• Becoming Antinous: Week One

    By Isaiah Bell

    Isaiah Bell (Antinous) in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian on September 14, 2018, photo: Gaetz Photography

    Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell gives us an unprecedented look – recorded in real time – at what it takes to get ready for a world premiere.

    Week One

    I originally started this diary out with my favourite Virginia Woolf quote, in which she declares her mission for her own journal. After writing for a week, though, I realize it might need a disclaimer. Like many artists (/humans), I have a lot of feelings, and at no time is this more evident than while I’m working – especially on a project as intense, exciting, and complex as the premiere of a highly anticipated new opera.

    For that reason, although this diary project is essentially a catch-all for the backstage artist experience, a lot of what I write about is the process of engaging with my emotions in a way that allows me to be effective in my work and to stay healthy. As I recently wrote in an op-ed for Opera Canada, “my feelings are my power as an artist.” I used to say that I spent most of my time managing my feelings, but I no longer think that’s accurate. In recent years I’ve started prioritizing a non-judgemental awareness of what’s going on over knee-jerk attempts to wrestle my feelings into submission.

    I say all this because this diary takes an unusual form for something that is essentially a promotional tool. There are moments of insecurity and worry recorded along with the triumphs and excitement and inspiration. I feel comfortable sharing these experiences, mostly recorded in real time, because I am ultimately confident in my ability to perform my role in Hadrian with all the beauty and power and artistry at my disposal.

    Saturday, September 1

    Flight from Munich to Toronto

    It often feels to me like planes are transporting me not just to new cities, time zones, climates, cultures – but into different versions of myself – new roles, on stage and in life, new colleagues – or old roles, and familiar versions of myself.

    This summer has been full of these different selves – in performance, study, and my personal life – and right now I’m in this in-between zone where I’ve packed up one life, all the leftovers from six weeks of playing an old lady in Austria and vacationing in Provence, and am heading toward another one, in Toronto, for Hadrian. I was just working with a coach in Innsbruck who said “singing is what happens in between.” In between pitches, in between vowels, in between concrete states. I think the same is true about life in general, and I’m finding it increasingly interesting to turn my attention to these in-between moments.

    As Cirilla in Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafneby Cavalli, Innsbruck Festival of Early Music

    Monday, September 3

    Tomorrow is the first day of rehearsal for Hadrian. For me, first rehearsals often feel as high-stakes as opening night, but without that special adrenaline-boosting inspiration that an audience provides. On each new contract I feel like I’m moving into a new town, with its own mayor, its own bylaws, its own citizens and municipal industry. The first day of rehearsal is when you declare, “This is who I am, and this is what I can do for you.” That’s how it feels to me, anyway.

    This can have the effect of pulling you out of yourself – out of what you’re actually there to do – and using up your attention in wondering how you’re coming off to the other citizens. With that in mind, I’m setting down some brief notes on my intentions for tomorrow:

    — It’s new music. I want to bring my own interpretation. I want to bring me. Not be looking over my shoulder. There’s no performance of Antinous on record.

    — Trust the preparation. Be there. Be in it. Be doing what I’m doing.

    — Accept the double-think as it comes – the best way for me to hook into the present moment is to acknowledge all my judgy, intrusive little thoughts as they come. In this way I’m seeing them for what they are — thoughts, words, ideas, and only that — instead of accepting them as truth.

    Tomorrow I want to be me, in the room where I am, doing what I’m doing, and knowing it.

    I’m nervous tonight. But I have felt a weird lack of the usual pre-first-rehearsal nerves these past few days. Is this mindfulness or suppression? Time will tell.

    I am aware I sound like the propaganda on fitness merchandise

    Tuesday, September 4

    First Day of Rehearsals

    9:23 a.m.

    I realize I sound like a Lululemon tote bag, but sometimes the hardest thing – but also the most exciting thing – is just being yourself, right now. My job has so many components — the prep and the technique and the admin, etc. — but at its core, it’s just being brave enough to be a live, emotional being in front of other people.

    9:32 a.m.

    I am happily reminding myself that I have felt like this before every new step I’ve ever taken. I’m also very glad that I’ve already discovered from prior experience that nerves do not equal failure or weakness. Now to keep reminding myself of that...

    9:40 a.m.

    I feel sick.

    12:45 p.m.

    The concept presentation with Peter Hinton was stunning! I am relieved I don’t have to pretend to be excited and inspired... because I legitimately am! First sing-through/moment of truth coming up in one hour and 45 minutes...

    1:15 p.m.

    I’m rarin’ to go. Why can’t I be singing now? Warmed up and treading water.

    2 p.m.

    I’m nervous that I’m not more nervous. I mean... I’m low-level nervous, but... I’m worried that panic will hit right before I open my mouth. Or that if I’m good to go now, it means I’ll crash before I have to sing. I am jet lagged, after all. Only I could manage these kinds of mental/emotional somersaults.

    3 p.m.

    Waiting is the worst! I haven’t sung yet because I’m not in the first act. I feel like a racehorse! Waiting is much more tiring than singing… I have all this energy that has nowhere to go. It ends up turning inward and eating away at me.

