Artist in the Spotlight: Chen Reiss 

By Sigurd Neubauer

04/02/2022

Chen Reiss, a celebrated soloist at Europe’s top opera houses, has a particular soft spot for Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, but the soprano has a versatile repertoire spanning from the beloved bel canto composers such as Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti to the majestical Richard Strauss. With a particular fondness for what in the world of opera is referred to as “trouser roles,” Reiss says, with a laugh, that it is more comfortable wearing pants on stage then corsets.

She’s referring to the role of Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella which she sang at the Vienna State Opera.

Although, Reiss admits, she has not yet performed Cherubino in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro nor Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Instead, she has sung Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, two roles that define gracious femininity during operatic intrigue and marital drama. Cherubino and Octavian in contrast always represent youth and heroism even though they are both dangerously flirtatious.

Chen Reiss (left) in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, 2016 Credit: Michael Poehn, Vienna State Opera

Their roles, however, are always sung by a female singer (Mezzo soprano), which is why it is commonly referred to as a trouser role. The villain, in both operas, is, of course, the decadent and lustful aristocrat The villain, in both operas, is, of course, the decadent and lustful aristocrat. Another parallel between the two operas is that Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is modeled after The Marriage of Figaro. The setting for Der Rosenkavalier is modeled on Vienna’s high society during the 18th century.

“In 10 years, I may sing the Marschallin but Octavian is too low for me,” says Reiss but adds that the role of “Sophie is ideal for me with her silvery tone.” During her tenure at the Vienna State Opera from 2011-2020, where both Mozart and Strauss’ operas are performed every season, Reiss developed a particular knack for Susanna and Sophie but aspirates to sing Countess Rosina Almaviva (from The Marriage of Figaro) at a future stage.

Reiss in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, 2019
Credit: Michael Poehn, Vienna State Opera

From military service to vocal studies in New York

In an interview with Man & Culture, Reiss says that auditioning for Maestro Zubin Mehta of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in New York was an important professional milestone, who suggested that she should move to Germany following her studies.

Reiss had, however, first auditioned for Mehta while serving in the Israeli Army.  During her military service, Reiss became the singer of the Israeli Army Orchestra where she sang every day with a full orchestra. Reiss’ military commander was conductor Zikko Graziani who also served as an early mentor and helped her develop a versatile repertoire ranging from arias from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Gianni Schicchi’s O mio babbino caro to Israeli pop and even Edith Piaf.

But Reiss’ mother served as an early but critical role model. “My mother played the accordion, piano and guitar, in addition to being a professional opera singer and mother of four. She introduced me to opera although I initially wanted to be a dancer,” says Reiss.

Her musical education started at age six with the piano followed by ballet lessons. At age 14 she started vocal lessons, and at 16, Reiss gave up altogether on dancing to focus exclusively on singing. In the army, Reiss was in a Broadway play about Maria Callas. From that point on, Reiss developed an admiration for Callas, especially for her talent, hard work and determination.

“In Israel, I was a big fish in a small pond but once I moved to New York in 2000, I was a small fish in a big pond. At the same time, it was a growing experience as it became clear to me that I needed to develop a strategy on how I could distinguish myself from the competition”

Reiss moved to Munich in 2003 after successfully landing a job at the Bavarian State Opera where she remained until 2006. “It was a permanent contract, it provided financial security and the position served as the ‘best possible school’ for a young singer where I was able to adopt a wide-ranging repertoire,” says Reiss. Years later, now that she teaches master classes in Israel, Germany and the United Kingdom, “I always recommend my students to get a permanent position,” says Reiss.

From Munich, Reiss moved to Vienna where she remained until getting married in 2013. She currently lives in London with her British husband and two daughters, age six and eight.

Reiss’ collaboration with Mehta continued in Munich and Israel where she performed under his baton in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (as Zerlina), Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (as Gilda) and in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio (as Leonore). “These operas demand a very strong conductor,” says Reiss.

