Renaissance Woman: Academia Meets Opera

By Caroline Eng

The Phi Beta Kappa Society celebrates the liberal arts and sciences in their many forms. Ashley Bell, opera singer, carries Phi Beta Kappa with her one step beyond its bounds into the realm of fine art. Bell has an impressive accumulation of accomplishments that is reminiscent of the term “Renaissance man.” Bell speaks five languages fluently and has performed as a solo artist in the United States, Italy, Spain, France and Russia. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University and a recipient of Yale’s Browne Irish Performing Arts Award. Primarily dedicated to opera, she performed recently as Norina in Bay Street Theatre’s production of Don Pasquale.

A polymath, or “Renaissance man,” is a person with many talents. This well-rounded person dedicates themselves to multiple pursuits with equal passion, rigor, and success. This is not a person who “dabbles” but one who works toward expertise. Famous Renaissance men include Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo, both of whom were experts in art and academics alike. The term comes from these men, alive during the Renaissance itself, who actively shaped the world around them in as many ways as they could manage. As these multiple disciplines flowed through the mind of a single man, they likely influenced and supplemented one another to create a greater whole.

The Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa represents “an alphabet soup mix of academic subjects and intellectual interests,” according to their website. Like the Society as a whole, the Yale chapter is dedicated to students with a range of interests and diversity of strengths. Bell emerges from this background with academia and performing arts in her hands. Her alma mater has honored her in both fields with initiation into Phi Beta Kappa and the Browne Irish Performing Arts Award. For Bell, the expertise required of a true polymath is second nature.

Most recently, Bell played “Norina” in Bay Street Theatre’s production of Don Pasquale, which opened in April. According to a review of her performance of the same role in Lorogño, Spain, Bell’s role is a two-sided character, named both Norina and Sofronia. According to the Metropolitan Opera’s description of the show, Norina is a young widow, the object of rebellious Ernesto’s affection. Due to a complicated marriage plot, Norina must play the character of Sofronia, a timid girl whose aim is to marry the title character, Don Pasquale. The role is a doubling of personalities to match an artist with a multiplicity of talents. The review praises Bell’s “hilarious interpretation” of the role, lauding her as a true “stage animal.”

Phi Beta Kappa celebrates people who have a foothold in many worlds. Its members range from science to liberal arts to fine arts experts and all contribute to the Society’s mission to recognize exceptional achievement. Bell, a distinct combination of arts and academia, enriches the society itself with her unique skills and obvious passion.

Photo Credit: Carlos Keyes

Caroline Eng is a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center majoring in English. Fordham is home to the Tau of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.