Becoming Antinous: Week FiveBy Isaiah Bell
(l-r) Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Isaiah Bell as Antinous in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018
Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell gives us an unprecedented look – recorded in real time – at what it takes to get ready for a world premiere.
Thursday, October 4
Day off. My throat hurts a bit. I’m trying not to worry.
Friday, October 5
Full run on stage with piano tonight. My throat is feeling dodgy and I’m concerned. A couple other people have been sick. My goal tonight is to try to stay present no matter what... because I know that I’m mostly likely to abandon myself when I’m worried about the throat and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s when things get ugly.
Oh boy. I’m pooped. I actually had a BURGER FROM A&W, that’s the kind of bedraggled I am.
I only walked part of the way home after showering to scrub off all my godly body makeup. I’ve actually never used a dressing room shower before. It’s a nice thing.
Some things really came together tonight. I really felt I had to sing through the whole role tonight, no marking (i.e. not singing full-out), since I haven’t totally done that yet in this space with the staging. It’s not that my role is so demanding vocally, but with all the other concerns — costume and stage machinery and stopping and starting, I’ve been marking on and off, and generally not getting a great sense of myself and my part in the space.
Tomorrow is an all-day orchestra rehearsal with no costumes, which also won’t have the pacing of a show, and then there’s just one more full run before we have a real audience.
My intention to pay attention through any awkward or uncertain moments tonight really paid off. Sometimes there will be a little moment where a move didn’t work the way it did last time, or we’re trying out a new piece of staging, or I’m getting shuffled around backstage before an entrance, and my focus wobbles because the real life situation isn’t lining up with how I think it should go. Today’s intention was all about staying in touch with how my body was feeling no matter what was going on, and it was incredibly powerful. If I’m really in constant, conscious touch with myself in that way, I have even more control over what I’m doing vocally and dramatically, and I’m less easily distracted or thrown. It feels crazy to choose to observe through discomfort instead of trying to pretend it’s not happening.
I’m still worried about my throat a bit, and the possibility of getting sick, but I’m trying not to lose myself even in that worry.
Saturday, October 6
Cautiously optimistic on the throat front. Hard to tell in the morning, but it doesn’t seem to have migrated or worsened. Maybe even better? Knocking on all the wood.
A ridiculous thing about being a perfectionist:
Day One: I realize, as the product of a lot of struggle and trial and error, that things work better when I accept the imperfect moment for what it is.
Day Two: “Great! All I have to do to be perfect is accept I’m not perfect!” Problematic!
Tonight’s rehearsal was hard. For a few reasons. This is helping:
“My beloved child,
Break your heart no longer,
Each time you judge yourself you break your own heart
You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality
The time has come, your time
To live to celebrate and to see the goodness that you are…
Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obstruct you
If one comes, even in the name of ‘Truth’, forgive it for its unknowing
Do not fight
And breathe, into the goodness that you are.”
Waiting in the wings for my entrance. The stage is reflected to me on the set's shiny surface!
Sunday, October 7
This is so Antinous:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.”
The text of my third act aria has the same quality to it. It’s nice to come across this today and feel it speak to me.
Toilettes déracinées: A Thanksgiving Cornucopia
Tuesday, October 9
Emerging after two days of hibernation. I’m almost ready to face the world! I can’t know what percentage of other performers find the process of mounting a show as emotionally and physically tiring as I do... but I have to keep reminding myself that my experience is my experience, regardless of how it compares to the experiences of others. Even with liberally sprinkled days off over the last week and a half, I’m still at a low ebb, energetically. This is how it is. These days I feel like my dog, who runs crazily on her walks and then lies happily in the sun for the rest of the day.
Today is our first rehearsal with full orchestra and full costumes and makeup all at once, and the last rehearsal before there is an actual audience of civvies. (We had a small audience of invited donors and friends of the company on Saturday.)
I’m more determined than ever to keep returning my focus to the process and the sensations. I’ve done the work on the presentational aspects — the physical architecture of the staging, etc. — and they will be there. What’s important now is that I’m not drawn out into imagining how I’m being seen. This masquerades as a useful impulse but is absolutely destructive. It’s the same with fixating on a success failure dichotomy. One might imagine that if a performer doesn’t think in these terms, he or she is doing disservice to the audience, and is turning inward in a narcissistic or irresponsible way. I used to allow this kind of thinking, as a way of justifying my own obsession with optics and failure. On an unconscious level I sometimes still do. However, this success-obsessed trance is damaging not only to personal well-being, but to actual success as well. Success, especially if it’s based on winning approval, simply can’t be my ultimate goal. I can’t balance on that knife-edge. The only way to actually do my best in a given moment is to focus wholly on doing what I’m doing.
