures, the cast's comfort will enliven the performance: "The COC is part of the [international] game, but there are Canadians on that international scene, and wouldn't it be fun if we could bring them together to provide a high-quality team effort for a Canadian audience?" Finley asked. "It's a wonderful celebration, and Falstaff is the perfect opportunity to do this because it's so joyous, it's a celebration of life."


From cinemas to stage

The Canadian Opera Company's new production of Falstaff that makes its Canadian premiere Friday is unique in an unusual way: It has already been seen in Toronto cinemas.

The Verdi opera is a five-way international co-production that launched at London's Royal Opera in 2012 and has played La Scala in Milan and Amsterdam's Dutch National Opera. In 2013, it made its New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera and was broadcast into cinemas, including several in Toronto, as part of the Met's highly successful Live in HD program.

Moviegoers last Dec. 14 saw the Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri sing the title role from New York; this month, opera fans at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre will hear Canadian baritone Gerald Finley sing live. The cast of the COC production is entirely different – and all Canadian – but the concept, executed by renowned opera director Robert Carsen and designers Paul Steinberg and Brigitte Reiffenstuel, is the same. The production is a colourful update of the comic opera that moves the action, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, to an English country hotel in the 1950s.

"It was a little bit of a frustration for us," COC general director Alexander Neef said of the cinema preview. "What do you do? We did not want to penalize the movie audience by blacking it out here in Toronto. … It's a different cast; it's a very different experience. We took the risk."

So far, ticket sales for the COC Falstaff are brisk; the run is more than 84 per cent sold. "That's an indication we didn't hurt anybody," said Peter Gelb, Neef's counterpart at the Met. "Maybe we even whet their appetite."

The unusual situation – a first for the COC and only the third production for which it has happened for the Met – came about partly because, late in the day, New York joined what was originally a London-Milan-Toronto co-production. (Amsterdam, the fifth producer on Falstaff, also saw the cinecast first.) Opera executives generally believe that the Met cinecasts, which are screened in many European and North American cities, and in New York itself, don't hurt the overall box office for live opera, and may actually help build audiences.

"There are some older patrons who find it easier to go to a cinema than to come to New York. On the other hand, when people come to New York from abroad, they come with the Met on their agenda," Gelb said, explaining the Met's sales in the Boston to Washington area are slightly down but the numbers from Europe have risen. With ticket prices at a fraction of what it costs to attend a live opera, about 16-million people have seen Met cinecasts since they were launched in 2006; 67 per cent of those moviegoers live outside the U.S.

Still, the Met's competitors stress that watching opera at the cinema is not the same as hearing it live.

"It's a sound system for a Hollywood blockbuster; it's not about subtlety," Neef said.

Finley, who is singing the part of Falstaff, agreed, saying: "It's an economical experience; it ain't the real experience." He is particularly concerned the cinecasts hurt smaller operas that can't compete with the Met's big-budget productions, companies such as Opera Lyra in Ottawa, the city where he grew up.

Even before Live in HD came along, Ottawa had struggled to keep professional opera going in the nation's capital, but Opera Lyra's general director Jeep Jeffries is not too worried.

"A lot of people see us and buy a ticket to see the Met at the cinema," he said. "They understand the differences – our budget would fit in a tiny corner of the Met's – but they value the live experience … There is an energy that exists in an opera house that you don't have in the cinema."

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