Soprano  Reri  Grist

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Reri Grist is an internationally acclaimed lyric and coloratura soprano noted for her “silvery tone, flawless technique and stupendous acting.” Beginning her singing career as Consuelo in Leonard Bernstein’s musical “West Side Story” in 1957, she introduced the song “Somewhere” to the public.  After that performance she flowed gradually into a thirty-year career in opera, singing countless roles in opera houses across Europe and America. She also concertized and has passed on her insights through teaching voice in several countries.

Born in New York on February 29, 1932, to West Indies immigrant parents who encouraged her talent and self-discipline, Grist acted as a young teen in several musicals. She attended the High School of Music and Art and received a degree in music from Queens College, New York in 1954. Singing with Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, she gained recognition that led to her official operatic debut at the Santa Fe Opera in 1959, as Adele in Die Fledermaus. Igor Stravinsky met her there and invited her to perform in his Le Rossignol in 1963. [Recording conducted by the composer is shown below.]


During a sightseeing trip to Europe in 1960, Grist auditioned for the Opernahaus Köln in Germany, and was immediately offered her European debut singing the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. She then became the first African American woman to become a permanent member of the Zurich Opera, 1960-1966 in Switzerland. This led to debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, in Great Britain, and at the Vienna State Opera in Austria where she performed through twenty-five consecutive seasons. In 1963 she first appeared with the San Francisco Opera, and continued through twelve seasons with that company. Grist debuted at the Metropolitan in 1966, singing there throughout twelve years. Her singing career has encompassed major soprano roles in the opera repertoire. Through the years Grist has also performed concert works by classical and contemporary composers with major orchestras and conductors.

In 1991 Grist ended her operatic career at De Nederlanse Oper Amsterdam in the Netherlands in the one-woman tour de force Neither by Morton Feldman/Samuel Beckett. In 2007 she joined the original cast in a 50th anniversary celebration of “West Side Story,” singing “Somewhere,” the song that showcased her early beginnings in the musical world. Her awards include a Legacy Award from the American Opera Association, in 2001, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Licia Albenese Foundation, 2003, and awards from Queens College.

As Professor of Voice, Grist taught at the School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana and in Munich. She has been on numerous international juries and her Master Classes have been held in Santa Fe, New York, San Francisco, Zurich, and Madrid, Spain.

Grist has lived for many years in Hamburg, Germany. She is married to Dr. Ulf Thomson, artistic administrator and general manager of symphony orchestras in Hamburg and Berlin. The couple has one daughter.

==  Text by Marianne Hanson, from the Blackpast website (January 23, 2013)  
==  Photo of recording is from another source  

*     *      *     *     *

Reri Grist was born on February 29 in 1932. She is a Black classical vocalist and educator.

From in New York City, she grew up in the East River Housing Projects on the East River Drive in Spanish Harlem. It was a wonderful time living in this predominantly Italian, Puerto Rican, and Polish and African American neighborhood. She 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 (Micaëla) 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 [recording shown below] 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 Blonde in Mozart’s "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" followed by Adele in "Die Fledermaus". Igor Stravinsky heard her there and invited her to perform his "Le Rossignol" with him conducting in 1963 with the Washington Opera Society.

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 "Così 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, and intricate vocal demands of Morton Feldman’s music coupled with the hermetic text of Samuel Beckett with a high degree of artistry that the audience and musicians rewarded with a standing ovation.

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 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 Reri Grist includes gardening, cross stitch embroidery, collecting and cooking unusual recipes from various cultures.

==  Text is from the African American Registry website  
==  Photo of recording is (again) from another source  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Reri Grist graced the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago twice in the 1960s.  First, in 1964, she was Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos of Richard Strauss.  Also in the cast were Regine Crespin, Jean Cox, Irmgard Seefried, and Theodor Uppman.  The conductor was Eugen Jochum.  Grist returned in 1968 for Don Pasquale of Donizetti, with Geraint Evans, Alfredo Kraus, and Sesto Bruscantini, led by Bruno Bartoletti.

Grist returned to Chicago to teach young singers at the Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony) in August of 1992, and during that visit she graciously agreed to sit down with me for an interview.  Her responses to my questions showed the depth of her knowledge, based on experiences from a distinguished career.  She was also very comfortable, as indicated by the laughter throughout.