Sometimes I can’t unglue the back of my brain from “how does this look, how am I doing”. But that’s the performer’s paradox, and that’s my goal today.
A reminder from a great conversation today: no re-creations. Every performance, every iteration is created anew.
Some ideas for today’s version of my first scene — the festival. I feel like I have been woken up by the first meeting with Hadrian. It’s as if I’m seeing thing for the first time, in 3D, noticing everything, everything has significance. Like last week on King Street!
I would love it if every time I sang left me feeling like this. I felt like I was “in it” today, and because of that:
a) I did the best I could in the moment
b) I don’t have an overdeveloped sense of “how I was”, BUT
c) I have a very clear sense of where growth showed itself and what needs to be addressed for next time
d) I feel neither euphoric nor self-flagellating. Just tired, but ready to go again on Thursday.
THIS IS WHAT THE DREAM LOOKS LIKE
Thursday, October 11
Open dress rehearsal tonight. In many ways this feels like opening night, because it’s the first time a wider audience, outside a few COC insiders, will see and hear the piece. I’ve been busily fussing about all day so far, having woken up very late after lying sleepless until almost 4 a.m. Did a brief phone interview and packed up my things to come stay in a place closer to the opera for a few days — an opening night gift from a friend. My husband is just in from the airport.
After all that, I’m only approaching the idea of tonight being tonight for the first time right now. I can feel the nervous energy coming in little waves, but so far no panic or getting lost in that trance of nervous thoughts. It’s a great temptation to want to feel calmness, or to feel confidence, or to feel any specific feeling that I’ve felt before and wanted to return to. However, this poem is my little helper today:
Ten thousand flowers in spring,
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
Note to Isaiah: even if it feels unpleasant, it’s still part of just being here.
I actually feel a bit frozen this evening. Out of touch. The anxiety feels like it’s coming to me through a heavy drape. I think it’s all just a bit much today, and maybe I’ve shut down a little. I don’t want to try to bully myself out of it — I know I’ll just burrow deeper. How do I wake up?
What am I doing tonight? I know all the things I don’t want to do. I know all the ways I don’t want to go. What do I want?
I want to move beyond myself.
OK! Part I done. Fun! My mantra just now was “Every feeling I’ve ever had is proof that I’m alive.” I also had a little one-man Björk dance party before going on... and these things help.
Tonight I flirted again momentarily with playing Antinous as “myself, right now” – just adding a little of that colour back in. The parallels between what he’s feeling at the beginning of the first scene, and what I’m feeling as I perform it... it’s too good an inspiration to ignore.
I’m not all about #Grateful #Blessed, but I do feel grateful and blessed tonight. There, I said it.
Friday, October 12
Rene had a dream last night that Mabel and I won a dance competition. That is all.
Tonight we are pointedly not going to A Star is Born, as we’d originally planned. As if I need more ruminations on the perils of success and failure. Pastries + Netflix + Husband = Heart Emoji
Saturday, October 13
Today’s the day. I’m going full ostrich today and doing my best to avoid the outside world, at least as it pertains to Hadrian. We’ll see how this strategy plays out. We slept in and are going to a late Persian brunch before getting ready to go over to the theatre. Rene has been the loveliest companion and protector of tender emotional states. One does feel lucky.
With just over an hour ‘til my entrance, you’d think I’d be losing my mind already. Is it weird I’m not?
Not even trying to stay calm. Calm is not my friend.
This does feel weirdly like the calm before the storm, but I’m going to take this time to set my intentions for tonight. My tendency might be to try to recreate what we’ve done before: to curate and replay the best parts of our work. I want to live this as if it’s the first time.
OK, there’s a bit of adrenaline! Orchestra tuning up over the PA. Just did a little – well, enormous actually – excitement dance. I want to be out there! There’re about 50 minutes until I go out, and I expect the full gamut of emotions between now and then. I am not going to tamp down my excitement, for fear it will run out. It’s not going to. I am not going to banish from my head thoughts of my friends’ faces, or questions about how they might be experiencing it. Instead, when these things inevitably come up, I will let them pass through, and I will continue to live. Yesterday, at the Google Talk we did about the production, I said “My aliveness is the string I play on.” For the next 45 minutes or so, my goal is to stay alive, stay here, live anew. It’s a big job, but I’m up for it!
