Kiana Bell’s (16) theatrical and performance career brings literal meaning to Shakespeare’s well-known line, “All the world’s a stage.” Bell’s career in vocal performance has been anything but ordinary. Some, like reporters at the Union Tribune, would even insinuate extraordinary. 

Bell grew up immersed in music. She started singing in church choir around age four, following a legacy of gospel singers on her dad’s side of the family. From there, she did musical theater and choir in school, but in her senior year of high school she started considering it as an actual career path. She auditioned for SDSU’s and PLNU’s vocal performance program.

“I auditioned for Point Loma and San Diego State University and got into both,” Bell said. “I decided to go to Point Loma because I visited the campus and was like, ‘This is amazing.’ I have to go here.”

As a PLNU student, Bell knew her goals for her career boiled down to two things: travel and singing. Foundational professors like Dr. Dan Jackson, Dr. Bill Clemmons, Professor Brenda Martin and previous professor Craig Johnson helped Bell realize her potential and her goals in a career that can be extremely daunting. 

“I think when you are at that age, one of your biggest mental hurdles when you’re starting to audition for things is just confidence,” Bell said. “Just knowing, I’ve been studying really hard in school, I’ve been practicing for hours every week, I am going to go into this audition and get this job.”

“Craig was really really good at instilling confidence in his students but he would still hold you accountable on the other side of it.”

In her courses at PLNU, Bell was exposed to classical vocal technique and mentorship from PLNU’s professors.

“I was obsessed with learning the technical side of singing. Opera was the best place to explore that.”

“Especially because I hadn’t taken formal lessons growing up, I was obsessed with learning the technical side of singing,” Bell said. “Opera was the best place to explore that.”

In particular, Dr. Clemmon’s music theory class prepared her for her first job in the music industry. 

“It was kind of a stereotype that the vocalists didn’t really pay attention in music theory a lot, which was true for me,” Bell said. “It was at 8 a.m., and I just wanted to sing songs.”

“It was just really something I was not interested in at the time. But he still made it really a safe space to learn about music and how it works. He was really into teaching sight reading. So, we got a lot of sight reading experience, and a few of my first jobs out of college were sight reading jobs. I had a gig singing at a church in Hillcrest for like three years that I got when I was 20. What they made me do in my audition was literally sight read from a hymnal. That’s what we would do in class at Point Loma, like every morning. It was great. There were a lot of really great professors.”

And not only did professors help instill the importance of practice and confidence, they helped push her to keep auditioning and trying even with rejection posing significant barriers.

“You get a thousand no’s before you get a yes. People aren’t evaluating just your work, they’re evaluating you. That’s really invasive and kind of hard, especially when you get a no.”

“You get a thousand no’s before you get a yes. People aren’t evaluating just your work, they’re evaluating you. That’s really invasive and kind of hard, especially when you get a no,” Bell said.

But despite the nos, Bell broke into San Diego’s theater and opera community head on, landing roles at the Lamb’s Players Theater, San Diego Musical Theatre, San Diego Opera among others.

She also discovered during her time at PLNU a knack for teaching and mentoring others in the music world.

“It kind of started at the same time — performing and teaching,” Bell said. “It was never an either/or for me.”

“I know there’s kind of a stigma, ‘Those who do not, do teach.’ That was never the case for me and that’s also not how I view it. Teaching is challenging in its own right and it’s also really important. Even if your student doesn’t make it to Broadway, that’s not really the point. The arts enrich people’s lives and also sometimes that 30-minute piano lesson you have with a seven-year-old is like the only time in the whole week they’ve sat alone with an adult and told them about their day.”

After PLNU, Bell found herself at the crossroads of a tough decision. She auditioned for a cruise line to perform aboard ship and also sent out an application for a prestigious postgraduate opera program. She ended up landing both and had to choose between her initial career goal (traveling and singing) or continued education. 

“I got in with this huge scholarship, like 90% covered,” Bell said. “But that same month I had auditioned for a cruise line and also got that job.”

“I had to make a decision and I kind of had an existential crisis. Your goal was to travel and sing and you’re getting presented with this goal right now. Your goal wasn’t to be an opera star and only sing opera for the rest of your life, it was to travel and sing. I ended up choosing ships and it ended up being the better choice.”

