Reri Grist was born in New York City on Feb.29, 1932, attended the High School of Music and Art and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Queens College, New York City. In early childhood she was given dance and voice lessons and performed in concerts as vocal soloist singing works of Gounod, Schubert, Grieg and Mozart.
Beginning in her early teens in 1946, she appeared on Broadway in small roles and in musicals along with Helen Hayes, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and Lawrence Tibbett while attending voice lessons with Claire Gelda who discovered her unusual potential.
Grist performed her first staged, operatic role in 1956 as Cindy Lou (Micaela) in “Carmen Jones”, Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen”. In the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in 1957, she played Consuelo, one of the Shark girls, and introduced the song ‘Somewhere’ to the public. A major breakthrough in classical music came shortly thereafter in 1960 when Bernstein engaged her to sing the soprano part in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in concert with the New York Philharmonic coupled with Bernstein’s prized Young People’s Concerts.
During several years following, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic under the batons of Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen in works by Strawinsky, Fauré, Nono and Alban Berg.
Her first opera engagement was in Washington Square Park, NYC in 1959 as Madame Herz in an open air concert performance of Mozart’s “Der Schauspieldirektor”. As winner of the Blanche Thebom Competition, the soprano made her operatic debut in 1959 at the Santa Fe Opera as Blondchen in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” followed by Adele in “Die Fledermaus”.
Igor Strawinsky heard her there and invited her to perform his “Le Rossignol” with him conducting in 1963 with the Washington Opera Society.
Reri Grist’s European debut was in 1960 at the Opernhaus Köln where she sang the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. Herbert Graf, the then new director of the Zürich Oper, invited Grist to become a permanent member of the company making her the first female, African-American singer to hold such a position in a European opera house. During her engagement with the Zürich Oper, 1960-1966, she sang her first performances of several roles including Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos”, Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Adina in “L’Elisir d’Amore”.
As a result of the successes in Zürich, she found herself much in demand: 1962 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as the Queen of Shemakhan in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”, the Glyndebourne Festival as Zerbinetta and Despina in “Cosi FanTutte” and 1963 as Zerbinetta at the Vienna State Opera where she performed throughout twenty-five consecutive seasons.
In the same year she first appeared at the San Francisco Opera as Rosina in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. Among the roles she subsequently sang during twelve seasons with the company were Gilda in “Rigoletto”, Oscar in “Un Ballo in Maschera”, Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro”, Sister Constance in “Dialogue des Carmélites”, Adele in “Die Fledermaus”, Manon in Massenet’s “Manon” and Adina and Zerbinetta.
At the Salzburg Festival in 1964 Grist’s initial performance as Zerbinetta in the Rennert/Böhm production of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” was received by the public and press as a particularly notable one in that she showed an unprecedented, encompassing interpretation of vocal, dramatic and dance skills.
During the succeeding twelve seasons, interrupted by the birth of her daughter in 1968, she performed Susanna, Despina, Blondchen and Papagena in productions of the Mozart operas – “Le Nozze di Figaro”,
“Cosi Fan Tutte”, “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” and “Die Zauberflöte” conducted by Karl Böhm, Zubin Mehta and Herbert von Karajan.
Reri Grist debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on February 25, 1966 as Rosina in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. Other roles which she sang there throughout twelve years included Gilda in “Rigoletto”, Norina in “Don Pasquale”, Olympia in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier”, Adina, Zerbinetta and Oscar.
There followed an “Ariadne auf Naxos” in italian at Milano’s Piccola Scala with Hermann Scherchen conducting. Several years later she sang Despina in “Cosi Fan Tutte” with Karl Böhm at La Scala.
During a long time association, 1965 – 1983, with the Bayerische Staatsoper,
she performed in several notable productions by Günther Rennert and Wolfgang Sawallisch including Richard Strauss’ “Die Schweigsame Frau” in which she sang Aminta. In 1976 she was honored by the state of Bavaria with the title of ‘Bayerische Kammersängerin’.
Grist ended her operatic career in 1991 at De Nederlanse Oper Amsterdam in the one-woman tour de force “Neither” by Morton Feldman/Samuel Beckett directed by Pierre Audi. She executed the one hour long, unusually exacting, intricate vocal demands of Morton Feldman’s music coupled with the hermetic text of Samuel Beckett with a high degree of artistry which the audience and musicians rewarded with a standing ovation.
Sixteen years later in 2007, she once again appeared on stage on Broadway at the Gypsy of the Year/Equity Fights Aids Gala Celebration of the 50th anniversary of “West Side Story” in which almost all members of the original cast participated and, in an emotional ceremony, were honored. She sang then, as in the original production, ‘Somewhere’.
Grist has performed in concert works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Rossini, Orff, Schoenberg, Webern, Fortner, Henze and other composers with the conductors Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Gielen, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Otto Klemperer, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Boulez and Friedrich Cerha (die reihe) with the Boston Symphony, NY Philharmonic, Wiener Philharmoniker, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Bayerisches and the Saarländisches Rundfunkorchester.
Among the conductors with whom she has performed in opera are James Levine, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Mstislav Rostropowitsch, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and Silvio Varviso.
Reknown stage directors with whom Grist created several of her most accomplished interpretations were Günther Rennert, Giorgio Strehler, Lotfi Mansouri, Otto Schenk, Ruth Berghaus and Nat Merrill.
She toured in song recitals in the USA, Canada and Austria with classical, romantic and contemporary repertoire partnered with the accompanists Irwin Gage, Phillip Moll, Warren Wilson, Heinz Medjimorec and Kenneth Broadway.
As Professor of Voice Grist has taught at the School of Music Bloomington, Indiana and at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München. She has been a member of various international juries and has given Master Classes at Young Artists Programs including those of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, San Francisco Opera Merola Program, Zürich International Opera Studio, Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia Madrid and the Steans Institute Ravinia, Illinois.
Other recognitions of the soprano’s accomplishments include a Legacy Award of the American Opera Association in 2001, a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Licia Albenese Foundation in 2003 and two awards from her alma mater Queens College, NYC.
Along with her often demanding schedule of performance engagements, Grist and her family spent vacations throughout many years sailing in the Baltic Sea, cross country skiing in Switzerland and Austria and hiking in parts of central Europe. She is married to Dr. Ulf Thomson, 1982-87 Artistic Administrator (Redakteur) of the Norddeutsche Rundfunk Sinfoniorchester Hamburg, 1987- 90 Intendant of the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.
Among her other hobbies Ms. Grist includes gardening, cross stitch embroidery, collecting and cooking unusual recipes from various cultures.