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INTERVIEW | Uncharted Waters: Isaiah Bell On Creating Antinous In Hadrian

By Joseph So on October 10, 2018

(Photo: Chelsea Brooke Roisum)
Isaiah Bell (Photo: Chelsea Brooke Roisum)

The Canadian tenor bares his soul on being a creative artist

To many artists, there’s a special thrill to be the very first interpreter of a new operatic role, to be involved in the creative process from the very beginning. While it’s great to follow in the footsteps of famous exponents of a role, there’s something very special about tackling a project where there’s no precedent, to collaborate with living creators in shaping a new piece, often composed with the singer in mind.

Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell is just that lucky fellow, currently in Toronto rehearsing the role of Antinous at the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Hadrian, a new opera by singer, songwriter, and composer Rufus Wainwright.  This is Wainwright’s second stab at the operatic genre. His first piece, Prima Donna, had its North American premiere at the 2010 Luminato Festival in Toronto. By the composer’s own admission, its genesis was “a nightmare.”

Now older and wiser, Wainwright is revisiting opera, an art form that he has loved all his life. He has chosen the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in his final days, focusing on his suppression of the Kokhba revolt in Judea, and most of all his relationship with Antinous.  This represents the first opera with a central gay theme staged by the COC. The title role is taken by American baritone Thomas Hampson, in his COC debut. Bell is returning to the Company after his debut last season in Arabella.

This show has piqued the interest of the arts media in general for a variety of reasons, not least because it is Rufus Wainwright after all, a big name in the pop world. Then there’s the subject matter of a gay love story. I don’t ever recall the COC issuing a “Content Advisory,” to the effect that “Hadrian contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature…recommended for audiences 18 or older.”  A weekly journal on the COC website has tenor Isaiah Bell sharing his thoughts on creating Antinous. Time is ripe for an interview with Bell:

I just discovered your diary on the COC website. I give you full credit for doing this — it’s like letting it all hang out! Is it your idea to write this diary?

No, they asked me. For me, it’s a big deal to be honest about the (creative) process. A lot of people experience the full range of emotions going through the process. The idea is that if you talk about the process, you are not confident.  But I feel it’s possible to be confident that you can do a good job, and still experience these different feelings.

How does it feel to be creating a new role?

A lot of the preparation hasn’t been very different from roles that I have done before. One thing that is wonderful is there’s no precedent, so you don’t have the weight of great performances on you. When I am preparing a role in general, I don’t listen to other singers very much — maybe a bit towards the end. You don’t want someone else’s voice in your head. In that regard, it hasn’t been that different. [Rufus Wainwright] is writing it in a language inspired by traditional opera.

How is the orchestration? 

It’s very interesting. He’s a creative orchestrator, with lots of colours. He has an assistant, but he is responsible for the orchestration — he’s very clear about it. He is a champion for interdisciplinary collaboration, between classical and pop, a sort of cross-pollination. He wants Hadrian to be an opera, not cross-over or ‘popera’.

Is he easy to work with?

Yes, he is an easy presence in the room, not overbearing. He offers his opinion, but he’s not demanding or difficult. You can tell he’s always listening and try to find a way to make it better.

At the media preview, I overheard Hampson negotiating with him about changing some notes, and he’s opened to it. 

Yes, he is.

Have you negotiated your music with him?

When I first got the score, they asked for comments.  There was one part I felt it wasn’t practical and perhaps could be adjusted.

Did he accept the suggestion?

The one part I said wasn’t doable, he recomposed it. Most of the things I brought to rehearsals, once he heard it, he said ‘why don’t you do this slight variation instead.’  There was one thing he wanted it to come out of the orchestra more, and I suggested that he takes it up a third, this one line, it will come out more. Other than that, I haven’t really had much input.

What is the range of your role? 

Hmmm…I’m trying to think. It’s about C to C.

He composed a high C for you?

It’s in the ensemble, part of the texture. There are a couple of B-naturals that are more prominent.

Do you have an aria?

Yes, a lovely aria in Act 3, a beautiful moment in the show. There’s a beautiful trio which is also sort of a duet. And there are several scenes between Hadrian and Antinous.

What is it like, working with seasoned veterans like Hampson and Mattila? 