Since graduating in 2016, Bell has traveled throughout the world getting to do what she loves. She said she’s traveled to around 45 countries. Starting out, she would be gone most of the year aboard a cruise line singing and performing a variety of genres that extended beyond opera.

“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Bell said. “You have to be really adaptable because you’re waking up in a new place everyday.” 

“You have to be willing to get along with a lot of different types of people also.”

But for Bell, it could not have been a more perfect decision and career to follow. 

“Life on board is kind of weird but when you get used to it it’s very rewarding,” Bell said. “You’re enriching your life by meeting people from all sorts of walks, places and cultures.” 

Like others impacted by COVID-19, the cruise lines closed down in 2020, leaving Bell without a performance job.  She participated in Zoom performances and virtual concerts and cabarets, but nothing that would allow her to live comfortably so she found a day job working for a legal company.

“I considered pivoting, I really did,” Bell said. “I think at the time I was a little embarrassed thinking that but then I would talk to all my colleagues and they [were like], ‘yeah same. I’m thinking about going back to school to study this.’”

“A lot of people pivoted. And I don’t blame them at all because it was a really hard time. A lot of colleagues off the top of my head that went into a completely different direction. But, I also have a lot of colleagues like myself who were right on the edge and really almost did and then once they started opening up again, it was like ‘Okay what was I even worried about?’ But yeah there was valid reason to be worried, even Broadway was closed. That’s terrifying. Broadway is an institution. I didn’t know they could do that.”

However, as things began reopening she knew she couldn’t make the jump; she loved theater and performance. 

“I think one thing that people learned during COVID as well is that if you’re not getting work, create your own. Produce your own concert. Write your own musical. Write your own songs.”

“I think one thing that people learned during COVID as well is that if you’re not getting work, create your own,” Bell said. “Produce your own concert. Write your own musical. Write your own songs.”

However, a job opportunity on a cruise ship came at the right time. 

“It was just nice to be around other performers again and to remember what that was like, and then also getting stage fright for the first time in several years,” Bell said. “I hadn’t had stage fright since like, maybe, early college.”

“I had taken over a year not performing at all in front of people. Virtual is not the same and having those feelings again, it was such a reminder of all the things that got me into it in the first place. I just couldn’t deny that. These feelings are real and I can’t just throw my career away.”

Since returning to full capacity, Bell has continued to travel and perform abroad. Now, she spends about half the year abroad and half the year doing local work. She recently wrapped up R.E.S.P.E.C.T, a tribute musical about the women singers and songwriters who defined the sound of the 1960s, at the Lamb’s Players House in Coronado. Now she’s booked for another world cruise with Holland America Line. This tour will circumnavigate the world, starting in Florida. 

In this performance, she will be in 15 different review shows, each about 40 minutes long. This adds up to around 200 songs to be memorized and blocked. 

Bell says that with each character and role she steps into, a part of herself and her own experiences inform the way she portrays them.

“I think meeting so many different types of people helps me to empathize with different walks of life,” Bell said. “Even before I did ships, I grew up as a Navy brat.” 

“We moved every two to three years. I went to a different school every two years. I went to three different high schools, so I met a lot of different types of people. I think I’m able to pull from different things I’ve observed as a person living in the world and being around a lot of different people. The experiences I have enrich my ability to portray different things on stage.”

“I think I’m able to pull from different things I’ve observed as a person living in the world and being around a lot of different people. The experiences I have enrich my ability to portray different things on stage.”

She says what’s made her continue to pursue life and performance abroad is the lasting sense of accomplishment and community. 

“My cast leaned on each other during that time [right after the pandemic], sharing stories of what we did during the pandemic, what our side jobs were, what we were about to do instead before we got this call to come back,” Bell said. “If you can get over the hump of being an American and being used to a certain way of living, and certain people and certain sensitives, then it’s really rewarding.”

Lainie Alfaro is a student at PLNU studying multimedia journalism. She's currently the marketing and research assistant at Viewpoint, and she was previously the editor in chief of The Point student newspaper.