Finding My Artistic Identity

By Isaiah Bell
Isaiah Bell discovered his advantage at NUOVA Vocal Arts.

You never forget who helped you. You never forget where you felt seen, where there was a space for you to grow. We all love the rhetoric of community, authenticity, creativity, and mutual support, but what actually defines our culture is its ethos of competition, relentless “productivity”, and arbitrary hierarchies of worth. The things that really matter in a human life — all those Hallmark-card values — end up as optional extras.

This is no less true in the embattled world of opera — or, as we have grown accustomed to calling it, “the industry” — where discourse about the unsustainability of our base model is as essential to our self-conception as arias, high notes, Verdi.

The refrain we sing goes something like this: opera’s a small scene, and since any single production is enormously complicated and expensive, everything feels high-stakes all the time. Companies have to pit traditional tastes against innovation, and it can feel like nobody wins. The pool of highly-trained talent is far larger than available positions provide for, so desperate singers have to be all things to all people: likeable, business-savvy, gifted and skilled, physically attractive, tough.

Above all — and this goes for everyone — you learn to Take No Risks.

NUOVA Vocal Arts is a rare bird.

Training for this gauntlet is an industry of its own, and by the time you’re singing on professional opera stages, you’ve probably had personal experience with a dozen or more educating institutions. While they all honestly aim to be comprehensive, innovative, personalized springboards to success, the demands of the system make it challenging to rise above the standard box-ticking conveyor belt.

This is why NUOVA Vocal Arts is a rare bird. NUOVA doesn’t exist in a bubble cut off from the world; it still has to contend with these systemic obstacles. But my experiences returning to NUOVA in diverse capacities over 15 years have been marked by a sense of hopeful possibility, of continual questing for growth and responsive conversation, and — first and foremost — by care and thoughtful attention.

It’s undeniable now that these visionary commissions…set off a chain reaction that empowered me to realize a dream career path.

NUOVA Vocal Arts gave me my first solo opera roles, in 2007 and 2008. In 2009 I performed in the school tour, and in 2010 and 2011 I was commissioned to compose their next two school tour operas. At the time, I was being counselled elsewhere to tone down the composing so as not to confuse industry leaders who, apparently, could not be trusted to comprehend that a singer might seriously pursue more than one discipline. Without Kim’s willingness to take a risk on an untested young composer, I very well may have given in to that narrative, and my life would be immeasurably poorer for it. It’s undeniable now that these visionary commissions — coming as they did at a particularly sensitive moment in my development — set off a chain reaction that empowered me to realize a dream career path. Today, my diverse pursuits set me apart. Colleagues and presenting organizations seek to collaborate specifically because of those traits I was formerly warned would brand me a dilettante. What was a risk is now an essential part of my artistic identity.

Hadrian – The Canadian Opera Company

Returning to NUOVA as part of the Kipnes Alumni Mentorship Program:

Nor did my growth connection with NUOVA end at that one turning point. In 2018 Kim brought me back as a mentor for the summer program, and again the course of my life was redirected by prescience and trust. Most singers end up teaching eventually, due to some combination of passion and necessity, but I had always avoided it. Opera’s protracted training period and gospel of mastery had instilled in me an eternal student’s mind. But back at NUOVA, my inward focus began to open toward the larger community. I met emerging singers whose struggles I recognized, and in our conversations and work together I realized I have something to share. I can help. Since then I have been engaged to stage-direct student productions at NUOVA, the University of Victoria, and the University of Toronto, and during the pandemic, I spent a year teaching singing and leading the voice ensemble at UVic. I hope I’ve had some positive effect in the lives of the developing artists I’ve worked with, but I know the experience has enriched my life beyond reckoning. I think anyone who endeavours to teach mindfully knows what I mean.

Those of us fighting to keep a flame of creativity lit in an increasingly mechanistic world know that one hand must always be kept in motion justifying our very existence. Without this constant managing-defending-producing, the tender and immaterial stuff that makes up our true work cannot survive. You never forget who held out their hand to you. So, thanks, NUOVA.

Opera Parallele’s 2015 production of Heart of Darkness. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
Isaiah Bell
Isaiah Bell

Isaiah Bell performs as a tenor throughout North America. He created the role of Antinous for the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian, starred to critical acclaim in Mark Morris’s production of Curlew River in New York, and makes regular appearances in concert with the Oratorio Society of New York, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Toronto Symphony. Isaiah is also a composer and librettist, a poet, and a novelist. He integrates his performing and creative pursuits in original touring music-theatre works like The Book of My Shames, an “impossibly beautiful” and “comic, wrenchingly personal tour-de-force” which has been presented by opera companies across Canada.

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