Portions of our chat were used a couple of times on WNIB, Classical 97, and now the entire conversation has been transcribed and presented here . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You really are a February 29th person?

Reri Grist:   Absolutely!  Maybe I’m wrong, but I don
t know another soprano in the world who was born on Rossini’s birthday, and who has sung his music.  Isn’t that kind of unique?  [Much laughter]

BD:   Does that give you a special affinity for Rossini, just simply sharing the special birthday?

Grist:   Not particularly.  [The laughter continues]  It’s just playful.

BD:   Have you done any other Rossini besides Rosina in The Barber of Seville?

Grist:   I recorded La Cambiale Di Matrimonio for the radio in Switzerland.  I also did the Petite Messe Solennelle...

BD:   [Making a joke]  ...which is neither petite nor solennelle!  [More laughter]  You’ve also done a lot of Mozart.  Tell me the secret of singing Wolfgang
s music.

Grist:   I wish I knew!  In the very beginning of my career, I remember being invited by Bruno Walter to work with him.  Unfortunately, he died before I was able to do so, but I have listened to recordings of Fricsay whom I greatly admired for Mozart, and certainly the Glyndebourne years with Audrey Mildmay and others.  That was quite a unique type of Mozart.

Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963)

fricsay The son of a military band conductor of great experience, and like him able to play a wide range of orchestral instruments, Ferenc Fricsay was a student for six years at the Budapest Academy of Music, where he studied violin and piano with Bartók and composition with Kodály. His first appointment came in 1933 as military bandmaster in the Hungarian town of Szeged, the economic and cultural capital of the south-eastern region of Hungary, adjacent to the Yugoslav and Romanian borders. In 1934 he became chief conductor of the Szeged Philharmonic Orchestra and went on to establish an opera department in the local theatre in 1939, making his debut as a conductor at the Budapest Opera in 1939. Fricsay stayed in Szeged until 1944 when he and his family went into hiding from the occupying German forces in Budapest, but following the defeat of National Socialism he conducted the first symphony concert in liberated Budapest in 1945, and in the same year was appointed chief conductor of the Budapest Opera and conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Otto Klemperer was then a guest conductor. He made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during 1946.

Fricsay’s international breakthrough came in 1947, when he substituted for Klemperer as conductor of the world première of Gottfried von Einem’s opera Dantons Tod at the Salzburg Festival. He was subsequently engaged as chief conductor of the Berlin RIAS (Radio In American Sector) Symphony Orchestra, the first of the six radio orchestras to be established by the occupying powers in Federal Germany, and held this post from 1949 to 1954 alongside that of chief conductor of the Berlin Stadtische Opera, a position which he retained until 1952.

At the same time he was developing an international career, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1948, returning to the Salzburg Festival to conduct Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé in 1948 and Carl Orff’s Antigone in 1949, and conducting in England, Holland, Israel and South America. In 1950 he conducted the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1956 he became chief conductor of the Bavarian State Opera, where he remained for two seasons before returning to his old post with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1959; he also acted as a musical adviser to the Deutsche Oper, and inaugurated the company’s new opera house in 1961, leading Don Giovanni.

Fricsay was unusual in that he insisted on and obtained great precision in his performances, yet combined this with considerable emotional force. In this respect his performances were quite different from those of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the other great Berlin conductor of the period when Fricsay was establishing his international conducting and recording career. These characteristics made him an ideal recording conductor, giving his recordings a power and freshness denied to many rival versions. He encouraged orchestral musicians to listen to each other, and to play as though in chamber music: consequently his performances possessed excellent internal balance, which also was a great advantage when it came to making records. Fricsay’s repertoire was extremely wide: he was equally at home in the opera house pit as on the concert hall podium. His accounts of operas by Mozart have well stood the test of time with their bustling vivacity.

Fricsay’s musicianship was so keen and wide-ranging that anything to which he turned his hand was delivered with real understanding and style. To quote a highly distinguished musician, Yehudi Menuhin, ‘Fricsay was one of the world’s greatest conductors, certainly no conductor had greater talent.’

