• Becoming Antinous: Week Three

    By Isaiah Bell

    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 Three

    Thursday, September 20

    Day off. After a busy and tumultuous week I’ve been looking forward to laying low for a day. It passed quickly, but I exercised, saw a good friend for dinner, and compiled my diary, so it was a success. I managed to get in some relaxation too.

    On my walk I came upon two more entries for the Toilettes déracinées series, plus the raw materials from last week’s Deconstruction II, which have been reconfigured into a less pleasing arrangement.

    What is the deal with toilets on sidewalks? I feel like I’ve only ever seen it in Toronto.

    Toilettes déracinées: Every Toilet Tells a Tale


    Tomorrow we finish with basic staging of the opera. I guess then we will begin threading together larger sections, which is a part of the process I always look forward to. Energy-wise, it’s always easier to play when the momentum of the scene is supporting you.

    My husband Rene left yesterday morning. He’ll come back in three weeks for opening. It was lovely having him here, even though we didn’t have a day off together. He sat in on two rehearsals while he was here, including one of the love scenes earlier in the week (!).

    Yesterday afternoon (after Rene left) we staged the more physically intimate of the love scenes. I won’t say much about it, except that I am extremely grateful that the COC is working with an intimacy coach (Siobhan  Richardson), and that I have such easygoing and professional colleagues on all sides! This is new territory for many of us...

    Without Rene I am like the chair in this shop window: Lonely and empty, my very presence confusing to passers by.

    Friday, September 21

    All sense of structure and purpose evaporates from my free time when Rene leaves. I’m just a tumbleweed...

    Discovered this on my walk, set out with the trash. I have a perverse, campy fondness for things that are so simple they're mysterious. Brought it home. Can't stop looking at it.

    Saturday, September 22

    Today is another day off for me, as we’re starting to work whole acts, and I’m not in Act I. I’m going to try to balance doing a little work on my own for Hadrian while touching on some other projects I haven’t thought of since I got here. And have a croissant at this patisserie up the street I just found.

    I have a tendency to hyperfocus on something (Hadrian preparation and rehearsals, in this case), and then to totally turn off at the end of the day, not even taking time to fold my laundry (can you even imagine?).

    Sometimes this is exactly what’s required. If I carry on like this too long, though, I get aimless when I have long breaks, and the hyperfocus can lead to tension and loss of perspective.

    1:40 p.m.

    Did my yoga. Lying in bed eating a donut and watching Netflix.

    3:28 p.m.

    Just had a little day-off warm-up and mini-sing. Feels good to be back to myself (knock on wood). Saw a photo of me and Mr. Hampson singing together, from the media preview last week. . Must remember about the space behind the eyes. In May, with my teacher in London  , we figured out the feeling of brightness behind the eyes allows for brightness of sound and extra resonance  that comes with, for me, a feeling of vulnerability. With that area closed off I am more guarded, less expressive. I can tell from the photo that I could stand to bring the brightness back. It’s a small change in intention that has a big ripple effect... playing around with it now.

    (l-r, foreground) Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) and Isaiah Bell (Antinous) in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian on September 14, 2018, photo: Gaetz Photography

    5:53 p.m.

    Singing got fussy, so I took a break. I’m giving a talk and master class next month for Daniel Taylor’s Schola Cantorum singers at the University of Toronto (the talk, which I first gave at Opera NUOVA, is formally called “The Overthinker’s Guide for Getting in Touch with Your Body”), and in prep for that I wrote and recorded, and then listened to, a guided meditation that I’m going to give when I’m there. I believe that many of the challenges I face on a regular basis, like the ones I’ve been recording in this diary, are faced by many other singers at all stages of development. Some people I’ve talked to felt it was easier at the beginning, with the pressure and the “getting in your head” coming later in their careers, while others (like me) have always struggled with overthinking and nerves and have developed tools over the years to effectively manage and engage with them. Anyway. The meditation was good, but even though I was trying to talk slowly and leave time for the information to be absorbed, when I listened back I realized I was still going too quickly. Slow down, Isaiah. Sloooow doooown.

    7:59 p.m.

    Finally left the house – at twilight. Going to the same restaurant I have been going to a lot. I like routine. I was going to continue my performance psychology screed once I got there... but instead I’ve been inspired by my friend’s sewing project, and specifically her exclamation “I love having a hobby!” I need to step out of my rut for a minute! Instead of the usual, I’m going to revive a project I haven’t touched on in a while. Unlike this diary, my one-man show, my talk for the students, Hadrian, the War Requiem, and my short story about my inner-child, this project has nothing to do with singing or performance psychology. It’s the antidote, in fact.

    8:50 p.m.

    Well that didn’t happen. Brain too full. Must go with what’s actually happening and not try so hard to manage. It may be tiresome but hey — you don’t have to read this!

    1:11 a.m.

    I’m staying up later and later. It makes sense, of course, because our days run from 2-10, roughly. I’m also just naturally a late sleeper. But I still have weird guilt about sleeping late even when it’s what’s necessary for my work. Brains are weird.

    I have no goals to set for tomorrow. I realize, looking at the schedule, that we are suddenly moving ahead very quickly. Our first run-through will be later this week, when it still feels to me like we’re early in the process.

    My brain feels sluggish today. Maybe that’s a good thing?

    Discovered Toronto's best late night snack at Naan + Kabob on Yonge. Fresh baked za'atar naan. Unbelievable!!! Stopped here three nights in a row on the long walk home from rehearsal.

    Sunday, September 23

    1:52 p.m.

    Act II work though today. Another thing I’m trying to let Antinous teach me: there isn’t necessarily deep secret meaning or double entendre in everything. It’s interesting that this character is sort of guileless in the way he says what he thinks. Yesterday’s realization about how I’m closing off my expression sometimes brought this to my attention. Someone whose thoughts always play on their face leads a different kind of life than I do. Hopefully A. can teach me this.

