The following interview of the great 20th century star of opera and musical theater took place on the ranch of the Santa Fe Opera, whose hosting is gratefully acknowledged:
[Below: Soprano Reri Grist; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Wm: I ask each of the artists I interview about their earliest memories of music. What were yours?
RG: My mother, who had a high, sweet, gentle voice, liked to sing and my father, a handsome, elegant man, enjoyed dancing. I must have been influenced by their relationship with music at a very early age.
We lived in one of the first low-income housing projects in New York City with a then socially and ethnically well integrated group of people. No one was permitted to make music in their apartment. We had no piano and neither of my parents played an instrument, so I was taken to tap lessons somewhere in the City. Perhaps my mother dreamed of me becoming a performer.
Wm: And yet you built a famous career in vocal performance. When did your interest in voice overtake tap dancing and theater?
RG: It seems that I was always singing and dancing in school performances or some small dance class or learning studios. It was a part of me. My brothers too, sang whatever and whenever they felt like it.
Wm: Did your brothers pursue singing careers?
RG: My first brother studied economics in college and later worked in financing. The second brother is a recognized fine arts painter.
Wm: At what age did you begin formal vocal training ?
RG: I recall lessons, while in my junior high school years, with a patient, careful voice teacher who nurtured me with simple, classical songs. By the time I was accepted into Music and Art High School, I had had some formal training.
[Below: New York City’s High School of Music and Art, in its location from 1936 through 1984; resized image of an historical photograph.]
I had one voice teacher there and after graduation, a different private voice teacher, Claire Gelda, with whom I worked exclusively until her death many years later. I obtained a BA in Music from Queens College and chose not to pursue a Masters Degree.
Wm: At age 14, you were cast in Broadway play Jeb in which Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis starred (and where they met).
RG: Yes, I played Ossie Davis’ little sister – a small, spoken role, in “Jeb”. I felt quite comfortable on almost any stage then and later.
Wm: You were just out of high school when you were cast in Jan Meyerowitz’ opera “The Barrier”, which played on Broadway in 1950. Were your interests at the time in pursuing a career in opera or in Broadway?
RG: I have no recollection of deliberately wanting to “become an opera singer” or “to specifically learn to be a singer, actress or dancer”, but perhaps my unconscious aim was toward opera. My parents did not push me to “become” this or that. Yes, I was given some lessons in dancing and singing, but they were not the “theatre” parents who push their children into fulfilling their own dreams hoping to lead to fame and fortune.
Had my aim been to become a schoolteacher or librarian, they would have supported me here, too, but they obviously recognized a talent for theatre within me through the successes I had had in little concerts and appearances from early childhood.
Wm: Muriel Rahn is perhaps best remembered today for “Carmen Jones” on Broadway in 1944, but “The Barrier” was considered her last successful Broadway musical performance. It seems to me that both Meyerowitz’ opera and Rahn’s and Lawrence Tibbetts’ Broadway run were important historically for their social significance, but relatively little seems to be known about either theses days.
As a person who performed in the opera, what are your thoughts about it?
[Below: Broadway and opera star Muriel Rahn, who alternated the role in “Carmen Jones” with music by Georges Bizet and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; edited image of an historical photograph.]
RG: The theme of “The Barrier” as I remember it, was ahead of its time. The score was good. The main performers: Muriel Rahn’s full, brilliant voice and Lawrence Tibbett’s rich, warm baritone were very good in these roles.
Wm: In 1956 you took part in a revival of “Carmen Jones” at the New York City Theater, playing Cindy Lou (Micaela) with Muriel Smith and William DuPree as Carmen and Joe (Don Jose).
RG: “Carmen Jones” was a great adaptation by Oscar Harmmerstein II of Bizet’s “Carmen”.
Wm: As far as your time on Broadway is concerned, you are mainly associated with the role of Consuelo and the song “Somewhere” in the 1957 original cast of Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. How did this job come about?
RG: I auditioned for Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. Jerry was not too interested in my being in the cast, but Bernstein was. I obviously had the youthful, purity of sound and human experience which he envisioned/heard in his inner ear for this song at this point in the musical. I spent more than a year from the beginnings with the original WSS company.
[Below: Reri Grist (center) listens to a playback of the recording of Bernstein’s “West Side Story”; edited image, based on ah historical photograph.]
I had also appeared as a plantation girl in Chekov’s drama “The Cherry Orchard” with Helen Hayes in the lead role, and was fascinated by the voluminous speaking voice of this small, seemingly fragile, perhaps five feet tall lady.
Wm: It was during this time that your career was transformed from smaller roles on Broadway to leading roles in opera. You were a principal in a concert performance of Mozart’s “The Impresario” and then debuted at the Santa Fe Opera in 1959 as Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Blondchen in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”. What were the circumstances that led to these operatic debuts?
RG: I cannot remember how I came in contact with the responsible persons or who recommended me for this engagement as Madam Herz in Mozart’s “The Impresario”.
The engagement with the Santa Fe Opera was a result of having won the Blanche Thebom Competition in NYC that year. I, of course, had to audition, but as I remember, I was more or less offered Blondchen and Adele in conjunction with the prize.