==  Text from the Naxos website  
==  Photo is (yet again) from another source  

mildmay Audrey Mildmay (1900–1953)

English lyric soprano who was a founder of the Glyndebourne Festival. Born Audrey Louise St. John in Herstmonceux, Sussex, England, on December 19, 1900; died in London on May 31, 1953; married John Christie, in 1931.

Audrey Mildmay, trained in London and in Vienna, where she studied with Jani Strasser. In 1927–28, she toured North America. She then joined the Carl Rosa company, staying with that group until her marriage to wealthy aristocrat John Christie in 1931. To showcase Mildmay's vocal talents, Christie designed an opera house on their estate at Glyndebourne, which seated 311. Thus, the Glyndebourne Festival was born. [Photo at right by Florence Vivienne Mellish]

Christie wanted to open the festival with Don Giovanni or Die Walküre, but Mildmay convinced him that Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Così fan tutte were more suited to Glyndebourne's small theater. The beauty of the surroundings continue to attract the world's finest performers, and because of the smallness of the place, a sense of ensemble emerges which can be heard in numerous recordings of numerous performers.

Mildmay performed Susanna, Zerlina and Norina between 1934 and 1939, and the Mozart tradition would remain strong at Glyndebourne. She also appeared as Gretel, Micaëla, Olympia, Musetta, and Nedda. Mildmay retired in 1943 and died ten years later.

Glyndebourne is still one of the world's premiere festivals, and as such it remains a lasting tribute to Mildmay and her husband.

Mildmay can be heard in recordings of two Mozart operas conducted by Fritz Busch -- Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro from 1934, and Zerlina in Don Giovanni from 1936.

My training with Mozart began really in Glyndebourne after these people had finished, and certainly long after they had sung, but there were several coaches who were still there.  For instance, Jani Strasser [Hungarian teacher who taught in Vienna, and was head of the music staff and consultant on singing at Glyndebourne].  He was one of the people who were influential in getting me to be precise, to sing just the values written.  Where it was marked piano, you sang piano, when there was a crescendo in the orchestra, you did a crescendo in the voice as well.  It was clean, with no scooping and no portamentos.  You approached a note, and you sang the note, and that was it.  It wasn’t dry but it was a pure clean Mozart.

grist BD:   How do you get a balance between being so precise and being artistic?

Grist:   That has to do with a certain innateness.  I have a clear voice, a clean voice, and my technique has always been very precise.  I am someone who is a disciplined person.  I have to be, otherwise I certainly wouldn’t have accomplished the things I have done.  That is necessary in Mozart.  You don’t have to add to Mozart, like you don’t have to add to Johann Christian Bach.  It
s all inherent in the music.  I’m not talking about cadenzas.  There are different ideas about cadenzas for Mozart, and there you have a certain leeway.  But, for example, I just don’t believe the aria ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ should be [demonstrates exaggerated portamento, or swooping from note to note].  I don’t think that has anything to do with Mozart.

BD:   That’s too schmaltzy?

Grist:   I don’t want to say
schmaltzy, but I think it’s cheap.  It’s not even romantic.  If Mozart had wanted that, he would have written it in.

BD:   So, you hit each note precisely and cleanly?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right (from the 1966 Salzburg Festival), see my interviews with Walter Berry, and Edith Mathis.]

Grist:   Yes.  There has to be a cleanness in the line.  That is not to say that there’s not a legato.  There must be a legato where it’s required.  That is also not to say it is not without feeling.  Of course, it is with feeling, or you wouldn’t be singing music.  Even modern composers such as Webern and Berio write their music with feeling.  I say ‘even’ because many people think modern music is just [demonstrates a line with angular pitches].  But that’s not it at all!

BD:   Knowing Mozart the way you do, does that help make the music of Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and the others, even better and more musical?

Grist:   [Thinks a moment]  Mozart is one of the great trainers of the voice, so to that degree, yes, it does help.  They’re certainly completely different styles, though!  [Both laugh]  But I just don’t believe one would sing the music of Webern technically different from Mozart, or Verdi, or Rossini, or Schubert, or so  many others.

BD:   Is there just one technically correct way to sing?

Grist:   No, there is not one technically correct way to sing, because I sing differently from Fischer-Dieskau, to give an example of a man who sings technically pretty well [laughs].

