Vic­to­ria tenor joins cast of Wain­wright opera

Isa­iah Bell is part of the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany’s world première of Hadrian

Times Colonist - - Life - MIKE DEVLIN mde­vlin@times­colonist.com

A Vic­to­ria tenor’s role in the new opera from com­poser Ru­fus Wain­wright and li­bret­tist Daniel MacIvor could wind up be­ing the op­por­tu­nity of a life­time.

In fact, 33-year-old Isa­iah Bell’s steady as­cent in the opera world might be­came a rapid tra­jec­tory af­ter this week­end.

Hadrian’s world première is tonight at Toronto’s 2,070-seat Four Sea­sons Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts, which will host seven per­for­mances of the opera through Oct. 27. Bell has been in Toronto since early Septem­ber pre­par­ing for the ground­break­ing Cana­dian Opera Com­pany pro­duc­tion, pro­claimed by some as the opera event of the year in Canada.

Bell plays Anti­nous, the dead lover of the Ro­man em­peror Hadrian, who strug­gles with grief while the Jews rebel against his em­pire. Hadrian is the first pro­duc­tion in the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany’s sto­ried 68-year his­tory to fea­ture a cen­tral gay theme, but Bell is happy with how the re­la­tion­ship has been han­dled.

He be­lieves the COC, the largest opera com­pany in Canada — and one of the largest pro­duc­ers of opera in North Amer­ica — will be re­warded for tack­ling sev­eral themes, in­clud­ing sui­cide, with re­spect.

“The risk fac­tor makes be­ing in the room ex­cit­ing, and it makes the whole process feel like we’re do­ing some­thing new,” Bell said on Thurs­day, hours be­fore Hadrian’s first dress rehearsal.

“We’re re­ally not re­tread­ing any­one’s steps here, and be­cause of that, I think the pro­duc­tion is go­ing to have a re­ally spe­cial en­ergy. It is go­ing to be some­thing to­tally orig­i­nal. And that doesn’t hap­pen that much in opera.”

Bell re­turns to the com­pany af­ter his de­but last sea­son in Ara­bella, the iconic opera by Ger­man com­poser Richard Strauss. Hadrian will be pre­sented in English, a bold move given the cur­rent fond­ness for clas­sic Ro­man­tic-pe­riod opera, but that is not Hadrian’s only head­line­grab­bing el­e­ment. It also comes with a con­tent ad­vi­sory, warn­ing au­di­ences of nu­dity and scenes of a sex­ual na­ture.

The ap­peal of Hadrian among more prud­ish the­atre­go­ers could take a hit, but that should have lit­tle im­pact on crit­i­cal re­ac­tion. Opéra de Mon­tréal has staged two pro­duc­tions with gay themes dur­ing its cur­rent sea­son, to raves from the me­dia. “The whole thing is high stakes for the com­pany, to have com­mis­sioned this unique, icon­o­clas­tic fig­ure,” said Bell, who ap­pears naked on stage in Act III and who worked with an in­ti­macy coach pro­vided by the com­pany for some of the love scenes.

“Try­ing to cross bound­aries like this is risky, and it’s a brave thing to do. The opera world is not fa­mously su­per-in­clu­sive. It’s a strong move for both of them, the opera com­pany and the com­poser. It’s a bold move, and be­cause of that, the stakes are higher on both sides.”

Bell is ready to ac­cept the chal­lenge, af­ter years of stage ex­pe­ri­ence lead­ing up to the first world première of his ca­reer. A grad­u­ate of the mu­sic pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria, he has won raves for ap­pear­ances at the Tan­gle­wood Fes­ti­val in Stock­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts, the Brook­lyn Academy of Mu­sic in New York, the Bald­win-Wal­lace Bach Fes­ti­val in Cleve­land, Ohio, and the Inns­bruck Fes­ti­val of Early Mu­sic in Inns­bruck, Aus­tria.

He has fo­cused pri­mar­ily on mu­sic by Brit­ten, Han­del, Mozart and Bach, but has found a new range in Hadrian. “Your voice changes and grows, and it’s still in flux,” Bell said. “I’ve never got­ten into a rut and been pi­geon­holed into one thing.”

Bell and his hus­band, Rene, made Vic­to­ria their per­ma­nent home in 2012, af­ter stints in Mon­treal and Cal­gary. The home base has given Bell the op­por­tu­nity to ma­ture out of the lime­light, and the quiet en­vi­ron­ment has worked won­ders. “Now that I know peo­ple in the com­mu­nity and now that I’m work­ing in the com­mu­nity, it’s some­where I’m hop­ing to try things out in,” Bell said. “It’s a test­ing ground for me.”

The au­di­tion process for the role of Anti­nous was quite elab­o­rate for Bell. Once word about the cast­ing call for Hadrian spread through the North Amer­i­can opera com­mu­nity, Bell’s agent rec­om­mended the hand­some tenor to the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the com­pany went to see Bell per­form last year with the Toronto Sym­phony and, af­ter he passed that test, sched­uled an­other view­ing, this time with Bell singing in Ara­bella. An­other au­di­tion fol­lowed be­fore he was given the part.

He likes that Wain­wright and his pro­duc­ers were ex­haus­tive in their home­work — it means few de­tails were spared.

“Be­cause this is a première, and be­cause of the spe­cific de­mands of this part, there were cer­tain spec­i­fi­ca­tions that were im­por­tant for my char­ac­ter. It’s very high-pro­file for the com­pany, so I think the process was a lit­tle ex­tra-ar­du­ous.”

Once Hadrian wraps at the end of Oc­to­ber, Bell will re­turn to Vic­to­ria with a few op­por­tu­ni­ties open to him. He hopes to con­tinue his col­lab­o­ra­tion with lo­cal pi­anist Anna Cal, with whom he per­formed Schu­bert’s Win­ter­reise this year, through more per­for­mances in 2019. And he is ex­pect­ing to con­tinue dis­cus­sions with Vic­to­ria’s In­trepid Theatre for a col­lab­o­ra­tion that has been in the works for some time.

Bell makes a point of ap­pear­ing in at least one Vic­to­ria pro­duc­tion an­nu­ally, to keep his name ac­tive and his chops up, but he’s hop­ing to dou­ble or triple that num­ber in the fu­ture.

“When I came back to Vic­to­ria [in 2012], I was holed up learn­ing mu­sic and ba­si­cally walk­ing the dog,” he said with a laugh.

“Now that I’ve lived here for a few years, and got­ten used to the pat­tern of my life, I’m try­ing to be in­volved in mak­ing mu­sic in the com­mu­nity.”

In the new opera Hadrian, UVic mu­sic pro­gram grad Isa­iah Bell plays Anti­nous, the dead lover of the Ro­man em­peror. It’s the first pro­duc­tion in the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany’s 68-year his­tory to fea­ture a cen­tral gay theme.

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