    5:10 pm.

    I don’t have as much ease talking about things I feel good about as I do talking about things I’m working on. Some kind of Protestant “pride-goes-before-” idea. Last week, as I was compiling my diary, I realized how many moments of excitement, success, catharsis, and achievement had gone unmentioned amid my litany of growth strategies. Just now I’ve tried about five different ways to write “I feel good about today. I have been working hard and it’s paying off.” Why is that so hard to say?


    Monday, September 24

    Act III all day today! Act III is my act. Feeling a bit tense. My goal is, at some point, to remember physically why I got into this racket in the first place, and why it’s fun to just play. Harder than it sounds when the stakes are high... but that’s what makes it worth doing.

    12:35 p.m.

    In a guided meditation today, the instructor said that observing the breath, and how your body breathes without you, is a way to remind yourself that your body is not you. Negotiating the relationship between “me” and my body is central to my ongoing work. My body needs autonomy to perform the complicated action of singing, but I also have to do my job even if my body doesn’t always feel like doing it. There has to be trust. This is a helpful thought for me today…

    4:41 p.m.

    Did my aria scene twice this afternoon. I was able to stay connected to the work I’ve been doing on letting my body speak. Last week’s staging session of the aria was not easy. So it felt good to reclaim that scene today. This evening will be a continued challenge, as we’ll run the rest of the act a few times. It’s a big sing and requires sustained focus. Having a little sushi break and then back in to prep and see if I can get in the right headspace... a balance of ease and concentration….?!

    10:06 p.m.

    Whew. What a day. Glad to really get into things with Peter Hinton. The process has been different than the opera staging I’m used to. Peter is challenging me to break out of what would be my own behaviour in a situation, especially in terms of how I express myself. I think we often just end up playing ourselves in opera, even if we don’t want to. The interesting thing here is that the character is so similar to me that the choices he makes that would be different than my own really stand out. I think, “Oh, is that even an option in this situation?” I love getting into the stage of things where you really experience the energy of scenes moving into each other, and can feel the arc that initially may have just been theoretical. It’s a really collaborative room too, which is rarer than it should be. I’m grateful for a lot of things today. For one thing, I’m seeing how choosing to be gentle with myself in situations where I instinctively want to force out a certain product consistently produces better results. The relationship between me and my body is shifting.

    2:54 a.m.

    Cannot sleep. My brain does this wonderful thing where if I do something I don’t like, it stops me from falling asleep by compulsively replaying the misstep, and if I do something I do like, it keeps me awake by outlandish fantasies about the new worlds this forward step has opened up for me. I’m exhausted. I can already tell tomorrow is going to be a rough one.

    Three of Hadrian's "Ten Thousand Stars:" Peter Hinton, Thomas Hampson, and these gold sandals

    Tuesday, September 25

    Wow, one bad sleep really makes a difference. Someone just told me it was a full moon last night. Does that make a difference? It’s cold and wet this morning, and for whatever reason the difference between this morning and the mornings following the generally restful sleeps I’ve been having is significant. Irritable, sensitive physically, achy, not to mention tired. However, we persevere!

    3 p.m.

    WOW, the dead-man lift with the dancers never stops giving me such joy! Incredible! Once again it’s snapped me out of my unslept mood.

    5:30 pm.

    Just as I got a lovely routine set up and figured out exactly what and how much to order at the sushi resto by the rehearsal hall, we’re going to move. One more rehearsal in the room. Full run. My heart pounds thinking about it! But I can’t wait to do it all through, to see how it feels.

    9:22 p.m.

    I just saw a skunk on my walk home! Eight-year-old me would have died from nerdy delight…

    Goodbye, 227 Front St. Goodbye, sunlit practice rooms.

    Wednesday, September 26

    First run-through today! I’m trying to channel my energy into this subversive-feeling playfulness that has been helping me this week. I don’t know who will be watching the run, but it feels like the stakes are higher — especially as we get our first sense of what the whole thing might feel like. There’s a dissonance between my mental knowledge of what’s best and my physical instincts. I know that I’m at my best when I balance my natural over-eagerness to please and to be perfect with a sort of exuberant nonchalance (paradoxical though it may sound). My body, however, often still feels that the only way to engage as the stakes rise is to ratchet up the tension. So throwing off the mantle of pressure and connecting into this childlike play-acting impulse feels irresponsible — even though I know it is the necessary final step in bringing all my work and preparation alive.

    6:21 p.m.

    I’m surprised at how nervous I am for this run-through. I guess it’s surprising that I’m surprised. But it represents a new step in this process, even though it seems similar to what we’ve been doing – same room, no new machinery or orchestra or personnel or costumes or whatever. Every time I get nervous for something (which is most of the time) it somehow feels like I’ve never been this nervous before. And like the nerves mean I can’t do it. Just like I wrote on the first day of rehearsal for this gig, I have to remind myself: “You always feel like this. You always have the flutter. You’ve felt like this before every success you’ve ever had. Sometimes you’ve felt a lot worse. It’s part of it.” Gahhh

    9:43 p.m.

    Well that was thrilling! I feel very grateful. These milestones in a process matter. I know that what feels best for the performer isn’t always what works best for the audience (famously so), so I can’t say how this run was for the people watching, but I feel really positive about the work I’m doing. It’s wonderful to feel it all starting to come together. Got to run on stage for the final ensemble!

    12:27 a.m.

    Oh dear. Karita Mattila took us out for drinks, and I realize I haven’t let off any steam for three weeks...! I am one and one half drinks over my usual one and one half drink limit…

    Becoming Antinous: Read the entire series

    Week One Week Two 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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