It’s been a whirlwind few years for opera singer Chen Reiss, a Holon-born soprano who’s performed throughout Europe, including a 2015 Christmas mass performance at the Vatican for Pope Francis.
“There are things you don’t think will ever happen, but when they do, you just do it,” said Reiss of her performance for the pope.
Now she’s back home, living in Israel with her Britain-born husband and two young children in between performances abroad, and settling in to teach a summer master class at her alma mater, the summer opera program at the Israeli Opera.
It’s Reiss’s chance to give back to one of the formative training experiences of her career.
“It’s a very intense program,” said Reiss. “You can only train onstage, that’s why master classes are very important. It’s the real test.”
The program entails six days a week for several weeks of singing from morning until evening, as young singers work with alumni and teachers from Israel and abroad.
This year’s summer opera program is hosting another summer opera program alumnus, maestro Dan Ettinger. The course’s international teachers include Armin Zanner, from the Guildhall School of Music in London and pianist Bretton Brown, as well as Samantha Malk, Mark Verter and Reiss.
“You’re just breathing singing and music, you’re not doing anything else,” said Reiss. “You’re committed to it, 24/6.”
It’s the kind of process that allows opera students to make real progress, said Reiss.
“In order to make a change in technique or habits you really have to do it every day,” she said. “You can’t work with this kind of intensity for 12 months a year, but here it’s like you press pause on anything else in life, and only deal with this aspect of your life.”
Reiss relishes her role as a teacher, being able to listen to where a student is in terms of achieving their voice potential.
“I can work with what I have, and I am always generous about emphasizing the things that they can do and do well,” she said. “The only way to develop as a singer is not by criticizing what they cannot do, but to develop and improve what’s already there. That’s the only way to grow.”
Singing, said Reiss, is a mostly psychological act, in which a singer can only sing well if they are completely relaxed and open, and their breath is flowing undisturbed.
If a teacher creates tension or fear, then one’s breath can’t flow naturally, said Reiss.
“The hardest thing about being an opera singer, because you sing without a mic, is to stand on stage in front of 3,000 or 300 or 30 people, and be completely in a state of mind of awareness and poised but also relaxed,” she said. “That’s what the training is all about, the breath and mind.”
For the last three years, Reiss has been based in Israel, after living in England and starting a family there.
“We came back to Israel because I wanted my children to experience Israel and be close to family,” she said.
She still travels often, working with opera houses worldwide while keeping her residency at the Vienna State Opera, and singing every year with the Israel Philharmonic and Israel Camerata.
Reiss first came into contact with the Israeli Opera summer program when she was 15 years old. At the time, she was sitting in the audience. It was only three or four years later that she became a student in the program.
“I was not an overnight star,” said Reiss. “It was slowly, and with a lot of work.”
Still, she said, she always dreamed big.
“I didn’t plan to stay a local singer in Israel,” she said. “I always planned to go to New York City and study, which I did. I always planned to have an international career, but you never know to what extent it’s going to be.”
Reiss’s career has taken off, and her 2017 calendar includes performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Vienna Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Munich Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera.
It’s a challenge to remain in the opera world, said Reiss, which has less money than it used to, more singers and fewer opportunities.
“You need personality and drive and focus, that’s more important than anything else,” she said. “Coming from Israel, it’s not easy. But when I stand on the same stage as my teachers, it makes me reflect on the journey I made.”