In the dress rehearsal on Thursday, when I walked out on stage for the first time I was weirdly aware of being watched. (This is silly, because every time I’ve done it people have been watching. But there you have it.) Tonight I’m going to incorporate that feeling into that moment. Antinous is strangely dressed, an unusual presence, out of place. I know I’m being watched. How do I react to it?
Well that was an intense evening. I mean... I still have to go on for my last little entrance. I shouldn’t be summing it up yet. But I discovered something new that I have LITERALLY never felt before (sorry to all the many many many people who are lovely influences in my life). It was during the scene where Antinous is caring for the sick Hadrian. I felt my energetic focus starting to flag slightly, even as I kept returning my attention to my physical experience. The meditation teacher I’ve been listening to talks about the two “wings” of presence being awareness (knowledge of what’s happening/mindfulness) and compassion (non-judgemental, friendly acceptance of whatever’s here). I often lean too far into the first, without being able to admit the second as easily. Last night as I cared for Hadrian, I imagined that that same gentle love was coming to me from my friends in the audience. Instead of offering myself just sympathy or a mental hug, which itself is sometimes hard under pressure, I imagined their energy as cheering me on and lifting me up. I often feel totally alone on stage – even when I know there are friends present, offering their support. Of course, when I go to a friend’s show, I want nothing but to encourage them to be their best. But being able to open up and tap into that positive current was a beautiful moment for me, and a lifetime first.
Buttons and magnets for the Hadrian team emblazoned with my favourite line from the libretto
Sunday, October 14
Yesterday was a lot. I’m still sifting through it all. I felt strong about my work, and the reactions I’ve heard have been very positive. The experience was an incredibly exciting, but also surprising.
For one thing, opening night was far from the most stressful or nerve-wracking or difficult part of this process for me. It came with its own unique pressures, naturally, but the recognizably monumental nature of it all made it easier for me to disengage with any unnecessary stimuli and to dive fully into the task at hand. I arrived early enough at the theatre to be able to set up my cast and crew gifts and meditate and still have lots of time to get ready.
I was certainly nervous, but the feeling of excitement had the upper hand for most of the time. This may not be noteworthy to someone who doesn’t live inside my head, but I expected to be battling far more invasive thoughts about who’s in the audience, what it all could mean for my future, etc.
Honestly, the first music rehearsal, the first time staging my aria, the sitzprobe and the working rehearsal were all more difficult in terms of finding equilibrium. I could theorize about why but... shan’t.
As I was getting ready to walk on stage for my first entrance, I had the remarkably pleasant sensation of being conscious of parasitic thoughts (“Don’t fuck up!” or “I wonder what X will think of this,” or “This is a big deal for you, by the way”) and allowing them to drift past without getting their hooks into me. It was the sensation — ironically almost dreamlike — of being so present that I was aware of the stakes without being carried away by them. I kept returning to my physical awareness of myself, and from there to continually refocusing my mind on exactly what I was doing in any given moment.
The result of this, or some by-product of it, was what was most surprising at the end of the evening. As I waited to go on stage for the curtain call, I found myself strangely uninvested in “receiving my applause.” This feeling – of being self-contained, self-fulfilled – then continued through the reception that followed. I felt tired, pleased with the work, and happy to see my friends, but there was also a notable absence of that inner hunger for affirmation.
Of course I can’t say this continued unbroken through the next 24 hours, as if I’m now some enlightened mascot of Art for Art’s Sake. I’ve gradually returned to feeling like myself again, with all that entails. I’m always going to care about what people think — I don’t think I could be the kind of artist I want to be if I lost connection to that.
And I’ll begin this all over again on Wednesday when we have our second show. Maybe it’ll be the usual Second Show Syndrome, or maybe it will be something else entirely. I feel more strongly all the time, though, that while external ideas of reputation and achievement do seem to accumulate in a linear or at least logical fashion, the act of performing is itself always new. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who rolls out of bed, yawns, and says, “Well, I’ve done this 99 times before, why should the 100th be any different?” But I’m not. I rely on my training and my preparation and my colleagues and my wits... but I never feel that any moment is as good as done until it is in fact done.
This is the end of this document! I now have a detailed record of this milestone to look back on, but what I really hope – and this is the reason I agreed to participate in the COC’s show diary project – is that someone else might see their own experiences or their own process reflected in mine, and be comforted or helped or validated. Of course this diary is all about me, because I can only describe what I directly experience. But as my pal Walt says (and yes, I know how absolutely insufferable it is to quote this):
“These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing.”
Isaiah Bell as Antinous (centre) in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018
Becoming Antinous: Read the entire series
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.
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