From having first auditioned for Mehta while in the army to once again doing so upon completing her musical training in New York — and performed numerous times under his baton in concerts across Europe and around the world – Reiss’ relationship with the Indian-born maestro came to full circle when she was tasked to serve as the musical director for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s farewell concert for Mehta in October 2019. During that concert, Reiss was a soloist for Mahler’s Second Symphony.

For Reiss, Mahler is one of the composers she draws the most inspiration from. “I sang him from a very young age, and I even share his birthday,” the soprano said enthusiastically.

“Mahler was fascinated with death and life after death and expressed it in his music in a way I especially appreciate and find very moving,” Reiss adds. 

In November 2021, Reiss performed and recorded Mahler’s 4th symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She recorded separately with the orchestra the soundtrack for the Hollywood film Perfume.

Prior performances and recordings of Mahler’s symphonies have been under the batons of Gustavo Dudamel, Daniele Gatti and Semyon Bychkov.

Yet her favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his choral works. “If I ever found myself on a deserted island with one piece of music, it would certainly be by J.S.Bach,” says Reiss.

Reiss in Francesco Cavalli‘s La Calisto at La Scala, 2021
Reiss at the Royal Opera House in London 2019

But over her meritocratic rise to the pinocle of Europe’s opera culture, Reiss’ performance, along with the Vienna Philharmonic, at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome in front of His Holiness Pope Francis during the Christmas Mass of 2014, clearly stands out as a career highlight.

The Israeli-born singer described the experience as “particularly spiritual,” adding that she had been personally invited by the Pontiff. Reiss met him prior to the prayer at the Vatican, who she described as “warm and generous.”

“He knew that I was an Israeli Jew”

The Christmas prayer was attended by 8000 worshippers, and it was broadcasted live to 700 million people around the world, she adds. Afterwards, the Pontiff “sent me a gracious letter of appreciation,” Reiss adds.

Pandemic life

During the summer of 2020 – after Italy had experienced the initial devesting toll of the covid pandemic – the soprano traveled to Rome to perform two streaming concerts with the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia. “In Italy musicians continued to rehearse and even perform. They never stopped but continued under very strict health guidelines as Italy attempted to maintain some sense of normalcy with live performances,” says Reiss. She considered herself, “lucky” as knows many artists who had all their work canceled. “Covid is a reminder how depended artists are on the public,” Reiss adds.

In November 2021, she returned to Italy to perform at Milan’s La Scala where she portrayed the title role in Francesco Cavalli‘s opera, La Calisto. “It was the first time this opera was ever performed at La Scala,” Reiss says. The soprano also described the emotional impact it had on her to attend a live performance during the pandemic, describing how she “began to cry” as the collective experience of hearing live music was a particular strong one.

Reiss in Leoš Janáček’s the Cunning Little Vixen, 2014
Credit: Michael Poehn, Vienna State Opera

Discography

Describing herself as “an eternal student,” Reiss says that meditation, yoga and pilates – along with a healthy diet – helps her maintain the strength required to perform at an elite level. “I live a very discipled life, Reiss explains.

 

We concluded our interview by discussing the inevitable: work-life balance with small children at home.  “Being a mother and opera singer is paradox,” Reis says with a laugh while her children can be heard running around her London apartment. “I am not surprised that in the past many opera singers didn’t have children. Children can be challenging in many ways, but they’re also the greatest joy.”

“Yet, they keep you grounded, but most importantly humble.”

Immortal Beloved – Chen Reiss. Beethoven Arias
Credit: Academy of Ancient Music

A disciplined life

Describing herself as “an eternal student,” Reiss says that meditation, yoga and pilates – along with a healthy diet – helps her maintain the strength required to perform at an elite level. “I live a very discipled life, Reiss explains.

We concluded our interview by discussing the inevitable: work-life balance with small children at home.  “Being a mother and opera singer is paradox,” Reis says with a laugh while her children can be heard running around her London apartment. “I am not surprised that in the past many opera singers didn’t have children. Children can be challenging in many ways, but they’re also the greatest joy.”

“Yet, they keep you grounded, but most importantly humble.”

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