– 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.