Victoria tenor Isaiah Bell breaks new ground in world première

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.

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Hadrian’s world première is Saturday night 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 headline-grabbing 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.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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