Talking with singers: Chen Reiss Photo by Paul Marc Mitchell.

Talking with singers: Chen Reiss

Jenna Simeonov

Israeli soprano Chen Reiss just finished singing Zdenka in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Arabella; she’ll return to Vienna in May to sing Marzelline in Beethoven’s Fidelio, following a stretch of beautifully varied concert work in Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States.

Reiss earned her enviable international schedule the old-fashioned way, moving away from home and rising to the competitive standards of operatic hubs like New York and Munich. In her grounded, wise interview, Reiss chats about her disciplined regimen to stay healthy, the lessons learned during her maternity leave, and the years spent in New York, “breathing music”.

Why do you sing professionally?

As a child I was always fascinated by the performing arts and the stage, perhaps because my mother is a classical singer herself and took me to the theater and opera from a young age. I played piano and learned ballet very seriously till age 16. However, I always loved singing and performing for my family. At age 14 I started to take voice lessons and by the time I was 16 I decided that I want classical music and singing to be the center of my life and so I decided to pursue it professionally.

Upon your move to New York City, how did you grow your career among a competitive industry?

Going to NY was a dream come true to me. I was very excited but soon realized the competition is fierce and that I am a very small fish in a very big pond. It was shocking to me coming from Israel, a small country, where I always shone above the rest. I realized that if I want to have a successful career as an opera singer internationally, I must work very hard. I was very passionate about singing opera as well as concerts. I looked for the best voice and drama teachers; I tried so many. I also auditioned endlessly, took part in masterclasses, and went to the Met opera as often as I could. I was breathing music and was totally focused on it. New York was a school for life. I had many challenges there but I also remember it as a wonderful period in my life.

I was surrounded with good friends and people who believed in my talent and help me in many ways, I am forever grateful for the love and support my friends and family gave me. I built my career very gradually, started with relatively short and light roles and only later turned to the leading parts. Deciding to move to Germany in 2003 was a smart move. I gained a lot of experience being a Fest artist at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. It was also a great platform to present myself and develop helpful contacts. I received many invitations following this 3-year residency.

Chen Reiss. Photo by Paul Marc Mitchell.

What have to learned about the difference between producing a live performance and a studio recording? What are the unique challenges to each?

I enjoy live performance more than a studio production. In the studio I am often too critical, want everything to be perfect because it stays forever. The big challenge in the studio is to create the magic and the spontaneity, which a live performance has naturally. The advantage a studio recording has, is that you can immediately hear yourself and apply corrections. On stage often one is euphoric and thus technically perhaps not every note sits in its ideal place. In the studio one can concentrate fully on the music, and the setting allows using many colors, dynamics and subtle interpretation. On stage a lot is going on at the same time. In a live opera recording for example, it could be that at some points orchestra and singer are not totally together or someone sings or play a wrong note, however a live recording has electricity and adrenaline.

How do you stay healthy and sane while working on the road?

I am not always healthy and certainly not always sane; no singer is, in my opinion ;). I wash my hands 30 times a day if not more, I fly with a mask over my face, I take tons of vitamins, drink a lot, sleep is holy to me. If my kids are sick I even wear a mask at home, but I still kiss and hug them all the time. After my kids were born I have decided not to take life so seriously and that helps the most! Laugh a lot, breath deep in and do everything with lots of love.

What do you know about the career that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

It is very important to leave a few weeks a year free from work so that I can truly rest, recharge and miss the stage. Saying NO to certain offers is not easy but sometimes necessary. I realized it during my maternity leave, in which I did not sing a tone for 6 months!! I did not even sing in the bath. It was wonderful but even more wonderful was coming back to the audience, to the theater, to the orchestras, I was so fresh and enthusiastic. Feeling the vibration of the music going through the body is very special and energizing.

If you didn’t sing for a living, what do you think you would do instead?

Not sure, but definitely something physical. Maybe a yoga instructor or a dancer. For sure not an office job; I can’t sit still.

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