Saturday, 23 June 2018

Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut

Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
The Israeli soprano Chen Reiss is making her Covent Garden debut on 29 June 2018 as Zerlina in the latest revival of Kasper Holten's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and incidentally, Chen is also making her stage debut in the role having only sung Zerlina in concert before [see my review of the production]. Having worked extensively in Vienna, Chen is excited to be making her UK stage debut and as a young singer, it was always her dream to sing at Covent Garden. I met up with Chen during rehearsals to find out more.
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)

Chen first sang Zerlina in concert with Zubin Mehta conducting and the Covent Garden performance will be her first staging of the opera. She has seen a lot of productions, and this one is one of her favourites. She first saw the production as a member of the audience in 2014, though it has evolved since then. Apart from Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni, all the cast this time are new to the production ( Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Leporello, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira, Anatoli Sivko as Masetto and Willard W. White as the Commendatore, conducted by Marc Minkowski).


She first came to London with her mother (also an opera singer) when she was 20 and loved the Covent Garden theatre and is enjoying working there now. Not just the theatre, she comments on the vibrant atmosphere of the surrounding area, and in fact, our meeting takes place in a Covent Garden cafe with the sound of street artists performing outside.

She feels that the Covent Garden production doesn't have a boring moment and she contrasts this with some productions where the opera feels very long. In Holten's production, there is always something interesting and intelligent going on, and she likes the idea that it is all happening in the Don's mind. And of course the ending is very strong, the other characters, having fallen into the Don's trap are still living whereas he is left with his madness. Visually she finds the production very beautiful, and the way it uses a single set is very smart, you feel that the characters are lost/trapped in the Don's world.

Chen loves the role of Zerlina and finds the character's music beautiful but she also has half an eye on the role of Donna Anna and hopes to sing it in the future. In fact, Chen loves singing Mozart and has already sung Pamina (The Magic Flute), Illia (Idomeneo) and Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), this latter role is one she has done in concert but will be making her stage debut in the role at the Vienna State Opera this Autumn.

Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera (Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera
(Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
She has quite a wide repertoire from Handel, through Mozart, to Donizetti and Richard Strauss, not to mention Puccini (she recently started singing Liu in Turandot).
When I ask if she has a particular composer or style to which she is drawn, she admits to having a number. Mozart, of course, is there and Bach is a composer she favours to sing and to listen to. She adores Richard Strauss and vocally feels very confident with Donizetti's roles. She recently tried Liu and the role felt marvellous, she comments that Italian composers often feel the most fun to sing, feeling very comfortable in the voice, whereas with Bach and Mozart you have to work a bit more.

Working a lot in Germany and Austria, Chen has experience of a wide variety of production styles, she comments that some productions can be very crazy. She is comfortable as long as the production makes sense and works with what the composer wrote, though she admits that her preference is for aesthetically beautiful and dramatically convincing productions. Where she is less convinced, is when asked to sing one thing and act something different, this is a challenge that she does not so much enjoy but she is lucky and this has not happened very much in her career. Also, she adds that singers sometimes have to work with directors who are not the most pleasant. So a singer has to be able to make things work, to fit in with the concept.

In fact, growing up in Israel she wanted to be a dancer but she started voice lessons at the age of 14 and by 16 she realised this was what she wanted to do. So though she danced for many years, she feels that the opera profession chose her! She grew up in a musical family as her mother is an opera singer and Chen started learning the piano at the age of six.

Her dance background can be helpful on stage, not just in productions like David McVicar's production of Handel's Ariodante at the Vienna State Opera where there was a lot of dancing, but in generally helping Chen to feel confident on stage, in the way that she holds her body.

Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Chen Reiss (Vixen), Gerald Finley (Forester) - Vienna State Opera (Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen - Chen Reiss (Vixen), Gerald Finley (Forester) - Vienna State Opera
(Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
She started studying voice in her native Israel before moving to New York to continue her studies, and she found things very different in New York to Israel. Whereas Israel was great for music with a strong baroque performance tradition, she found she learned more vocal technique in New York. But she also realised quite how competitive the music profession was. In Israel, she admits that she had been a big fish in a small pond, having had success young, but the move to New York was a move into a bigger world and she realised that she needed to develop.