They both have been lovely to me — it’s not a “company line.” We have this idea of the “diva” which we hear in the pejorative context. Both are “divas” in an inspirational way. They are survivors in a difficult industry; they are people with staying power. Just because they’re established and well known and celebrated doesn’t mean they have it all sewn up.

They need to produce like everyone else.

It’s interesting to see that they know what they need — they are divas in the sense that they have the confidence to say: “this is what I need to do well.” It’s actually very inspiring. As you come up the ranks, you don’t want to ruffle feathers, don’t want to be perceived as difficult in any way. Sometimes that comes at the cost of doing your best work. Sometimes you have to say: “this is what I need to do this scene, in order to do my job well.” To see people with the confidence to say that – I find it inspiring. The industry can eat you up if you don’t know how to stand your ground.

I think an artist has to have a good sense of self.

Exactly — this diary is a lot about that.

I do get the feeling of vulnerability in your journal. Not too many people are willing to open up like that. They maybe vulnerable inside, but they want to appear confident on the outside. To bring that to the outside, is like your skin is turned inside out… 

For me, in order to be vulnerable on stage, you need to be confident.

You have to be confident before you can afford to be vulnerable.

Exactly. I think that’s really true. If I don’t feel confident on stage, I will shut myself off from the audience. If the audience sense that I am vulnerable, that I’m open to them, that’s because I am confident.

On that subject of being confident onstage — I have to ask — do you take your clothes off in the show? 

Well, I don’t take it off completely.  All I’ll say is I have three costumes, and none broke the fabric budget (smile)…

But you were draped all over in Act 2 which I saw at the media preview!

That’s the most fabric I have…

Are you self-conscious? Have you taken your clothes off before onstage?

No, I’ve never taken my clothes off.  (In this show) I’m surrounded by dancers who are scantily clad as well. It was six months before I got this gig that I first started exercising. When I got the gig, I asked if I have to take my clothes off. They said ‘probably.’  Of course you are self-conscious, especially since the character is a famously beautiful historical figure! Hadrian made Antinous a god, and there are hundreds of statues of him. It’s one thing when you are taking your clothes off and playing a regular person, but… One thing that was helpful was when the choreographer suggested that I start coming to rehearsals wearing tank tops and shorts. I don’t own any tank tops and had to buy some! When I had to take it off the first time, it didn’t feel weird.

Have you thought of wearing a body stocking?

I don’t see why. For me, if I had to be naked in this opera, I’ll do it. It’s not about that. It’s about getting through that mental block, getting used to being seen in that way.

I have to say you are not the typical opera singer, body-wise…

I’m thin.  I do yoga, I walk a lot, and I watch what I eat. But I am not a model; I’m an opera singer.  The thing I was most self-conscious about was being surrounded by these beautiful dancers. Dancers are paid to be fit. It’s a different kind of vulnerability.

I read that you’ve just sung a Cavalli opera in Innsbruck, playing a woman. It’s very brave of you to do that.

Oh no — it’s much braver to take your clothes off! I’ve played a woman before, in Britten’s Curlew River. That was fine. My role (Cirilla in Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne) is comedic. I play a cleaning lady — there’s a picture in my diary. A couple of years ago here, with Daniel Taylor’s group, I sang Mopsa in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, also a female character.

What it’s like doing a nude love scene?

To be honest, I was nervous. I had never played a gay character onstage before. You’d think it’s easier, but because it’s new for me, I was nervous. We had an Intimacy Director, Siobhan Richardson.  Having an Intimacy Director made it wonderful. It’s all choreographed, like a fight on stage – you know exactly what’s going to happen. This was Thomas Hampson’s first love scene with a man. He was very frank with me, saying ‘this is new for me, be patient please.’ I didn’t need to be, because he was extremely professional. It never felt awkward or uncomfortable. Everyone on the team has been great, Peter Hinton the director, and everyone else. Nothing feels gratuitous to me at all. Any content that’s in there, it’s there to tell a story.

Well, that’s wonderful to hear. My very best wishes for a successful opening!


Hadrian runs for seven performances (October 13 – 27, 2018) at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., Toronto.  www.coc.ca

Joseph So
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