BD:   Let me rephrase my question, then.  Is there just one technically correct way for you to sing?

Grist:   There is a basic technique that is required from all of us, and that technique of producing sound is applicable for composers of all music.  Now within that technique, one can make a portamento
a fast one, a slow one, a light one, a heavy onedepending upon the kind of music you’re singing.

BD:   But that’s the interpretation.

Grist:   Yes.  For all human beings there’s one basic technique of producing sound, and, therefore, for all composers.  But within that very basic technique, there is augmentation, because you don’t sing Puccini the same way you sing Mozart.  For example, Leontyne Price did not sing Amelia’s aria for The Masked Ball as she did the Four Last Songs (Strauss), or a very early and exquisite Pamina (Magic Flute).

BD:   So all will be first-rate, but they’ll be different?

Grist:   They are different, yes.

BD:   Is it possible for a composer to write something that is not technically viable for the voice?

Grist:   It’s done very often!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   Is this what helps you decide whether to sing a role or not sing a role, or sing a song and not sing a song?

Grist:   Certainly, for me, yes.  M
any composers write music when they don’t know what the voice is ableand not able!to do.  This is unless they do it deliberately, perhaps, because they’re not looking for a vocal sound in the sense that our ears have been trained to listen to vocal music.  They might be looking for a different way to use the voice.

grist BD:   Should the composers take a few voice lessons?

Grist:   Absolutely, and especially conductors... not a few, but quite a few!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you know instinctively if the conductor in the pit is sympathetic to vocal problems?

Grist:   After many years, I feel that, yes.  One knows it.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  I assume that there are quite a number of them that are in your corner?

Grist:   Very many, and I in theirs!

BD:   Are there others that are out to get you?

Grist:   [Laughs]  I can’t really say I’ve met any conductor who is out to get you, but several just don’t know what the voice is.  They don’t know how to breathe with a singer.  They don’t even know how to breathe with an instrument.

BD:   You’d think they’d learn it with an oboe or a cello.

Grist:   Yes, you would think so...  [Both laugh]

BD:   So, all musicians no matter what
even the oboists and the cellistsshould perhaps learn a little bit about the human voice?

Grist:   I think it would be a good idea.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to the selection of roles, how do you decide which roles you will sing
either new parts, or perhaps multiple parts in one opera, as in some of the Mozart operas where you have a choice?

Grist:   First of all, I didn’t sing more than fifty performances altogether in a year.

BD:   That’s very few!

Grist:   That’s right, and as one of my good and very famous colleagues said,
“But Reri, you’ll never be rich!  I said, “Maybe not, but I’ll be happy.  I wasn’t out to have that kind of career.  I didn’t need to sing in Paris on Monday, and Berlin on Wednesday, and Thursday in Munich, or wherever, and then on Saturday run down quickly and take a lesson in Milan, or something like that.  That wasn’t my interest.

BD:   How early in your career did you decide that?

Grist:   I decided to attempt a career and make it in opera in 1964, after my first performance of Zerbinetta in Salzburg.  I consciously said to myself,
Oh, I like this!  I think I’ll go ahead with singing!  Until then, I was having a wonderful time.  I studied very hard, and I worked very conscientiously.  I loved my lessons.  I enjoyed thoroughly the challenge of taking a piece of music and learning it.  I was talking briefly with pianist Charles Wadsworth, who is at the Festival now, about ‘the good old days’, because when I was growing up in New York, Charles and I used to do quite a bit of music together.  We did concerts, and he played auditions, and one day he started playing through some of the Strauss songs.  I didn’t know how difficult those things were!  I enjoyed singing them, and it really was in ’64 that I said decided that was what I’d like to do!  That was really quite a way into my career.

BD:   Until that time, you could have then gone off and done something else???

Grist:   Yes, probably!  I used to be a social worker in New York City, and my case load was primarily persons addicted to heroin, and what at that time was called Mother’s in Need of Financial Aid, because they had illegitimate children.  I had cases of women with five and six kids, and having to run after them I found very interesting.  It was a very challenging job.  I’ve been in fires with the firemen...  I couldn’t go up the ladder, but I was standing at the bottom waiting for them to bring the child down.  I’ve been called to the hospital by the doctors to come and deal with this particular woman who had tried to self-abort several times.  The hospital wanted no further contact with this person.  As a young social worker, I was supposed to try to deal with the person, who was a client of mine.
BD:   You were studying to be an artist, and yet you were dealing with perhaps the darkest side of life in the big city.