Wm: In Santa Fe, the composer Igor Stravinsky attended your performances and subsequently invited you to sing the role of the Nightingale in his opera “Le Rossignol” in a performance he was conducting in Washington D. C.
“Rossignol” became one of two recordings that you made in 1960, one conducted by Stravinsky and one by Bernstein. How did the latter come about?
RG: Stravinsky and I happened to sit next to each other after a performance in which I had sung Blondchen at the Santa Fe Opera. In a brief conversation, he told me that he had heard me sing that night and invited me to sing his “Le Rossignol” when he next conducted it. This was realized as he wanted at the Washington Opera Society a short time later.
During the early months of rehearsal and performances of “West Side Story”, I tried to convince Leonard Bernstein to listen to me sing “other music” besides his beautiful “Somewhere”. He one day agreed and, as he wished, between a matinee and evening performance, I stood on the stage of empty Carnegie Hall and sang for him. He was genuinely impressed and later offered me the soprano solo in the Mahler IV symphony with him conducting the NY Philharmonic Orchestra.
[Below: the cover of a Sony recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and sung by Reri Grist.]
Although I did not know the work, I decided to go for it and did something which I don’t think many young singers would do today. I obtained an orchestral score, got a German dictionary, translated the text and taught myself the part from what was written in the score, rather than listening to or watch it being sung by some other artist.
There were two private sessions with Bernstein, neither very long, then the general rehearsals and then ‘go out there and sing’.
Wm: Soon afterward, you went to Europe.
RG: Herbert Graf, who had returned to Europe at the end of World War II, was the then Intendant of the Opera in Zürich, Switzerland. Along with a number of other Americans, including James McCracken, Regina Sarfaty and Lotfi Mansouri, he invited me to become a member of the company.
[Below: Herbert Graf (left) goes through an opera score with Lotfi Mansouri (right); edited image of an historical photograph.]
A short time after my arrival, he told me that I would be cast as Zerbinetta and that in a short time, I would have to perform the role. Oi, oi, oi!! Not having previously seen or heard the opera, I got down to business and learned the role, had a few solo piano rehearsals, had one rehearsal of only the aria with the conductor and the orchestra in the foyer of the Opera House, was told my general moves by the stage manager before my first appearance and ‘went on’.
To the surprise of several persons and pride of Dr. Graf, my performance turned out to be a great success and awakened the interest of other companies including Glyndebourne. My thanks went to my voice teacher, Claire Gelda, and my few years on the Broadway stage!
Wm: The companies that were interested in your career included the San Francisco Opera’s Kurt Herbert Adler who engaged you for the 1963 season. How did you you and Adler first meet?
RG: I don’t know who spoke to him about me, but I believe that I was performing at Glyndebourne when he invited me to audition for him.
Wm: Over all, you performed 73 performances for the San Francisco Opera, 60 of which were at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and the remainder at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. Except for six performances late in your career, all of your San Francisco Opera performances were during the Adler era. What did you think of him?
RG: I was very fond of Adler and had great respect for him. I know that he had his tantrums, but he was knowledgeable about opera and had a great respect for anyone who gave all he or she had to offer.
[Below: Sister Constance (Reri Grist, left) prays as Blanche (Lee Venora, right) looks on; edited image, based on a photograph of the 1963 San Francisco Opera production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites; edited image of a production photograph, from rerigrist.com.]
Wm: In those performances during the 1960s, you were a star alongside some legendary singers.
RG: Yes! I think that it was in my first season with the SFO that I was Despina to the Fiordiligi of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, later Susanna to Geraint Evans’ Figaro, Adina with Pavarotti (in Mansouri’s delightful production of “L’Elisir d’Amore) … and several other great artists!
Wm: Two years later, you joined Leontyne Price and Sandor Konya in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, opening the Los Angeles Music Center, which holds its 30th anniversary later this year.
RG: It was and remains for me a great honor to have sung Oscar with the unsurpassed Leontyne Price in “Ballo in Maschera” at that time in my life! – and Sandor Konya was a wonderful colleague!
Another high moment for me was as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with Alfredo Kraus. He was a gentleman through and through and sang with elegance and style. Beautiful!
[Below: Kurt Herbert Adler, General Director of the San Francisco Opera, 1954-1981; image from a record cover.]
Wm: I saw you sing Adina in Donizetti’s “”L’Elisir d’Amore” opposite Kraus in 1967 and Luciano Pavarotti in 1969 both with casts that included Ingvar Wixell and Sesto Bruscantini.
RG: Oh yes! It was a joy to sing with two completely different Nemorinos: Kraus in 1967 at the San Francisco Opera and Pavarotti in 1969 at San Francisco and the Met. Kraus – elegant of sound, a slightly unconsciously noble country youth willingly conquered by the self assured young lady of the village and Pavarotti – a young, earthy, awkward, country guy with a perhaps innate knowledge of the style of the music and a voice which captivated me and everyone else on stage and in the opera house with his singing and his total performance. I very much enjoyed performing with each of these particularly outstanding Nemorinos.
[Below: Reri Grist in a moment of relaxation; edited image, based on a photograph from www.rerigrist.com.]
Most of my work with Pavarotti in other operas took place later when we were both at the Met.
Wm: I appreciate the time that I was able to spend with you and look forward to future conversations.
RG: Thank you.