The Nightingale and the Rose
Chen Reiss has a voice to match her looks. She talks coloratura and Krenek with Jeremy Nicholas. ‘I was born in Tel Aviv. My mother is an opera singer. My father is a car mechanic and when he is asked if he too is musical he says, “God forbid! Somebody has to pay the bills!” Chen Reiss laughs, as she does frequently, telling me about her early life in Israel. Though she happily answers to Chen (the ‘ch’ as in China), the correct pronunciation of her first name is, as she explains, to make the ‘ch’ sound like the ‘ch’ in Bach.Whatever your mental picture of the average international soprano might be, Chen Reiss is firmly in the glamorous section of the gallery. With a full mane of dark hair, liquid brown eyes, olive skin and rangy body, she looks more like a fashion model in her figure-hugging jeans than a classical soloist whose international career has taken a rapid upward trajectory.Her vocal talents were spotted by the authorities when she entered the Israeli army for compulsory military service. She was appointed the country’s official vocalist with the army’s orchestra. ‘It got me out of shooting and marching!’ After that she went to New York to study. There, in 2002, she met her voice teacher Ruth Falcon. ‘My voice was naturally high, but she developed the middle range and gave it many more colours and much more power. Ten years ago I could never have sung Gilda [Rigoletto], Pamina [The Magic Flute] or Sophie [Der Rosenkavalier] in big opera houses as I do now. I don’t see myself as a coloratura soprano any more. Now I am a lyric soprano with extensions.’
‘I did some research and discovered that the rose has had more songs written about it than any other flower, just as the nightingale appears in music, mythology and literature more frequently than any other bird.’
Her first big break came in 2003 with the Staatsoper in Munich. She auditioned for Zubin Mehta and Sir Peter Jonas – and was given a contract for three years. ‘It was the best school of my life. This was the door to the opera world.’ A decade on and her future plans include the title role in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and Gretel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. In just the next few months she will sing Silvia in Haydn’s L’isola disabilita, Xenia in Boris Godunov and Adina in L’elisir d’amore. In December she’ll make her London debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Second Symphony.
Her new CD, entitled The Nightingale and the Rose, is her second for the Onyx label. The first, Liaisons, won her glowing reviews, a thoughtfully programmed selection of arias by Mozart, Cimarosa, Salieri and Haydn. ‘Immaculately produced voice and enticing tone,’ enthused Opera News, ‘matched by her superb musicianship.’
The inspiration for her very different follow-up came from the eponymous vocalise by Saint-Saëns, a haunting, wordless aria from the incidental music he wrote for the play Parysatis in 1902. ‘Then I did some research and discovered that the rose has had more songs written about it than any other flower, just as the nightingale appears in music, mythology and literature more frequently than any other bird. And of course the nightingale and the rose together symbolise love.’ Among the 25 songs she finally selected are many rarely-heard numbers including works by Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, Krenek and Berg. On the disc she sings in seven languages: English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. ‘Oh!’ she adds with a laugh. ‘And there’s a bonus track just for the UK – ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square’.
We’ll be hearing a lot more of this particular nightingale over the next few years.