In "Elijah," the Old Testament oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn, the prophet has but one bar to collect himself before cutting loose with 1 Kings 17:1 ("As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word"). Then the overture begins, and Elijah takes his seat for about 20 minutes, until called on to bring a child back from the dead, rout the priests of Baal and deal with the wicked royals Ahab and Jezebel.
Surely that isolated opening line must be one of the more terrifying prospects in a concert singer's repertory? Not necessarily.
The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who will sing Elijah with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert beginning on Wednesday evening, finds it no more daunting than the bass's entrance in Handel's "Messiah" after the long opening aria by the tenor.
"Frogs have been known to spawn in my throat while I'm waiting," Mr. Finley said recently from the English village of Mark Cross in East Sussex, where he lives with his second wife, Heulwen Finley, a manager of pop acts, and his two sons from his first marriage.
"It's great to get straight into the drama," he said of "Elijah." "It's the cork out of the bottle."
His most terrifying entrance, he added, was as Flora's servant in Verdi's "Traviata" at Glyndebourne in 1987. The servant's part consists of the single line "Dinner is served," but that was half a lifetime ago, when Mr. Finley, now 50, was 27.
The oratorio tradition has been in his blood since his school days at St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Ottawa. He was sent there just before his 10th birthday by his father, a former boy chorister, on the advice of William McKie, a longtime organist of Westminster Abbey in London, who had just retired to Canada with his Canadian wife, the elder Mr. Finley's aunt.
By his own admission, Gerald was a reluctant beginner, but activities like football and sleigh rides soon worked their magic. "I didn't understand I was doing music," he said. "I was having too much fun. We also did cool things like recording soundtracks for TV and films. I became a very earnest choirboy, and things happened quickly."
He was promoted to soloist, beginning as the boy in "Elijah" who watches for rain. Then came the big jump to head choirboy.
"That's the top of the tree, definitely," Mr. Finley said. "You get to tell the idiots what to do. You have to know the liturgical stuff and the canon of the music incredibly well. There's a sense of responsibility, of leadership."
Long term, he thought he was heading for veterinary medicine. But when David Willcocks, the director of the Royal College of Music in London, happened to be visiting Canada, he met Mr. Finley (tipped off by his old friend Mr. McKie). Auditioning him on the spot, Mr. Willcocks immediately offered him a place at the Royal College. Mr. Finley completed his training there; at King's College, Cambridge; and at Glyndebourne, the opera festival in East Sussex.
Mr. Finley has long been recognized as a recitalist of rare versatility, a concert artist of the first rank and an opera singer of distinction in a broad repertory notably encompassing Mozart roles and new works by Tobias Picker, Mark-Anthony Turnage and John Adams. In February, at the Royal Opera in London, he takes up Mr. Turnage's "Anna Nicole," drawn from the tabloid life and death of Anna Nicole Smith. But first, Metropolitan Opera audiences will see him as the tormented prince Golaud in Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande." Though fans and impresarios can also picture him as Golaud's romantic half-brother and rival Pelléas, Mr. Finley has no designs on that higher-lying part.
"Pelléas is a notch above where I'd feel comfortable," he said, "and I'm not comfortable with that adolescent-abandon fantasy. I'm a more earnest type of guy."
As the visionary, impeccably tailored nuclear physicist, polymath and father of the bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, in Mr. Adams's "Doctor Atomic," Mr. Finley came to the notice of intellectuals, scientists and policy makers far beyond the usual opera crowd. Since the work's premiere, in San Francisco in 2005, he has done the opera in six cities and three stagings. (The German premiere in Saarbrücken, in February, was the first edition built around another artist.) The original production, directed by Peter Sellars, who also wrote the libretto, is documented on an Opus Arte DVD; Mr. Finley's performance in the Met staging directed by Penny Woolcock is available online (metopera.org) from the Met Player audio and video subscription service.
