In fact, Finley's career does read like a catalogue of orderly advancement. A leading chorister at King's College, Cambridge and a star of the Royal College of Music, he emerged from the Glyndebournechorus as Figaro to sing the very first words heard at their new operahouse in 1994. He has created contemporary roles in new operas by John Adams and Mark-Anthony Turnage while simultaneously building a reputation as a leading Mozartian. He has won Grammy and Gramophone awards for opera and recital recordings and later this season will celebrate 25 years at the Royal Opera House. Next week will see his 100th performance at Covent Garden in his debut production of Wagner's grail saga, Parsifal, in which he is the physically and morally wounded king, Amfortas. The role follows his acclaimed Hans Sachs in the 2011 Glyndebourne Meistersinger.
But look just beneath the surface of Finley's apparently smooth CV and there is much that has not been by the book. One of his signature roles is Don Giovanni – he recently featured in no fewer than five productions in just two years – but he didn't actually learn the part until he was 40. Finley has endured two significant vocal crises in his career and was so in awe of the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that for many years it distorted his own potential repertoire. Such was his trepidation before taking on the demanding role of Sachs that his wife even bought him a book called Wagner Without Fear.
"As with so many things, the Wagner eventually came about through a combination of opportunity and practicality," he explains. "Sachs was on my list for later in my career, but Glyndebourne was the perfect venue for Meistersinger in that it is a relatively small auditorium where the stage is not too deep. That means you would necessarily be towards the front and so volume was never going to be an issue." And, as Glyndebourne has been a reassuring home from home to him throughout his career, so he is similarly surrounded by long-standing colleagues for his Covent Garden Parsifal, most notably conductor Antonio Pappano.
"I first met Tony when he was looking for a Giovanni for a concert tour in the Middle East. You'd think it was a bread-and-butter piece, but we were both 40 and it had never crossed our paths. So in Tel Aviv we sang the Don together every day for about three weeks in this bunker-like rehearsal room and got to know each other pretty well, both as people and as musicians. He's been amazingly supportive ever since, and so doing Amfortas with him is both comforting, and also challenging as he's not afraid to really demand of me in front of the entire cast. But because I trust implicitly what he wants, and the results that he gets, he is bringing more out of me than even I knew was there."
Finley says for years the combination of enjoying the work he was doing allied to a sense of Wagner as a "psychological fortress" ensured he largely steered clear of the music. "But people did keep saying that not only would I enjoy it, it would help me open up as an artist. And so ultimately I thought if this is going to help me sing better, why am I resisting? Something like Amfortas is not a long role, but it is very condensed, with a great deal of passion and some wonderfully lyrical lines. And the power of the music is palpable." He observes in his colleagues, some of whom have given 50-plus performances, "that they love to come to rehearsal, and they feel that the music is essentially part of their existence. They feel the uplift and are invigorated by it. And I'm sure that being united with the music is a constant that somehow helps them cope with the very disjointed life of the singer, which can be a lot about travel, separation from those you love and being a long way from home."
Finley's first home was in Canada – although he now lives in Sussex – where he was born in 1960 and brought up in Ottawa. There were several musicians in his wider family and from the age of 10 he was singing treble in a renowned Anglican church choir. "Which showed how much I loved the music as it wasn't easy in Canada to be a choirboy whose voice hadn't broken when all your friends were playing ice hockey and football. I liked all those things too, but there just weren't enough hours in the day to fit with my commitment to the choir."
When his voice eventually did break, comparatively late at 16, he moved straight to the bass section and by the time he was 18 was deciding whether he should pursue a career in veterinary science or music. "I went for music, but even then, while I hoped my voice would take me into the musical world, I never thought it would be the prime element of my work. If anything, I wanted to be a choral conductor, and that was what I had in mind when I went to the UK."
An audition for the Royal College of Music had been arranged via a relative who had been an organist at Westminster Abbey. But, on arrival in London, Finley was also invited to sing at King's College, Cambridge, where he spent the next three years – which included performing alongside Janet Baker, who became an early supporter – before returning to the Royal College where by all accounts he was a particularly assured student. "Well, I was connected to the professional choir scene because of King's. And back then that meant you could step in and be a deputy around the place and so could earn a living."
