A comprimario amid a "huge, sweeping, romantic love story" Justin Welsh (left) and Gregory Finney in AtG's La bohème, 2011. Photo courtesy of NikPix.ca.

A comprimario amid a "huge, sweeping, romantic love story"

Jenna Simeonov

Toronto-based baritone (and Schmopera contributor) Gregory Finney has made a name for himself performing opera’s favourite comprimario roles - or character roles. Like all great character singers, Finney specialises in short bursts of scene-stealing stage time, the kind you can catch this month in Against the Grain Theatre’s upcoming production of La bohème. Starting this Friday night, the show sees its 3rd run in Toronto, and Finney is the sole returning cast member from the original production in 2011.

We spoke with Finney about playing bumbling landlords and oblivious older gentlemen, and how attention to detail - even in the small roles - creates a realistic, organic world in which Puccini’s heartbreaking action can unfold.

How do the two comprimario roles in La bohème help to set up the world and relationships that are central to the main story?

The thing about Bohème is that it’s this huge, sweeping, romantic love story. Rodolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta, and I have my suspicions about Schaunard and Colline. The music and their relationships are the driving force of the piece.

The reason I think that Bohème has stood the test of time the way it has is because this beautiful, romantic tragedy doesn’t play out in a vacuum. There are real life risks and consequences at play, in particular with Benoît. It definitely brings it home that the Bohemian mantra of “Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and Love” are fantastic ideals, but rent ain’t free and neither is bread.

As for Alcindoro - or Lulu, as Musetta calls him - in the original can come off as a bit of a foible just for Musetta’s melodrama, but there’s a very real dynamic at play. She may use him - but she also needs him.

How does Benoît compare to an average Toronto landlord in 2017?

In all honesty, I can’t really fault Benoît for coming to collect the rent. I’ve been a renter my entire adult life. In Benoît’s case, it’s been six months since a rent cheque cleared, and if I were Benoît, I’d be upset too. That being said, what I like about Benoît, is that he’s still a human with faults and flaws and who makes bad choices - he’s not just a totalitarian who’s always right.

(l-r) Justin Welsh (Marcello), Ryan Harper (Rodolfo), Gregory Finney (Benoît), Keith Lam (Schaunard), and Neil Craighead (Colline) in AtG’s La bohème, 2011. Photo courtesy of NikPix.ca.

How much do you think Alcindoro is aware that he is being used by Musetta?

I think he catches on pretty quick that he’s not number one in Musetta’s mind, but it’s during the course of Act II (in particular “Quando m’en vo”) when he realizes he probably isn’t even the first client in her little black book. But he IS entranced by her, as all the men (and some of the women) seem to be, and is willing to suspend his disbelief that she only has eyes for him - since he paid for them.

It’s actually a pretty difficult balance to tread - making sure Lulu doesn’t just walk out on his call-girl who’s completely ignoring him after he paid upfront. I do think it’s his willingness to keep providing for her at the end of the act that makes him less of a “John looking for kicks” and more of a lonely man in need of companionship.

How have you seen AtG’s La bohème evolve in this production, based on your work in the roles in 2011?

Wow! What a difference. This is my third iteration of the cast, and it’s so exciting to see how it unfolds. I’ve been lucky enough to perform in an AtG show every season since we blew up with our first Bohème - and this is possibly the most exciting for me. The singers are always the finest of our generation, which is a real treat for a character singer like myself. The first time we did it, we had no budget but TONNES (yes, metric) of heart. It was raw, emotional, and beautiful.

This time around there’s a budget, there’s a much larger production and management team and way less of a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants-oh-my-god-what-the-hell-have-we-done feeling in the room. It’s got the same heart and soul, just a bit more polish - albeit Dollarama unbranded polish, not like actual Pledge.

I also love seeing how Joel [Ivany] and Toph [Mokrzewski] have evolved with the score and libretto, and with their directing styles. One of my favourite things about this business is watching my friends and colleagues grow and learn and develop and continue to astound me. I never cease to learn from everyone in the room, and you learn the most from people with a bona fide passion for what they do.

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

Dramatically, Musetta’s feet (you’ll understand if you’re lucky enough to have tickets to the show).

Musically - in no particular order: when the boys kick out Benoît and hit that huge D Major chord; the suspensions in Mimì’s first aria; the first moment Mimì and Rodolfo sing together; Schaunard’s leitmotif; when Mimì says “I don’t have any roommates/Viva sola è soletta”. Yeah, I like the happy parts. Act III is pretty bomb too.

AtG’s La bohème runs at The Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Ave., from May 19 to June 2. Rush tickets may still be available, so click here for details.

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