Grist:   Yes, that’s right, exactly!

BD:   How could you reconcile those two seemingly incompatible ideals?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Birgit Nilsson, Peter Schreier, Martti Talvela, and Martina Arroyo.]

Grist:   It was very difficult, but I was very much drawn to this horrible side of life, and the misfortune of many people.  I was caught up in it so much that I was at the point of wanting to bring people to my home, to take them out their environment and to bring them up myself.  It was at that point that I decided I had to stop.

BD:   Has this altered your perception all the way through your career, to know that these people are out there, and should be addressed?

Grist:   Oh, absolutely.  I have not been active in organizations to help, but perhaps I will go back into something like that when I’m no longer performing or teaching.

BD:   Is an opera performance, or a song recital, something that can or should be directed at people in this kind of situation?

Grist:   Music should be directed to all people, but I have no illusion that opera, and certainly the kinds of productions in which I’ve been involved, has almost nothing to do with these people being able to identify with that genre.  I remember one time a terrible snow storm hit New York.  We were doing Rosenkavalier at the Met, and the house was pretty empty.  So, Mr. Bing [General Manager of the Met 1950-72] opened the house to the people around the area.  A lot of what has become prevalent today, the homeless, wasn’t so prevalent then.  But people came in, the so-called derelicts, and young people on the streets, and this was our audience watching us do Rosenkavalier in these grand costumes and this grand scale in the new house at Lincoln Center.

BD:   These people who had come in had no idea what they were going to see?

Grist:   Not at all!

BD:   Did they get it?

Grist:   From their response, I felt that they got it.  They probably felt they were experiencing something very special, that they were taken out of their accustomed world.  I don’t want to say out of their misery, because for some it’s not misery in the sense that we think of as being misery.

BD:   It’s their routine?

Grist:   That is their life.  It’s not the kind of life I would personally like to live, but for many of these people they don’t know anything else.  But anyway, it must have been something very special for them, because they certainly responded quite differently from the usual audience.  They were enthusiastic.  You could hear their attentiveness.  That also happened with the performances for young people during The Barber of Seville in English.  Those were in San Francisco for a junior high school group, and they were among the best performances I’ve had yet to experience.  They laughed in the right places, and they made the correct kinds of sounds in the correct places.

BD:   You can’t kid kids!

Grist:   [Laughs]  Generally no, and I enjoyed that.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve sung all over the world.  Do you change your vocal technique at all for the size of the house?

Grist:   [Thinks a moment]

BD:   The two extreme examples might be Glyndebourne and the Met.
 [LP shown at left is a set of highlights taken from the complete recording.  See my interviews with Brigitte Fassbaender, Rolando Panerai, and Hermann Prey.  Despite the order of the names on the jacket, Prey sings Guglielmo, and Panerai is Don Alfonso!]

Grist:   In Glyndebourne singing Zerbinetta, the distance the voice has to cover is less than singing in the new or the old house of the Met.  The intensity and the projection of sound I would use is different.  Not only vocally, but dramatically it’s different from a big stage to the small stage, as well as being different when it
s on television.

BD:   When things are televised, do you play to the camera a little bit?

Grist:   It depends upon the staging.  I don’t want to give the impression that I try to sing louder, but there’s a difference in volume.  I don’t do that, because if anyone starts trying to push his voice because he’s singing, say, at the Chicago Lyric, that’s the misuse of the voice.

BD:   Do you sing differently in live performances as opposed to the recording studio?

Grist:   Absolutely!  One must do that, particularly today with all the technical equipment, and the possibilities to aid and to destroy.  It’s absolutely necessary.  You cannot project as you do on the stage.

BD:   Do you see your whole audience in that little microphone, or do you see the audience in your mind when you’re recording?

Grist:   I have to tell you I’m not looking for the audience.  I’m trying to identify with what I’m singing.

BD:   You identify with the character, or the words of the song?