He joined the chorus at Glyndebourne, which also meant becoming an understudy and Finley was given the chance to sing in an early rehearsal of Albert Herring because the principal was getting married. "And straight away you know people are thinking 'Finley, hmm …' Those little opportunities are very important and it makes me angry when I see young singers who don't know the music backwards when chances come along. A couple of times my own understudies haven't been prepared when really they should have been throwing me out of a job. And if you put in the work, things can turn out well."
In his case he was soon singing around the world in both the core repertoire, especially Mozart, at the same time as taking on new work from Turnage – The Silver Tassie, about a footballer injured in the first world war and then Anna Nicole – as well as John Adams, for whom he originated the part of Oppenheimer in Dr Atomic. "I like it that we have stories from today that can be reflected or discussed or approached via contemporary music, voice and theatre. But you do attempt to look at any material as if it was the first night. You try to think of Wagner's notes as still being wet on the page, and you try to connect musically with people in a way that perhaps they haven't experienced before. The difference is that every now and again Mark Turnage would call out, 'Gerry, we're going to change that note', in a way that Wagner doesn't. So you see the composer adjusting, hopefully for the better, in response to what one is offering."
He says that he will probably take on fewer new roles in the future as he seeks to manage his voice through potentially another two decades of singing. It was while he was at Glyndebourne in his late 20s that he had his first vocal crisis, when he realised he was over-reliant on choral techniques. He spent a year with a voice coach "putting together a voice that was founded on breath and muscle, which shattered my lieder singing completely but enabled me to do the Figaros and a lot of the other roles I sang in the first part of my career."
He claims being a singer is less like being a dancer – "who are always dancing through pain and injury" – than a tennis player. "You can carry on, and make compensations, for a long time when the muscles are out of kilter. But eventually things will just not work any more." In his case a blood vessel broke on his vocal cord. "And that provided an opportunity to think about the fundamentals, something that doesn't often come for a singer in mid-career because you are usually so busy. Like a tennis player who's always wanted to get that serve just right, when recovering from injury you can work on the mechanics without the pressure of performing and earning a living."
When he re-emerged, he found himself better able to return to one of his early musical inspirations. "I saw Fischer-Dieskau sing when I was a student and was utterly captivated. For 10 years I wanted to be like him, but couldn't, and therefore tied myself in complete knots. After the vocal problems I realised that I have a love of both opera and of lieder but I only have one voice, so I have to sing it all the same way."
Finley will release a CD of Schubert's Winterreise – recorded many times by Fischer-Dieskau – in the new year to coincide with a residency at the Wigmore Hall with his regular accompanist Julius Drake, that will also take in work by Sibelius and Liszt. "My recital work is essential because it allows me to dwell on my own artistic interests. Julius is like a musical brother and he understands that I now have to supply new vocal resources for dealing with either big climaxes or Mahlerian suspensions. And I'm learning all the time how to use the equipment I have."
Other immediate plans include a Covent Garden Marriage of Figaro, aCunning Little Vixen in Vienna and his first full opera in Canada for 21 years for his debut as Falstaff. "Falstaff and Iago will be my Verdi roles over the next few years. As for other things, if there is a Scarpia out there somewhere I'd be happy to do that, too, and I am not doing any Wagner roles that would preclude Mozart. But the fundamental thing is to find out where my voice flourishes. And you can't deny that doing something like Amfortas helps with that. The revelation to me – particularly in Meistersinger – is that when I am singing it is usually with just parts of the orchestra, rarely the full sound. So the vocal delivery isn't about planting your feet and bawling it out, and that reassured me that Wagner was about making singing really valuable. And so now I feel I've joined the Wagner train and I have a valid ticket. It's a pretty long train, admittedly, but I'm comfortable on it and feel I can stay around. Amfortas and Hans Sachs will be roles that I sing for the rest of my life."