Arts and Culture

In Celebration of Reri Grist’s 80th Birthday: A Unique Transatlantic Operatic Career

A pioneering operatic figure on her exciting life and times

After Leonard Bernstein cast Reri Grist in the première of West Side Story, she found herself catapulted into stardom on opera stages throughout Europe and America. A regular at the Salzburg Festival, Grist's domination of the lyric and coloratura Fach in Strauss and Mozart signaled a breakthrough for African-American singers. Younger generations have since revered Grist for her silvery tone, flawless technique, and stupendous acting. On February 28, the Academy hosted Grist for a discussion of her inspiring career, moderated by Pamela Rosenberg.

Born in New York City in 1932, Grist went to the High School of Music and Art and graduated subsequently with a degree in music from Queens College. She went on to  perform on Broadway in minor roles and in musicals along with Ossie Davis (she once played his little sister, she explained in her talk), as well as with Ruby Dee, Lawrence Tibbett, and Eartha Kitt. Grist's first opera engagement was in Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor by Mozart, but her first staged, semi-operatic performance was in 1956, in Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones. A year later Grist played Consuelo in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. Bernstein then cast her  in the soprano part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major with the New York Philharmonic, and Columbia Records recorded Grist with Bernstein and the Philharmonic in this symphony in 1960.

Grist's official operatic debut was at the Santa Fe Opera in 1959, when she played the role of Adele in Die Fledermaus, followed by the role of Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. When Igor Stravinsky heard Grist in the latter peformance, he invited her to perform his Le Rossignol with him conducting with the Washington Opera Society. This led to her European debut, in 1960, as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute in Cologne. From there, Grist became a member of the Zurich Opera (1960–1966), leading to other successful debuts in London, Vienna, and San Francisco, among others, including at the Salzburg Festival in 1964. Her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on February 25, 1966, as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, leading to a smattering of subsquent, impressive roles. She closed her operatic career in 1991 at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam in the one-woman opera composed by Morton Feldman (to a text by Samuel Beckett), and directed by Pierre Audi.

Alongside this impressive career, Grist has also passed on her insights through teaching. She taught voice at the School of Music at Indiana University, Bloomington, as well as at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, in Munich, and she has given master classes at the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, the Zürich International Opera Studio, the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia Madrid, and the Ravinia Summer Festival.

Grist, who lives in Hamburg, Germany, was honored with the title of Bayerische Kammersängerin by the State of Bavaria in 1976, and has since received honors including a Legacy Award of the American Opera Association (2001), a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Licia Albanese Foundation (2003) and two additional awards from Queens College.