Happy (Leap Year) Birthday, Reri Grist!


Reri Grist (born February 29, 1932) is an American coloratura soprano from New York. She was one of the pioneer African American Opera singers who went on to enjoy a long and successful career as well as international fame across the Opera world. Grist starred as Consuelo, one of the female "Sharks", in the original 1957 performance of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story on Broadway. The now classic song "Somewhere" was first sung by Grist and introduced into popular culture. Grist enjoyed a life of traveling around the globe and performing in many well renowned Opera venues in Europe. Since retiring from her career she has taught Voice and currently lives with her husband Dr. Ulf Thomson in Hamburg, Germany.

ReriGrist2Reri Grist was born during The Great Depression in New York City. She grew up in the East River Housing Projects in Harlem. Grist attended the High School of Music and Art. Her musical talents were nurtured from a young age and she was given lessons in both voice and dance. Grist worked hard to receive her Bachelor of Arts in Music at Queens College, but started performing on Broadway when she as just a teenager.

Grist began appearing on Broadway in 1964. She started out performing in small roles alongside more established performers such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lawrence Tibbett, Helen Hayes and Eartha Kitt. In the meantime, Grist was getting thorough training in vocals from teacher Claire Gelda, who quickly noticed the young star's potential. Grist's first Opera role was in a staging of Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor. She played the role of Madame Herz. This was followed by her role of Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones in 1956.

Zerbinetta's Aria

Reri Grist sings Mahler

ReriGrist3West Side Story was a tale about neighborhood rivalry between two gangs of differing ethnic backgrounds. Set on the Upper West Side, which was in the process of urban renewal at the time, this play would become extremely popular and adapted into a film in 1961. Although Grist's part in the first production was only in a supporting role playing Consuelo, Pepe's Girlfriend, she got to sing the number "Somewhere", one of the play's key musical moments. Composer Bernstein then offered Grist a soprano part in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major with the New York Philharmonic. This was her first opportunity to sing classical music.

Grist's performance in Symphony No. 4 was a major breakthrough for her. Columbia Records taped the show and would later release it as part of their Bernstein Century series. Grist's close relationship with Bernstein landed her the opportunity to perform on his televised Young People's Concerts in 1960. Grist would stay with the New York Philharmonic for her next few roles, which included parts in plays by Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen, Fauré, Nono and Alban Berg.


Gwyneth Jones, Reri Grist and Christa Ludwig sing the Final Trio from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier

Reri Grist sings Mozart's "Vorrei spiegarvi"

In 1959, Grist was hired to play Adele in Die Fledermaus at the Santa Fe Opera and Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the same venue. Like others who had been inspired by Grist's abilities before him, Composer Igor Stravinsky heard her sing and asked Grist to be in his Le Rossignol at the Washington Opera Society. These roles would lead to her European debut in in Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Cologne Opera. From 1960 to 1966, Grist stayed with the Zurich Opera where she performed as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore. Grist was the first African American to become a member of the Zurich Opera.


By the mid 1960s, Grist was highly in demand. She made her debut in Le Coq d'Or at the Royal Opera House in London. She then played Despina in Così Fan Tutte at the Glyndebourne Festival. Grist would perform for twenty-five seasons at the Vienna State Opera starting in 1963. That year, she also appeared in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the San Francisco Opera. There, she would also sing in Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera, Le Nozze di Figaro, Dialogue des Carmélites, and Massenet's Manon.

The Third Act Trio from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier

Caro Nome by Reri Grist

In 1964, Grist debuted at the Salzburg Festival and would stay for twelve seasons performing various roles in Mozart Operas, led by great conductors like Karl Böhm, Zubin Mehta and Herbert von Karajan. In 1966, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in her hometown of New York. Grist played a range of roles here, including Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Norina in Don Pasquale, Gilda in Rigoletto and Olympia in Les contes d'Hoffmann. Over the next few years, Grist performed in Italy at Milano's Piccola Scala and was honored by the state of Bavaria, being given the title of "Bayerische Kammersängerin".

Reri Grist retired from Opera in 1991 with her performance in a one-woman opera called Neither at the De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. The show was composed by Morton Feldman and based on a text by Samuel Beckett. She would carry on appearing in concerts led by Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Gielen, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Leopold Stokowski, Friedrich Cerha and Die Reihe. Grist's final on-stage performance was in 2007 where she appeared in a Gala for Equity Fights Aids on Broadway. She was honored for being a member in the first West Side Story production on the 50th anniversary of its release. For this commemoration, she once again sang her breakthrough song "Somewhere".

Reri Grist sings "Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln"

Since Grist's retirement from singing, she served as a professor at the School of Music, Indiana University and at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich. Grist has given Master Classes at the Metropolitan Opera for their Young Artist Development Program. She also contributed her experience to classes at the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, the Zürich International Opera Studio, the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia Madrid and at the Ravinia Summer Festival. In 2001, the American Opera Association honored her with a Legacy Award and the the Licia Albanese Foundation gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award. Grist's college in Queens also awarded their successful alumni two other awards. Reri Grist lives with her husband in Germany and enjoys a calmer life practicing cooking, gardening and stitching. 


Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Saturday, 01 March 2014
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