How a Jewish Israeli soprano found holiness in front of the Pope
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How a Jewish Israeli soprano found holiness in front of the Pope

After receiving a call from the Vatican, Chen Reiss cleared her jam-packed schedule to sing to an audience of 700 million

Israeli soprano Chen Reis sang at the Vatican's Christmas mass at the behest of Pope Francis in December 2014. (Paul Marc Mitchell)
Israeli soprano Chen Reis sang at the Vatican's Christmas mass at the behest of Pope Francis in December 2014. (Paul Marc Mitchell)

LONDON — Among Chen Reiss’s most treasured possessions is “an amazing letter” – from Pope Francis.

It’s just weeks since the Israeli soprano, 35, sang at the Vatican during the Christmas Mass, and it’s fair to say it was a truly spiritual experience on all sides.

Reiss sang Mozart’s “Et Incarnatus Est,” part of a mass which tells the story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ and is one of the Pope’s favorite pieces.

Two years ago Reiss, who often performs with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, sang the same piece at a festival of religious music, which was what led to the unusual booking of a Jewish Israeli singer performing in the Vatican during one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar.

It was, says a clearly emotional Reiss, “one of the highlights of my singing career. I don’t just mean the massive audience, probably the largest number of people I have ever sung to” — an estimated 700 million people around the world viewed the Christmas mass on television – “but it didn’t feel like a performance. It really felt like some kind of calling in the service of God. It is true that it was Christian music and I am Jewish, but it didn’t matter. I was totally in the moment, and I felt its holiness.”

On singing for Pope Francis in December 2014, Chen Reiss says, 'It is true that it was Christian music and I am Jewish, but it didn’t matter. I was totally in the moment, and I felt its holiness.' (Paul Marc Mitchell)
On singing for Pope Francis in December 2014, Chen Reiss says, ‘It is true that it was Christian music and I am Jewish, but it didn’t matter. I was totally in the moment, and I felt its holiness.’ (Paul Marc Mitchell)

She had a brief, 30 second meeting with the Pope before she sang. He greeted her and the orchestra leader and conductor in German, though a few Vatican officials welcomed her with a cheerful “Shalom!”

But the Pope’s letter, in Italian, thanking Reiss for taking part, was something which she cherishes.

“It was a letter which a conductor could have written,” she says. “He knew all the vocal terminology, and he analyzed passages in the music – it was really amazing.”

The multi-talented Reiss, speaking about the mass to the Times of Israel from Amsterdam this week, remembered to add Latin to the number of languages in which she sings.

“I speak four and a half languages well – Hebrew, English, German, Italian, and basic French. And I sing in those languages plus Czech, Russian, Spanish, Polish, and – oh, of course! – Latin.”

Though Reiss, who is based in London with her husband and 20-month-old daughter, has a Hungarian passport, it’s not so far one of the languages in which she sings.

Hers has been a meteoric career, mentored in part by veteran Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta. Born in Holon and raised in Herzliya, Reiss is one of four children of a Hungarian-born former car mechanic and his wife, a singer in theater, opera and choirs.

‘People often ask where I’m from and, of course, it’s not like saying I’m from Sweden’

Both parents changed direction as Reiss grew up: her father, “who loves music,” now works with special needs children in the Tel Aviv area, while her mother became principal of a music conservatoire in Ra’anana.

Reiss herself studied piano at age five, ballet at age seven, only beginning voice lessons when she was 14. But by the time she was 16 she had a clear-eyed view of what she wanted to do and when she began her army service she became a soloist with the IDF Orchestra.

“We did all the special and official ceremonies,” she says. It was hard work, but she learned a lot.

At 19 she sang for Zubin Mehta in Israel. Aged 20 she headed for New York to study music, and train with a voice coach.

“I had a wonderful time there,” she says. “In New York you can go and hear the best singers, the best actors.” And Mehta advised her to try for a job at an opera house in Germany as the best way to start her career.

Chen Reiss in 'Rigoletto' in 2011. (Ruth Walz)
Chen Reiss in ‘Rigoletto’ in Vienna, 2011. (Ruth Walz)

As Reiss explains it, the opera houses in Germany and Austria have a much-envied system with government subsidies, unlike, she notes wryly, the Israel Philharmonic.

“It’s one of the best orchestras in the world and we should be very proud that it is in our country.”

Mehta – whom she describes as “a wonderful conductor and a wonderful friend of Israel” – urged her to go to Europe. She was accepted at the Munich Opera House and since then has enjoyed a rapid rise of profile, singing in many European capitals and, Reiss laughs, “living like a gypsy,” traveling from place to place.

Even today, though based in Britain, her diary takes her everywhere. She’s due to make her debut at London’s Covent Garden in July 2018 in Don Giovanni. As we spoke she was on the eve of 10 performances of The Magic Flute in Amsterdam, with side visits to Spain, Germany and Austria in the coming weeks. She’s next due to sing in Israel in June 2015 and then with the IPO in July of 2016.

Soprano Chen Reiss with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Michael Kneffel)
Soprano Chen Reiss with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Michael Kneffel)

Strikingly pretty and evidently whip-smart, Reiss says with great self-awareness that “sometimes it’s tough to be Israeli.”

“People often ask where I’m from and, of course, it’s not like saying I’m from Sweden. Very often it gets into a political discussion and yes, when there is violence in Israel it is difficult, particularly in Europe where I think there is more tendency to criticize the way Israel conducts itself.

“But I always invite people to review their opinions and try to see both sides of the coin. It’s a very complex conflict, not just black and white, and both sides have a responsibility for their actions.”

Meanwhile the soprano’s increasingly admiring public – including the Pope – can’t hear enough of this delightful Israeli export. But for today, Reiss has one more musical role to fill – singing nursery rhymes for her beloved little daughter.

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