Grist:   Yes, the words combined with the music.  What I feel is what I want to suggest with that combination.

BD:   When you give a song recital, is each little song a little bitty opera?

Grist:   I don’t think of it as an opera.  It depends on what each song is.  If I’m going to sing a song of Strauss, that’s a little bit of an opera.  First of all, it is very virtuoso singing, which certainly is much more towards to opera.  Plus, the theme is often a little operatic, so yes, that’s closer to opera as compared with singing
Gott im Frühling of Schubert.  That’s not opera.  That’s a very intense moment.  The Ariettes Oubliées [Debussy] is not opera. That’s very, very internalized.

BD:   There, are you revealing the poet [Paul Verlaine], or are you revealing yourself?

Grist:   Both!

BD:   How much of each one?

Grist:   That depends upon the moment!  [Both laugh]
BD:   I asked about roles, but what about songs?  There are hundreds or thousands to choose from.

Grist:   Isn’t that wonderful?

BD:   Of course, but how do you decide which ones to give your time?

Grist:   [Bursts out laughing]  I have to look for repertoire that suits my instrument.  That has changed through the years... not that my instrument has changed very much...

BD:   Has it grown?

Grist:   It has grown, but I as a person have grown.  What I want to impart is, hopefully, richer today than what I was able to do earlier.  That’s true with all of us... although I know a few people who haven’t moved ahead.  [Laughs]  There were certain songs I didn’t dare touch years ago.  I just felt they were beyond me.  I’m not talking about my vocal capabilities, but my understanding of the songs, and how I could work them inside of myself to bring them out again.  Since Lieder depends upon the poem, I felt I had to wait a while to deal with the poems.  I find it difficult to accept a twenty-one-year-old singing a song like ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ [Debussy].  It has to be a pretty experienced person to sing that.

BD:   In other words, if you heard a young singer doing that, they would just be getting through it, but they wouldn’t know what they were singing?

Grist:   I would doubt it, unless this person has done a lot of living.  There must be some people like that today, but I would question it.

BD:   You’re doing quite a bit of teaching.  Is this the kind of advice that you impart to the students today?

Grist:   It depends upon the level of the student.  I teach in Munich, and I have some wonderful singers.  One is a vocally young and intellectually young Spanish tenor.  I hope some day he will be able to follow in the footsteps of Alfredo Kraus, who I think is just stupendous.  But this young man I have to hold back because the voice is not able to do what he thinks he is intellectually is ready to do.  I also had a wonderful nineteen-year-old mezzo-alto.  She hadn’t yet decided on where the voice was going to go.  Her intellect was way beyond her vocal capabilities.  I could not let her do the ‘B Minor Mass’.  In her head she thought she’d got it all, and she may well have had it, but the instrument couldn’t do it.  So, I have to get her to hold it.  Unfortunately, she got impatient, and decided to go to another teacher who let her do all of that, but her voice suffered for it.
BD:   Is it something where you could get her to learn a little bit about it, and maybe work it into the voice, so that when she’s ready for it, it’ll be there?
Grist:   That’s what I was hoping for, but she didn’t have the patience for that.  She felt she was ready to go, and I just hoped that she would be wise enough not only to learn, but to feel.  Everyone has to feel what’s happening to their instrument, because the voice is such a delicate thing.

BD:   By the time she feels it, she will have several years of engagements that she cannot cancel?

Grist:   I’m afraid she won’t have engagements.

grist BD:   How difficult is it to say ‘no’?

Grist:   It hasn’t been difficult for me because I’ve said so many ‘no’s!  When James Levine, of whom I’m very fond, was just going into the Met, told me about wanting to do a Mozart series, and asked me to do the various Mozart roles in my vocal category.  I said,
“Thank you very much, but I feel that Die Entführung aus dem Serail doesn’t belong to the stage of the Met!

BD:   It would be swallowed up!
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Arleen Augér, and Kurt Moll.]

Grist:   Yes, and I don
t believe in augmenting the orchestra.  There were several other Mozart works to which I said no for that reason.  I had a hard time doing it, but I was convinced that it was wrong, so I said no!  I remember being asked to do Papagena.  I felt that it’s a nice little role, and I’m sure I could do it well, and I finally did do it in Salzburg for the one and the only time.  I did it for Giorgio Strehler on that huge stage of the Festspielhaus.  Since I was, and still am, such a great admirer of his, I was willing to stand on my head if he had asked me!

