JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?

ISAIAH BELL: I’m a tenor working in the Classical tradition. Currently I sing primarily early music (up to and including Mozart and Haydn), and 20th and 21st century music, both opera and concert. I also write and compose. I have combined these disciplines in the past and hope to continue doing so.

JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?

IB: I believe that my job as an artist is to bring my understanding of the world to my work as fully as possible. In my life I observe, and I learn about myself and the world. This informs my work. I hope that by exploring myself and my environment, and suffusing my work with that intimate knowledge, that I can show someone else something about themselves and their life. Art has many purposes — including connecting communities, celebrating beauty, and entertaining — but the one I find most compelling is its ability to show us ourselves in other people, and other people in ourselves.

JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.

IB: Cecilia Bartoli, who is an amazing synthesis of intuitive artist and intelligent technician.
Virginia Woolf, who had the keenest aptitude for observing and recording the invisibilia that swirls around us and shapes us, but which is so hard to name or even to see.

JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?

IB: Being a traveling performer has forced me to be a different person than I would be naturally if left to my own devices. I have to be more social, better at meeting new people, more comfortable with change, less patterned, and more adept at operating under pressure. Our lifestyles really do shape us. There’s not as much room in my life now for preparing for every new experience, so I’ve had to learn how to fly by the seat of my pants, a bit. It’s a challenge… daily.

JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?

IB: Like many artists, I’m sensitive. I’ve chosen to make a business out of something intimate and personal, and so of course I’m always being critiqued and criticized and adjusted. And even though I’ve been working long enough to be able to functionally separate the personal from the professional to a large degree, it’s hard not to feel at times that it is me, not my work, that’s at fault, if something is. The further along I get, too, the more personal my work becomes — I don’t think I will ever get to a place where it is just a job, where I just unplug myself from it at the end of the day. Some colleagues say they can do that, but not me. As a singer your body is literally your instrument. Being both the sculptor and the clay can be an intensely vulnerable feeling — and not everyone in the room is necessarily interested in worrying about that. So, you have to get on with it, and you do, and sometimes you have to put yourself away entirely and just get through the day. Striking a balance between being a professional who gets the job done and being a person whose very self is the medium is always a challenge.

JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.

IB: When I started to understand that my fear, stress, overanalysis, restlessness, anxiety, and frustration were expressions of my fundamental life energy — not burdens to be dispersed or distracted or eased or smothered, but essential parts of me to be understood, listened to, focused, channeled — my world view started to expand. This is a process that’s still happening, and, I’m sure, will go on indefinitely. Trying to bring my living self — the imperfect and volatile spirit that exists in my body at this moment — to my performance work creates a shift: I begin to care more about the integrity of what I’m doing than about how other people see me. It’s much easier and less scary to study, prepare, practice, produce, and then replicate a previously approved version of myself… but that’s not art in a way that’s meaningful to me.

JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?

IB: The inspiration is not bottomless. Being an artist is like being in a long-term relationship — the desire to express yourself and the joy in the art form are not naturally endless springs, not when they are called upon so often and in such various situations. There is a measure of technique and effort to constantly rediscovering and renewing, and even occasionally to going through the motions with all the craft you can muster and trusting that the work itself will speak through you when you feel tapped out. Like in love, the real joys may not be the ones that come at obvious times, and there is a deep and slow-burning satisfaction in the long game.

JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?

IB: I’ve always had it oozing out of me — which sounds disgusting and uncomfortable, and often is. My last serious non-arts ambition was to be “a scientist in the Amazon jungle” – when I was 11.

JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?

IB: I would like to work as a creator (writer, composer, etc.) at a professional level that’s on par with my work as a performer. I’ve been giving priority to my singing in the last few years because that’s always been my official vocation. It needs a lot of focus, especially at junctures where you’re trying to elevate yourself to a higher level. I’m starting to combine the two, but it’s a long way from where I want it to be. I’ve created my own productions before, on a shoestring or as part of a collective, but eventually I’d like to build enough influence that I can make that an integral part of my professional output.

JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?

IB: I have a somewhat self-defeating disposition, which at times is almost equal to my ravenous ambition. (I didn’t intend that to be a poem.) My life and my work are inextricable, so I see my whole life as an ongoing act of resistance against that sabotaging force. Deciding to get fit and sticking with it, maintaining a stable and mutually supportive and (knock on wood) happy marriage in the face of long separations and the vicissitudes of an unpredictable career and life in general — not to mention seeing success as a singer in a hyper-competitive field — this all feels like a blow struck against the void.

JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?

IB: When the pianist Evgeny Kissin was asked to give life and career advice to a roomful of young pianists, he said, “If anyone who does not know you personally, who does not know how you play, what kind of life you have, what kind of problems you have, starts giving you a piece of advice, send him or her to hell.” That makes me laugh, and it’s also kind of true. It’s hard to give helpful advice even to someone you know well, and much harder to give it generally to someone you don’t, or to a group of people. I’ve received a lot of bad or unhelpful or frustrating advice from well-intentioned, intelligent, experienced people who just didn’t — and shouldn’t have been expected to — understand where I was on the path. I have been called on more recently to offer advice to younger singers, though. In these cases, I try to make suggestions that might have been helpful to me at a younger age, like, “Try to start developing and trusting your own instincts now. Just because someone else is more experienced than you doesn’t mean your knowledge and input are of no value — especially when it comes to your instrument and your personal development. Most things are subjective, and any professional or “expert” might not have the right guidance for you, for where you are right now. Including me.” And even that might be the wrong thing to say to someone on the other side of spectrum from the too-submissive young me, someone who most needs to learn how to learn from other people.

JS: Of what value are critics?

IB: If I’m trying, as a prospective audience member, to decide which show to see (especially in a discipline other than my own), I may read some reviews to help me pick. Similarly, sometimes after I experience a show or a film, I’ll read a review to see if other people agreed with my opinion. I never read reviews of my own work anymore. It’s not helpful. It has never been helpful to me. I am surrounded every day by professionals whose job it is to make me better. I listen to them. In my opinion, critics are there for the audience, not for the artists.

JS: What do you ask of your audience?

IB: I don’t ask much from the audience because I know the difference between the job I have as an artist and my job as an audience member. As an artist I work hard to communicate so I have the best possible chance of being understood. For that reason, I bristle, as an audience member, if I feel like the same effort is not being made by the artists I’m watching. I resent feeling that some specialized work or prior knowledge is required for me to communicate with the artist. Of course, the audience’s experience will be deepened by their own knowledge, and I may or may not bring something extra, but I don’t like it when artists seem to be assuming that only an elite group will be capable of understanding their lofty goals. When I’m in the audience I’m not usually just there to be entertained — I’m open to learning, to being challenged, to being moved. Those things have the best chance of happening if I am open to listening to the artist, and if they are doing everything in their power to communicate what they want to say as clearly as possible. So, I guess I just ask for the audience to listen! Everything else is my job.

JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?

IB: This is too big a question to answer! However: I am increasingly bothered by the standardization of arts training. It can feel like an assembly-line, which is destructive to creativity and honesty and individuality and interest. As young artists in the Classical tradition we spend our energies trying to do things “right”; introspection is limited to determining our category and our marketable traits. Understanding our personal instrument, and how its controls and emissions are unique, is tertiary. Upon emerging from my decade-long training regime, I felt that I had been shown all the tools, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to use them. This, I think, is because I didn’t know who was supposed to use them. Not everyone has this problem, and some people thrive in the age of institutions. But I see a lot of young artists nearing the end of the standardized process who know that they are supposedly primed to enter “the real world”, but who seem over-educated and ill-equipped. I know I am too young to sound like such a codger. And this is an unforgivable generalization — but that’s what you get for such a broad question!

JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?

IB: I’m not at a point in my life where I spend a lot of time looking back. I’m very focused on growth, and on the future. When I think about my past successes I often think about how I would improve them with the experience I’ve gained in the meantime. And often I’ve given that chance — one great thing about working in this tradition is that we do get to revisit some masterpieces over and over. I will always be excited to sing the Evangelist in the Bach Passions, to sing Monteverdi, to sing the great Schubert cycles, and to sing Britten. I’ve done a wonderful production of Britten’s Curlew River twice now with the Mark Morris Dance Group, which I’m keen to do again.

JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?

