When Cristell Reyes was a child in Puerto Rico, she wanted to be like the famous salsa singer Celia Cruz.
“I always sang since I was a little girl, but being in such a traditional Latin country, opera never crossed my mind,” she said. “My middle school was a school specializing in music, exactly like Davidson here, and my voice teacher was an opera singer.”
Cristell admits that she was less than excited about studying opera, but said the six years spent studying at that school set her on a path to where she is today.
“I learned how to care about my register and care about my singing in the classical repertoire,” she said. “And she really taught me to love opera. I’m going to always be grateful to her for encouraging me and teaching me at such a young age, and that’s what I do here too at Musical Theatre Workshops. I’m paying back all the work that she did with me to encourage kids to learn new styles and not just pop music. I like and have fun with pop music too, but opera and musical theatre give you so many opportunities as an artist that maybe popular music doesn’t give you.”
She loved it so much, in fact, that she went on to study opera in college. Cristell, a mezzo soprano, moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Florida, in 2004, and then made her way to Augusta with her then-husband in 2007. In Orlando, she worked and sang with the opera there and did the same with the Augusta Opera when she first moved here.
Since then, she has been making a name for herself in the arts community as the go-to person when it comes to voice and dance lessons. She teaches voice to children at Mickey Lubeck’s Musical Theatre Workshops and found her footing as an Argentine tango and ballroom instructor with Eduardo Diaz at Superior Salsa Academy in Augusta and A&E Dance Studio in Aiken.
More recently, however, Cristell got a job that she’d wanted even before she came in second for it last year: executive director for the Columbia County Choral Society, which begins rehearsals for its new season on Tuesday, August 4.
“After several years and many struggles, I applied for this job with the Columbia County Choral Society last year,” she said. “I went to several interviews and it ended up being between me and another person. They hired the other person, who ended up not being able to continue this year, so they asked me to come back and do several interviews again, and they finally gave me the job.”
The road to this latest achievement in Cristell’s career had a bit of bumpy start. Shortly after moving to the area, the Augusta Opera that Cristell sang for folded. Not only that, her marriage ended.
Not one to feel sorry for herself, she began teaching private voice lessons with Musical Theatre Workshops and assisted with a production every semester, working with those in the lead roles as well as those singing in the ensembles. She also helped with group lessons during summer music camps the organization held.
That was about five years ago and, a year after that, she decided to do something about a health issue that needed attention.
“About four years ago, I started a very personal journey about losing weight because I was a 288-pound female,” said Cristell, who is 5’5”. “I was huge, very big, and not because I wasn’t eating properly or anything, but because I have a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome. It totally disturbed my hormones and caused me to be as big as I was at the time.”
Under the care of an endocrinologist, Cristell went through about a year of treatments before her doctor suggested gastric sleeve surgery.
“It closes the stomach but it leaves everything else the same,” Cristell explained. “And she was very clear. She said, ‘Cristell, this isn’t going to do anything to you. It will help you to start, but it’s on you to keep it up.’”
Uncomfortable about going to the gym at her size and surrounded by children who were constantly trying to get her to dance with them during classes at Musical Theatre Workshops, Cristell decided to give dance a shot.
“I knew how to dance salsa the way we did it at home, and I didn’t even know if that was right, so I went to a local studio and danced with them on a Friday night and totally fell in love,” she said.
The dance she fell in love with was the Argentine tango so, after a few years, a studio change and shedding a few pounds, Cristell started helping Eduardo Diaz at Superior Salsa and A&E Dance Studio.
“I think he hired me (as a teacher in training) not so much because I was such an amazing dancer, it was because I’m a businesswoman and I understand the business because of my voice training and my music training,” she said. “I thought it was a good match for us to work together and, two years ago, I started teacher training with him. It’s been a blast.”
To this day, Cristell says she dances almost every day of the week, which helped her tremendously in the beginning of her weight loss journey.
“But dancing doesn’t do anything for me anymore,” she laughed. “My body was used to it, so I ended up going to the gym and I go every day now. But dancing is an excellent exercise. It’s excellent cardio and it helps mentally as well as physically. You need to learn the steps, you have to take care of your partner if you’re leading, you need to listen to your leader if you’re a follower, and it’s something that will change your life forever. It’s a great way to lose weight, to make friends, to enjoy life a little bit and get out of the routine. I always encourage people to try it because I think everybody can learn to dance.”
Singing, however, is a little different.
“For singing, yes, you can learn technique and you can learn a lot of stuff, but God has to give you a voice,” she laughed. “But still, I know a lot of singers that maybe they’re not the best but they work very hard and they become successful.”
Organizations like the Columbia County Choral Society, for instance, are great for singers of all abilities who shouldn’t be concerned about auditions on August 5 in front of Artistic Director Don Cleary.
“He welcomes people who have experience, as well as people who don’t,” she said. “Normally, everyone who has good pitch can join because we are an ensemble and we help each other. That’s his job, to educate them vocally and musically. He always does workshops to help them become better musicians and better singers. He’s very good at that.”
Cristell, while she may collaborate with the group as a soloist during their three performances of the 2015-2016 season, says she prefers to concentrate on the tasks associated with her new position: getting the word out about the organization and raising money.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist and next year with be our 20th season, so it’s been a long time,” she said. “That’s one of the main goals and, of course, the other is to get the choral society solid enough money-wise so that we don’t have to struggle every year.”
And though she was disappointed not to get the position last year, she now, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks it was for the best.
“In a way, I’m grateful because, a year ago, I was just a year into teaching with Eduardo and helping him with all the business stuff,” she said. “So I’m now a two-year dance instructor and a two-year businessperson. So I feel more prepared to become an executive director. I always feel like God does stuff for a reason, so I’m grateful to him that even though I struggled a little bit as an artist and as a person for the last two years that I got the job now because I feel ready for the challenge.”
And not only this challenge but others as well. Cristell recently gave a motivational speech to 25 women who, as a group, are trying to lose weight.
“My career has been moving places right now that I never thought it would,” she said. “It’s not where I want to be yet. I’m still struggling like any artist, but it’s in a place that I always wanted to go. And then, on top of that, I have the opportunity to inspire and help people in their lives, not only as an artist, but with the physical and spiritual. It’s a plus for me.”
Auditions for the Columbia County Choral Society are Tuesday, August 4, from 7-8 p.m. at the First Baptist Church of Evans. The choir practices each Tuesday night at the church from 7-9 p.m., and members pay $75 a year in dues. For more information about CCCS, and the classes that Cristell teaches at Musical Theatre Workshops or at Superior Salsa Dance Academy and A&E Dance Studio, call 762-383-3176 or 706-832-6191.