"Gerry took what I wrote for him and moved it ahead several steps further," Mr. Adams said recently from Berkeley, Calif., "investing the words and the music with an emotional depth and psychological subtlety that one rarely experiences on the operatic stage. As an actor he is both charismatic and deeply intuitive. As a musician he's utterly confident and dependable, gifted with one of the most beautiful baritone voices in the world."
Oppenheimer's greatest moment, heard at the end of Act I, is a setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," included on Mr. Finley's dizzyingly eclectic recital album for the Opera in English series on Chandos, released in February. Among that CD's many surprises are rare Weber, "Some Enchanted Evening" and bristling appearances by two of opera's most vicious scoundrels: Scarpia, from Puccini's "Tosca" (an opera Mr. Finley has never sung), and Iago, from Verdi's "Otello" (which he has recorded in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis for LSO Live). An excerpt from Wagner's "Meistersinger von Nürnberg" foreshadows his debut in the marathon part of the cobbler and poet Hans Sachs, scheduled for next summer in the work's Glyndebourne premiere.
As stilted as the Elizabethan English of Donne, or Victorian oratorio texts, or opera in English can sound, Mr. Finley knows how to savor the language with a lucidity that never turns purple. That ability may reflect his training at St. Matthew's.
"One of the most wonderful elements of the choral experience was dealing with adaptations of the psalms," he said. "The extraordinary way the psalms describe the wonders, challenges and horribleness of the world in a line or two: you can't get more powerful than that. In Anglican chant you hold very long notes, and at the same time you're trying to make melody out of those wonderful words. That's a huge lesson in making the words honest and sincere and immediate, so they're not simply chanted or rushed over."
To the director Mr. Sellars the contradictions in Mr. Finley's temperament combine to make him one of the most riveting performers of our time. The texture of his instrument is raw diamonds and silk, smooth yet biting, the timbre as notable for its transparent highlights as for its dark, tempestuous authority.
"Gerry is that once-in-a-generation singer who has the danger and allure and sheer integrity to make every villain he plays the hero," Mr. Sellars said recently from Italy, "and to give every hero he plays depths of darkness that are unimaginable."
Their association goes back to a touring Glyndebourne production of Mozart's "Zauberflöte" in 1990, when Mr. Finley played the wisecracking, bird-catching child of nature Papageno.
"I made Papageno into a melancholy, Schubertian figure," Mr. Sellars said. "People went wild. When someone can make Papageno's suicide attempt not a joke but something that tears your heart, that's rare."
In 2001 Mr. Finley and Mr. Sellars teamed up in Paris for "L'Amour de Loin," Kaija Saariaho's mystery of courtly love.
"With just three cast members and a running time of two and a half hours, the piece is very difficult," Mr. Sellars said. "Everyone needs to be really interesting. For the troubadour Jaufré Rudel we needed the ideal romantic lover, a figure of enormous, almost Wagnerian introspection and reflective power, whose internal crises are deep and powerful enough to motivate the harrowing orchestral climaxes. Gerry was the terrifying human engine that drove all that. But offstage he couldn't be less self-absorbed, the anchor for the whole cast."
Beyond "Elijah" Mr. Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic envision Mr. Finley in the title role of Messiaen's monumental "St. François d'Assise," which more than a quarter-century after its creation still awaits its New York premiere.
"Gerry is such a consummate artist and such an actor's actor that I think he could take on any role," Mr. Gilbert said recently from Warsaw, on tour with the orchestra. "I can't imagine anyone I'd rather do 'St. Francis' with, or 'Elijah' for that matter. He brings it all together: the beautiful voice, the deep understanding of human psychology, the rigorous preparation. And he's also the most delightful colleague one could wish for."
But let's not forget those blackguards Mr. Finley has been looking into lately. "My whole journey from boy chorister to today has been to find my individuality," he said. "It's taken my whole career to get where I am today. Singing Iago or Scarpia, I have to investigate the dark corners."