IB: As a working classical singer, I haven’t encountered anything really horrible, like tabloids or gossip columns or any kind of mud-raking. When I appear in the media, if it’s not specifically a review of my performance, it’s usually something I have a measure of control over. For that reason, I used to fuss a lot about the wording of my press materials and interviews. I’d be bothered when a presenter dug up an out-of-date bio which listed where I went to school and my greatest accomplishment of 2011, making me look like a rookie next to my peers. I remember giving an interview over the phone where the reporter wrote down everything I said as if I’d been dictating it into my iPhone, complete with “ums” and misspellings and no punctuation, and it made me look stupid. That kind of thing will still bug me if I let it, but I stopped googling myself years ago, and I try not to think about it all too much — other than doing the basic requisite self-promotion. I have a friend who updates my website with usable reviews, and for the rest of it I try to be Zen and take the stance that you can never control what people will think or say about you.

JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why.

IB: I’ve always been interested in Japanese arts and culture, especially the theatre, poetry, and painting, so I’d love to visit Japan. And to go back to Turkey, where we went for our honeymoon. The combination of the history, the physical beauty, and the living modern culture… and the food…

JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?

IB: Right now, I’m singing in a period production of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, from the 17th century, with Opera Atelier. At the same time, I’m preparing to sing a lead in the premiere Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian at the Canadian Opera Company, and developing a semi-autobiographical show that blends my own personal stories with original music, music from the Classical cannon, and 20th century popular music. Each of these projects stimulates me enormously.

I adore Monteverdi (it’s so modern, so beautiful, and so dramatic!) and it’s a rush to bring this ancient music and even older story to life in a way that draws heavily on what we know of the original idiom. There are many more steps involved in aiming for “authenticity” (whatever that means). But it’s so rewarding. You hammer out your ornaments, your gestures, your understanding of the social mores of a different era. But in the end, if you can live within all that, what you get is more than just a recreation — it’s the closest we can get to time travel. And we’re keeping alive the brilliance of history’s greatest minds.

With Hadrian, it’s a special project because, we hope, it will cross some of the boundaries that can be so limiting in opera. Rufus Wainwright obviously has a legendary reputation as a pop artist, but he’s gaining repute on this side of the divide too. Hadrian is a gay love story, which itself is a breath of fresh air for opera, and the librettist is Daniel MacIvor, a Canadian theatre heavyweight and a brilliant proponent of the kind of subjectivism I am obsessed with. I love the story and I love being a part of something brand new.

With my own project, The Book of My Shames, which I’m developing in conjunction with Tapestry Opera in Toronto and Intrepid Theatre in Victoria, I’m relishing the chance to explore unrestrainedly. The piece is a fusion of theatre and music and cabaret-confessional and comedy and religious ritual. I’m using all my tools to paint the war between the “me” inside and the “my public self.” I’m so fixated on how art helps us connect with other people, but this piece attempts to express how being disconnected from oneself can preclude that. It’s the most personal work I’ve ever done, and it’s as much an act of reconciliation in itself as it is a performance. My hope is that, if nothing else, it will contribute to the conversation about how we express ourselves as Classically-trained artists in the age of the Internet. Singers — all musicians — are usually intensely creative people, but the industry in general encourages us to specialize, not diversify.

JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find pressing?

IB: I do get depressed about how opera can seem stuck inside itself and disconnected from the outside world. Cultures that are so insular quickly get rarefied, and, worse, boring. I wish that it was more generally understood that it’s OK to enjoy the “fine arts” in the same way that we enjoy the movies and music and shows that we don’t see as elite. That would be a total paradigm shift because the cultural capital of the fine arts is their high status. And because it’s a club, it’s alienating. Since we’re all initiated, there are lots of traditions and shorthands and shortcuts that exclude and mystify and bore outsiders, but that people on the inside don’t even notice. We’re also desperate to attract new audiences, but there’s no easy answer on how to do it. I don’t know how either. But when I go to the theatre or to a museum, if I enjoy it, I’m not enjoying it in the fancy part of my brain. It’s the same part that enjoys Breaking Bad. And I guess what gives me hope is that if I’ve figured that out, and if my friends have figured that out, then more people will too. Although the Internet may have shortened our attention spans, I don’t believe it has diminished our basic desire for quality communication. We can share our ideas and our excitement more directly now, and the true value of things — things that were previously obscured behind veils of high culture — can be seen up close.

JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?

IB: I’m not in a position to comment on what is surprising or intriguing about me!

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