Before graduating from Lehigh, Gelsey Bell, ’05, was sure she wanted to be a theater director.
Now, more than 10 years later, she has starred in a Broadway production, published several of her own albums and been heralded by publications like The New York Times as “the future of experimental vocalism.”
“I went to Lehigh thinking I wanted to be a theater director, and for most of my undergrad studies, that was my main focus,” she said. “Singing was a thing that I did because I loved it, and I didn’t actually take a career as a singer very seriously, in all honesty.”
Today, Bell travels around the world on tour with different artists, performing as both a vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist. Her expansion into a different realm of artistry was in part because of her ability to try new things at Lehigh.
Coming from a small town in northern California, Bell said it was important for her to be close to New York to collaborate on projects with other artists she knew, but she wanted to study somewhere that didn’t foster a cutthroat environment. She landed at Lehigh with a choral scholarship and started delving into new forms of vocal expression.
“Lehigh was a great place where I could explore and not be nervous about getting lost,” she said.
Bell’s exploration throughout her time at Lehigh extended outside the arts as well. She also studied philosophy and credits her classes within the department with developing the way she thinks as both an artist and a scholar today.
“The environment that I got with other people studying philosophy was amazing,” she said. “We spent a lot of time discussing ideas in a really exciting way, which I feel has nurtured my desire to discuss ideas with art going forward in my career. It was really great to have that.”
This environment, Bell said, was part of what fostered her well-roundedness as an artist, which later in her career would be one of the reasons she ended up on the Broadway stage, despite no expectations to do so upon graduating.
“I really did not expect to go to Broadway,” she said. “If I was trying to be a Broadway actor I would have not gone to Lehigh. There are lots of other schools that get you prepared for that kind of lifestyle. What is really special is what Lehigh did get me ready for — to be a really well-rounded and open artist and thinker, and because of that, I live in New York and I’m part of a community of artists.”
Bell said having connections to a community of artists is one of the most exciting parts of her job. She said she values other artists and their work more than the stage they are presented on.
While Bell herself didn’t expect to perform on Broadway, those who knew her in college are hardly surprised. Her longtime friend Steve Wojtas, ’05, said Bell’s commitment to exploration allowed her to seize opportunities within Broadway.
“It doesn’t surprise me, because she was always willing to explore and go try the new thing just on the edge of what she was already great at, and that’s just made her better,” Wojtas said. “It’s not like it just fell into her lap when she wasn’t doing anything. It’s more like she’s been putting herself out there and circling around interesting people and interesting things, so of course something like that would happen.”
However, Bell doesn’t merely circle around interesting people. She said a more apt description of her career would be flying at warp speed from interesting event to interesting event.
Bell said she enjoys being busy, and perhaps gives herself too much to do. Every day is different, depending on which projects she’s focusing on at the time.
“I’ve spent a lot of time throughout the years (thinking about) what kind of life would make me happy,” she said, “and I found that I was not happy having a regular schedule, and I really enjoy having a balance between performing and thinking and writing and those being different on different days. That gets me excited, and it keeps be engaged. I’m never bored.”
Whether it’s recording in her own studio, performing on the road or composing an opera, Bell stays in motion and continues to push the limits of her art and others’ understanding of it.
Philosophy professor Gordon Bearn was one of Bell’s professors at Lehigh. He said Bell was the type of student who always pushed the envelope on the feelings art could evoke, and her dedication in doing so is what makes her the success she is today.
“No one understands how serious you have to be to find something deliriously unusual,” Bearn said. “To find something that really changes the way you think about everything is a delicate process. And Gelsey is seriously trying to do something amazing.”