Opera tenor Isaiah Bell. Lia Crowe photography

In Studio with tenor Isaiah Bell

Solo opera comes to British Columbia

  • Jan. 22, 2021 7:30 a.m.

– Words by Sean McIntyre Photography by Lia Crowe

Isaiah Bell is hard pressed to pick a single opera that can summarize the tumult of 2020. The year certainly featured plenty of tragedy with many unexpected twists and even a smattering of farce tossed into the mix. Instead of being epitomized by a single work, however, the year has been one of unprecedented operatic proportions, summarizes the Victoria-based opera singer. The year 2020 was genre-defining, he says, and no other form—be it ballet, theatre, even spoken word—could capture the year in quite the same way as opera.

“All opera is a dumpster fire, and that’s why we love it,” Isaiah explained in a December interview from his home, which took place ahead of the launch of his solo show, The Book of My Shames, performed with Opera Kelowna and directed by Sean Guist.

With news of prolonged restrictions to rein in the spread of COVID-19 swirling amid headlines about a rollout of vaccination campaigns, Isaiah’s day-to-day life in the performing arts was still far from being devoid of drama. The dumpster fire was still out of control.

Regardless, plans to bring The Book of My Shames to Okanagan audiences must continue. Following a sold-out premiere with Tapestry Opera, as part of Toronto Pride 2019, Isaiah’s one-man, semi-autobiographical show returned home to British Columbia in 2020. As of December, performances with Opera Kelowna were scheduled for January 28 to 30, 2020.

Isaiah describes the show as a fusion of music and monologues that delve into the universal inner human tension between our individual struggles and our roles in a broader society—the battle between who we are and who we are supposed to be.

It’s a story about going through the world while apologizing for one’s existence. It may sound dark, but the story is one of catharsis and healing, with a good supply of humour along the way. Like him, Isaiah says, the performance is a living document that changes ever so slightly with each performance.

“The concept is that issues can dissipate if you are open about lovingly confronting them,” he says. “The show is about people thinking about their own experiences.”

Isaiah’s sojourn to the Okanagan represents a kind of return to his earlier days in opera. It was Rosemary Thomson, Kelowna Opera’s music director, who conducted Isaiah’s very first solo performance in an opera. Isaiah, who was participating in a summer opera program for aspiring performers, says he’d expected to remain among the chorus, until Thomson called him up for a solo in a Czech opera. A bundle of nerves with no idea what to do, Isaiah still vividly recalls the role of a carnival barker that left him chewing on a stream of hard Eastern European consonants.

Regardless of his nerves and not knowing what to do, Isaiah didn’t flee the scene. He performed, and the experience has followed him on a career that has seen him grow from the member of a small-town choir in Fort St. John to star in operatic performances around the world, including Vancouver, Toronto, New York and Edinburgh.

The roles are equally impressive. Isaiah has taken on Marlow in Heart of Darkness, sung Schubert’s Winterreise (twice), performed in Handel’s Messiah with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and played the role of Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. A recent highlight was starring in the 2018 world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s production of Hadrian for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Reviews from the New York Times summarized Isaiah’s performance as “sweet-voiced” and “daring.” He’s also channeled his creative spark into writing no fewer than four of his own operas. All this and he’s still in his mid-30s.

Restrictions on gathering places such as theatres have seen Isaiah shift from major operatic productions and the physical stage to solo shows and social media platforms.

“I’ve been one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I’m busier than I’ve ever been.”

Isaiah’s creative spirit is epitomized by the sheer volume of ideas he’s able to generate along with the broad range of interests that he doesn’t recoil from taking on. During the interview, for example, Isaiah noted that he had just uploaded his 206th consecutive Instagram post for a project he’d begun at the start of the lockdown. In the project, Isaiah creates a short video or song inspired by a different haiku each day, posting it for his followers to see.

Perhaps it all began by playing the Czech carnival hustler or finding his way as a young gay man growing up in rural BC. Maybe it was a combination of successive challenges, each intermingling with one another in the performance of life. Whatever it might have been, it has ensured Isaiah is not afraid to approach his roles with a gravitas that defies his youth.

Yet it isn’t the international accolades and track record of major performances that stand out for Isaiah, who recently took up a teaching position at the University of Victoria and remains actively committed to helping new and aspiring performers meet their personal shames face first. The former are certainly worthy of pride and are a great measure of success, but it is his work with community groups as an advocate for queer youth and the performing arts in the smaller towns and cities that he visits along the way that stand out the most.

“I always thought it was the most prestigious gigs, but it’s really about the people you meet along the way,” he says.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

EntertainmentMusicOpera

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

.
Eight weeks with no new COVID-19 cases in Castlegar

The latest localized BCDCD COVID-19 numbers

Coby Reid helped rescue this bobcat from where it had frozen to the train tracks. Photo: Coby Reid
Bobcat deliverer shares details from Kootenay train track rescue

Coby Reid helped rescue a bobcat that was frozen to train tracks near Waneta bridge

Eli Morton planting native species. Photo: Laurie Frankcom CKISS
Robson Scouts celebrate accomplishments

The Castlegar area Scout group had a busy year in spite of COVID-19

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead on Vancouver Island in ‘targeted incident’

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

Most Read