    8:03 p.m.

    In the end I didn’t sing until the last 15 minutes of rehearsal. When we emerged after that I was totally exhausted. Even discounting the jet lagged 5:30 a.m. wake up this morning, waiting to sing in this kind of situation is like waiting in an airport, but way more sapping. I was glad to get a few notes in before rehearsal ended. Break the seal. As is usually the case with these things, the reality is much less daunting than the monster of imagination. I don’t know why I have such a hang-up about first rehearsals but it’s always such a relief to get into the actual work.

    I also made actual use of my goal-setting from yesterday. After all that waiting today, when we were in the page of music before my first entry, I was actually thinking of my intention from yesterday: be here, right now, focusing on being inside this actual moment with all the complicated and confusing feelings involved. If I’m not in the moment before I sing, I won’t be in the moment when I’m singing, and I can’t sing well when I’m not in the moment because it means I’m not in my body. It really helped.

    My next goal for tomorrow: not to allow myself to slacken my focus after one moment of personal success. This is sometimes a more serious problem than first-rehearsal nerves. I’ll hyperfocus and hyperprepare to get myself into a place where I can produce. Then, the next day, I’ll think (subconsciously) — You see? That wasn’t so hard. You got this! ...and it drains the vigour from my performance. It’s a tightrope, I tell ya!

    Actual line in Hadrian / New lead in my artist bio

    Wednesday, September 5

    6:55 a.m.

    A goal for today: this is a new day. This day is different than any other day I’ve ever lived. I will try not to retrace old paths but really truly to pay attention to what is happening as it happens. This doesn’t mean no thinking, but an attempt to balance out my natural over-emphasis on Thinking Everything Through by encouraging more somatic responses.

    Since I can tell I’ve already veered off the tracks into theory (always giving that imaginary TED Talk), I will take a deep breath and do some downward-facing dogs.

    6 p.m.

    I miss my dog today. This afternoon we were going over the dog scene (yes, there’s a dog in the opera) and discussing dogistics (logistics of dogs) and I ended up scrolling through pictures of my dog on the subway ride home. I’m in the middle of a three-and-half-month stint away from home right now, and my husband can visit, but Mabel can’t.

    8:17 a.m.

    Thank God for pals. I can get entirely in a hermit bubble, especially when things are getting started and I’m trying to set myself up for success. But dinner and ice cream with old and good friends was just the ticket tonight. Tomorrow is tomorrow...

    Great singer pals, who I will not name so this selfie won't show up in their Google search results

    I was nerding out on these cornflowers on the walk to work and a train went by!

    Thursday, September 6

    Second Music Rehearsal/First Time Singing the Bulk of my Role

    Early morning, still in bed:

    I don’t feel up for it today. I feel avoidant, tired, unfocused and slippery, and I’m scanning my brain for a thought cue that might help. I need a new way in. I can feel the verbal cues I’ve been feeding myself — with success — getting stale and becoming rote. This is a day I need to pay attention to what’s actually happening even more keenly. Also, I need a strong set of intentions that’s a response to how I feel this morning.

    First of all: on days like this I have sometimes found it helpful to remind myself: one step at a time. I look at an overwhelming proposition and my body recoils and wants to stay in bed. On tired days where it’s toward the end of a week of insufficient sleeps and it’s catching up with me, I’ll sometimes make a list – Yoga. Shower. Breakfast. Warm up. — reminding myself that each of these is a task I can engage in. If I live through each one as it comes, I will be better primed for the harder ones as they come.

    10:08 a.m.

    My mantra this morning: I am alive. I am here. I am me.

    11:03 a.m.

    I’m scared.

    11:38 a.m.

    I don’t feel strong today. I don’t feel like I belong. I don’t feel like I can trust myself.

    1:11 p.m.

    That really helped: “I am alive. I am here. I am me.” These things might sound silly to my left brain, but if it’s meaningful in the moment, it’s everything. By the time rehearsal started I was in a place where I could legitimately play. And that’s where learning and growth can happen, not to mention good singing. Very gratifying.

    6 p.m.

    Today was a big day for me. A lot of feelings. In the morning was the first time I felt that old “I can’t do this” thing. I meditated, which helped a lot, and I stayed with the feelings. I kept repeating to myself, “I am alive. I am here. I am me.” It was very powerful.

    I was nervous to sing for Rufus Wainwright for the first time but I needn’t have been – he’s a very easy presence in the room.

    7:04 p.m.

    I’ve gone to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to unwind. My question to the nearby family: Why would you go into a completely empty theatre and sit three seats from the only other person there? I need my introvert space thanks very much!

    10:30 p.m.

    Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a disgrace to the memory of John Hammond.

    FaceTimed with my dog today. Apparently she is still a very good dog.

    Saturday, September 8

    2 p.m.