Following the completion of her studies, she joined the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, during the period when Peter Jonas was the Intendant and Zubin Mehta the musical director. She was part of the ensemble for three years, which she describes as a fantastic experience. She did a lot of roles, not only Baroque and Mozart but Verdi too and got her first big break singing Gilda in Rigoletto.

Now Chen does not have an official home company, but she has a strong relationship with the Vienna State Opera and spends around three months per year there. She describes the audience in Vienna as loyal, warm and involved. The productions she finds conservative, in a good sense, and she is grateful for the opportunities to work with some great directors and conductors. She performed the title role in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen in a production directed by Otto Schenk, and it was amazing to work with him. She has also developed a warm relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, performing in concert with them at the Vienna Musikverein and on tour to Japan and to Italy.

She admits that it was not love at first sight when she started working in Vienna, but she has grown to appreciate what she describes as the classical music capital of the world. It is a great privilege as a singer to work there, people recognise you in the street.

Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)
She, her husband (who is English) and their two small children divide their time between Vienna, Israel and the UK, but Chen spends a lot of time travelling. She does not just sing opera, she enjoys a lively concert career and feels that there is a great deal of concert music for her voice. Recent projects in the UK have includes Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the BBC, a recital at the Wigmore Hall, Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the 2017 BBC Proms conducted by Daniele Gatti, and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 plus Richard Strauss songs with the Philharmonia in February of this year. Another concert highlight was in 2014 when she sang for the Pope at a Christmas mass which was broadcast all over the world.

Whilst she has her eye on roles like Donna Anna and Konstanze (Die Enfuhrung aus dem Serail) she is very happy with the lyric roles she is doing now and would like to return to Gilda and to Amina in La Sonnambula. She wants to try and keep the voice young and light and comments that a role like the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly would not happen. Her voice is strong in the higher register and has developed in the middle voice, but a role like Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) is too low for her, requiring too much chest voice. As her voice has developed she is finding that she sings the same roles, but with a more meaty middle voice and it is not just about size, but colour is important too, keeping the voice's crystalline quality.

She listens to a lot of recordings and there are many singers that she admires, including Montserrat Caballe for her impeccable technique and the beauty of her voice; Kiri te Kanawa, Chen loves the colour of her voice and the ease of her singing; Cecilia Bartoli for her expressivity and for her use of the Italian language; Edith Mathis for the German repertoire and of course male singers like Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Other musicians she admires include Daniel Barenboim whose interpretations are always fascinating.

She loves working on opera with the conductor Zubin Mehta and finds that he has a great sense of drama, and is very supportive of singers. She has done a lot of roles for the first time with Mehta and he always listens to the singers and finds just the right tempos.



In the Autumn, Chen will be singing her first Ännchen in Weber's Der Freischütz at the Vienna State Opera, in a production which debuted earlier this year, and she will make her stage debut as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro also in Vienna.

Chen also has a charitable foundation, the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic in Austria which she started 18 months ago. The foundation raises moment for the orchestras educational activities for both Arab and Israeli children, enabling the orchestra to go into deprived areas and teach the children music.

Apologies: I managed to upload the wrong photo of Ariodante, with other cast members, this is now corrected and the header image does show Chen Reiss with Christophe Dumaux in Ariodante at the Wiener Staatsoper.

Chen Reiss on disc:
The Royal Opera's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni runs from 29 June 2018 to 17 July, further information from the Royal Opera House website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North (★★★★½) - music theatre review
  • ‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Engaging rarity: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Heidenheim (★★★★) - CD review
  • Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Grange Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira - interview
  • Second View: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park conducted by George Jackson (★★★★) - opera review
  • Sei solo: Bach's partitas and sonatas for violin alone from Thomas Bowles (★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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