BD:   So, you trust him?

Grist:   Absolutely!  I have such respect for the man’s fantasy and his capability as a stage director, and the man’s understanding of music.

BD:   I assume that you would not get involved in a production that asks you to stand on your head for no reason?

Grist:   I just did a piece, about a year and a half ago, at the opera in Amsterdam, Morton Feldman’s Neither.  [Dating from 1977, the libretto is a 16-line poem by Samuel Beckett.]  It’s about sixty minutes, and it’s a one-woman piece.  It is by far the most difficult piece I’ve ever had to sing.  I think it was the second time that it was staged.  It was certainly the first time it was ever given a large staging.  I was on stage from beginning to end, and that’s wonderful.  I enjoyed that.

BD:   It’s your show!

Grist:   Yes!  It was the greatest challenge I’ve ever had to experience, but there was nothing to help you on the stage.  We started rehearsing about six months ahead, because I demanded it.  I wanted to know what this Beckett text was about, and how this director was going to work this text.  We started out on roller skates because we wanted a certain effect of gliding across the stage.  You’re not really touching the ground.  It didn’t work, but you should have seen those stagehands when I went on the stage with my knee-pads on these bright fluorescent green roller skates!  [Both laugh]  They looked at me and thought,
“This lady must be out of her mind!  But we went a different way...

BD:   But if the roller skates had worked, you would have done it?

Grist:   I sure would have done it!  Once in the 1970s doing Schweigsame Frau [Strauss], I was in a huge heavy silk dress, and Rennert said to me, “You make your entrance at the top, and I want you to slide down the banister!  This was as I’m singing!  There’s a lot of activity on stage, so I really had to sing with all I had.  I tried it, but we decided we didn’t like it.  But if he had liked it, and if I had felt comfortable, I would have stayed with it.

BD:   Was it a sustained note?
Grist:   No, no, no, no, no!  It was the beginning of the last act, so there were a lot of words and pattering, and people running across the stage.  It’s a terrific production.  [Audio recording of that production has been released on CD, as shown at right.]

BD:   You’ve sung quite a lot of Strauss.  Are there some other Strauss pieces that you have not sung, but you would like to?

Grist:   I would love to have sung Zdenka in Arabella, but it just didn’t come around.

BD:   The girl is playing a boy playing a girl!

Grist:   That’s right!  I might have tried the Fiakermilli.  I wish I could have sung Frau ohne Schatten, and Salome.  That’s the role I really wish I could have sung.  I think I would have been a very good Salome because I can move, and I had that childish quality that was necessary.

BD:   [Very gently]  You certainly have the physique for the Dance.

Grist:   I think I could have done that quite well, but I didn’t have the vocal cords.

BD:   Would you have gone down to nothing?

Grist:   No!  That I wouldn’t do.  I had a student who stripped totally on stage, and I must say I was uncomfortable seeing her in that position.

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BD:   Your voice dictates which roles you can accept.  Were these characters ones that you liked, or would you rather have played done different kinds of characters that were outside of your vocal range?

Grist:   [Laughs]  I think that everything I did I liked.  I got tired of certain roles, simply because I didn’t know what else to do with them, such as Blonde.  I couldn’t grow anymore, and so I put it down.  Also Despina.  I’ve had enough of those.  I even played Despina as an old lady.  I played her as a dirty old hag.  But after playing her in different characterizations, I just didn’t know what else to do, so I said that’s enough of that.

BD:   Why not move onto Konstanze?

Grist:   I thought about it, but like the Queen of the Night, I can sing all those notes, I can sing the arias, and I have done them in concerts, but I felt the timbre of my voice was not right for Konstanze.

BD:   It needed a little heavier voice?

Grist:   Yes, it needed a rounder quality with a very strong ping.  It needed Edita Gruberova.

BD:   I understand you’ve sung Manon?

Grist:   Oh, I loved Manon.

BD:   Tell me about her.

Grist:   Manon is a character that had such a wide range of life experience.

BD:   She really lived her whole life during the opera.