    Walked to the opera today. Hour and a half, does you good! This afternoon I’m meeting with Rufus for our first one-on-one music session. I legitimately feel good about the work I’ve been doing, but nevertheless there is extra pressure trying to make the mental image the creator has of the work into reality. I know this from the other side of the equation as well. Leaving lots of time for warmup and focus today. That’s part of the idea of the walk, too — no audiobook today. Like a moving meditation, is the idea. For concentration.

    4:30 p.m.

    This is the first day I felt my voice wasn’t totally available to me in the way I’d like. When I’m not feeling 100% it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of people. But I made a choice in our coaching today to let go of that, and it helped.

    I would tell a student that these moments of in-between-ness, tiredness, disappointment, confusion, are where we learn about ourselves, and where we grow. I’d like to just keep going step by step through the rest of this afternoon as I get ready for staging tonight. I want to try to keep just two things in mind: what I need to do, and what’s getting in my way. And to release the rest of it.

    5:36 p.m.

    After riding the swell of emotions today I feel back on my own ground. I feel possibility. It’s amazing to me that if I can stay with the feelings, the current of emotions is so much more naturally mutable. I guess there’s nothing to do now but keep riding…

    Sunday, September 9

    11:35 a.m.

    No rehearsal until 7 p.m. tonight, and I’ve greedily sucked up the extra sleep. Now I can’t decide whether it’s worse to get up for good and do my yoga, facing the cold non-blankety room, or to lie here feeling vaguely restless for a little while longer.

    11:47 a.m.

    Getting up was the right choice. So brave! So strong. I love doing little tasks. I’m most relaxed when part of me is engaged and the rest can just go along for the ride. Doing laundry. Tidying up. Importing the CDs of a new audiobook I got cheap from BMV (The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides!) into the computer. So pleasant...

    4 p.m.

    Weather has taken a turn. Talking to castmates, it seems like this could be a reason why my voice was feeling a bit ornery yesterday. Nevertheless, I made a point to get extra sleep, skipped yoga for the first time in a week, and I am only walking to work partway. I think the week has been pretty intense and a little TLC will probably not go amiss.

    5:45 p.m.

    First staging rehearsal for me tonight (I wasn’t needed last night after all). And with chorus, on the big set! Today’s inspiration: a walking meditation I was listening to was all about finding stillness in motion… “There’s something inside you that remains constant despite the hubbub.”

    Last night as I was waiting the whole rehearsal to see if I’d be used or not, I was thinking about cultivating a state of active readiness without tension or anxiety. This feel similar to “stillness in motion,” and relates also to the idea that was helping me yesterday of “being on your own team.“ It’s all a little arcane and hard to describe, but the feelings themselves are so crisp. Non-judgemental awareness, non-prideful confidence, and basic readiness without anxiety.

    The reality of clicking on a Tracy Chapman video on a rainy morning.

    Monday, September 10

    12:15 p.m.

    Neck Breaking Rehearsal – SPOILER ALERT!

    We simulate a lot of unsavoury and sensitive activity onstage, fighting and intimacy and cruelty and suffering and death... but there’s something about neck snapping...

    In the choreographic sense I, the neck-snappee, have all the power and am in no actual danger of being injured by my neck-snapper... nevertheless, being involved in even a simulation of this act is quite viscerally upsetting! The first time the fight director put his hands on me to demonstrate I was surprised at how shocking just that simple grip felt. Not to mention the technical challenges of convincingly executing the act...

    This is my new reality, after sleeping on wet hair. #DarkFlame

    Tuesday, September 11

    Day off and it could not have come too soon. I’ve never felt so much like I’ve earned a day off! Yesterday I was soaked through by the storm while walking to the subway and I was sure I had “caught a chill” after spending the whole day feeling clammy in moist clothes and shoes. After a hot bath and a full 10-hour sleep with extra blankets, I feel more human. I used to try to regulate my sleep times more, but singers’ schedules are so irregular that now I follow the advice of a senior colleague who used to travel back and forth between Australia and the UK all the time — I think of sleep as a vat that can be dipped into and replenished. On the agenda for today: typing up my diary, eating my favourite delicious donut at L’Espresso, and going to my friend’s play (I Call Myself Princess – Paper Canoe/Cahoots. It was great!).

    Becoming Antinous: Read the entire series

    Week Two Week Three Week Four Week Five

    Hadrian Watch Party
    with special guests Rufus Wainwright, Daniel MacIvor, and Peter Hinton
    August 10 at 6:30 p.m. ET

    Watch a free stream of the full opera with composer Rufus Wainwright, librettist Daniel MacIvor, and director Peter Hinton, who will participate in a live Q&A after the performance.

    Attendance is free but advance registration required.


    Composer's Notes: Hadrian's Rufus Wainright 

    | We dive inside the mind of Hadrian composer Rufus Wainwright...


    Synopsis and Librettist's Notes


    | Spoiler Alert: This synopsis reveals key plot elements...

    First Listen: The Music of Hadrian | Our subscribers were the first to hear this excerpt live at...

    Dramatically Roman: The Costumes of Hadrian | “They’re definitely Roman-inspired,” says award-winning Canadian designer Gillian Gallow...

    Posted in Hadrian


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