Grist:   Yes, and I thought there was so much to be done with that role.  I wanted to do it again, but somehow it did not come around.  I thought that I could have developed into a very good Manon.  Of course, my light voice was done in by heavier voices singing that kind of role today.  But still, I think I have a quality for Manon that would have been something special.  I’d love to do Manon, as you can hear as my voice gets very sentimental.

grist BD:   There’s a special place in your heart for her.

Grist:   Yes...

BD:   Have you done other Massenet operas?

Grist:   No, but I’ve done Massenet’s songs.

BD:   Are they good to sing?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Piero Cappuccilli, Fiorenza Cossotto, Gwynne Howell, and Richard Van Allan.  Grist also appears as Oscar in a DVD of the Covent Garden production conducted by Claudio Abbado.]

Grist:   They are enjoyable to sing, very light and melodic, of course.  There’s not a great weight to the music
at least the songs that I have sungbut I enjoyed them, and the audience enjoyed them.  It was easy listening, and easy singing.

Easy listening in the best sense!

Grist:   Yes.

BD:   Not background music.

Grist:   [Laughs]  Oh, no!  No, no, no, no!

BD:   Then let me ask the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Grist:   [Thinks a moment]  Music helps man further define himself.  Music relates thought and experience of man to his work.  Music can entertain.  Music can inform.  What’s the purpose of art
painting, sculpture, or even dance?  It’s the same answer.

BD:   It’s all bound up together?

Grist:   Yes.

BD:   Without naming names, are the great voices of today on the same level as the great voices of yesterday, and the day before?

Grist:   Without naming names, there’s one particular voice today of the younger generation, which is better, more consonant, and it’s a male.

BD:   As a singer or as an artist?

Grist:   As a singer.  For me, one of the greatest artists
and this is not the person to whom I was just referringis Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  What he has created out of his instrument, and has been able to impart, to inform, to entertain, is quite extraordinary.  There’s a young man singing today whose natural instrument is more beautiful than that of Fischer-Dieskau through all his various phases, and is certainly more beautiful than quite a few other singers around.  But I think singers today are generally more knowledgeable.  There’s certainly much more available to young people today with television, and videos, and records, and CDs, and books, and teachers.

BD:   Are we getting over-saturated?

Grist:   I think we’ve been over-saturated with information, but it depends upon the student.  In my teaching experience, in this country as well as others, it is a joy when the exception comes along.  But for the most part, they are presented with so much that they can’t get it all into themselves.  They don’t even know how to express what they need to be artists.  They need to be themselves, to risk something.  That element of risk must be there, and most young people don’t have that.  They listen to the ten CDs of Aïda or Die Schöne Müllerin, and they don’t know where they belong.

BD:   I often thought that the records should come afterwards.  They should learn the material first from the score.

Grist:   This is exactly what I’m saying.  Deal with that page of music, right or wrong, but at look at it, read it, sing it, feel it.  Wash the dishes and sing.  Sing a Lied, or sing The Lord’s Prayer, but sing it the way you feel, not the way Mr. Domingo has sung it, or the way Mr. Wunderlich sang it, or anyone else.  Try to sing it first, feel it, and then maybe start listening.

BD:   I often ask if singing is fun, but I really don’t have to ask you that!  You’ve demonstrated that all your career, and in talking with me today.  You sparkle when you talk about it!

Grist:   Thank you!  People ask me when I decided upon a career, and the fact that I decided after I had one helped, because I really enjoyed it.  It’s been fun all of these years.  I haven’t had a real flop, but I haven’t had continued successes all the time.  I’ve had bad critics, too.  It’s okay, we all get them, but it’s been wonderful.  I feel so privileged.  That may sound banal, but I sincerely mean that.  I am a very special person, and so is everyone who has had the opportunity to live with the kind of music
or any kind of artthat gives them satisfaction, and from which they receive recognition and can live.  I have a brother who’s a good painter, but he hasn’t had the recognition which I think he deserves.  For him, life is not as much fun as it has been for me.

BD:   I hope it continues to be fun and exhilarating for you for many more years to come.

Grist:   Thank you very much!


See my interviews with Maureen Forrester, Sherrill Milnes, and André Previn

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, in August of 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.