Grist was born in New York City, grew up in the East River Houses Project, attended the High School of Music and Art and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Queens College, City University of New York. In her early teens she performed on Broadway in small roles and in musicals along with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lawrence Tibbett and Eartha Kitt, while gaining a solid training in voice through private study with Claire Gelda. Her first opera engagement was as Madame Herz in a concert performance of Der Schauspieldirektor by Mozart. Her first staged, quasi-operatic engagement was in 1956, as Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones. She performed the role of Consuelo in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story in 1957, introducing the song "Somewhere" to the public. One of her earliest breakthroughs in classical music came shortly thereafter when Bernstein engaged her to sing the soprano part in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major with the New York Philharmonic; Columbia Records recorded Grist with Bernstein and the Philharmonic in this symphony in 1960 and this was later issued by Sony on CD as part of the "Bernstein Century" series. She also performed some of it on television on Bernstein's Young People's Concerts in 1960. In following years, she appeared with the orchestra under the batons of Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen.
Grist's official staged operatic debut was at the Santa Fe Opera in 1959, as Adele in Die Fledermaus followed by Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Igor Stravinsky heard her there and invited her to perform his Le Rossignol with him conducting with the Washington Opera Society. Her European debut in 1960 was as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Cologne Opera. She was a member of the Zurich Opera from 1960–1966 where she first sang roles including Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos), Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier) and Adina (L'Elisir d'Amore). After her successes in Zurich, she found herself much in demand, making her debut in 1962 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in Le Coq d'Or and at the Glyndebourne Festival as Despina in Così Fan Tutte. Then followed the Vienna State Opera in 1963, where she performed during twenty five seasons. In the same year she first appeared at the San Francisco Opera as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Throughout twelve following seasons she appeared in roles among which were Gilda in Rigoletto, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, Manon in Massenet's Manon, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Zerbinetta and Adina.
In 1964, Grist debuted at the Salzburg Festival as Zerbinetta and performed throughout twelve seasons in Mozart operas conducted by Karl Böhm, Zubin Mehta and Herbert von Karajan. Her characterisations included Susanna, Despina, Blondchen and Papagena (in The Magic Flute). Her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on February 25, 1966, as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Her other roles at the Met included, Adina, Norina (Don Pasquale), Gilda (Rigoletto), Olympia (Les contes d'Hoffmann), Oscar, Sophie and Zerbinetta.
Grist appeared in concert with the conductors Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Gielen, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Leopold Stokowski, Friedrich Cerha and Die Reihe, among others. In December 2007, she last appeared on stage at the Gypsy of the Year/Equity Fights Aids Gala on Broadway, which honored members of the original cast and the 50th anniversary of West Side Story, singing, as in the original production, "Somewhere".
Grist has been a Professor of Voice at the School of Music, Indiana University Bloomington and at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Munich. She has participated in various international juries and has given Master Classes at the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, as well as young artist programs including those of the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, the Zürich International Opera Studio, the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia Madrid, Ravinia Summer Festival.
In 1976 Grist was honored with the title of Bayerische Kammersängerin by the State of Bavaria, Germany. Other honors include a Legacy Award of the American Opera Association in 2001, a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Licia Albanese Foundation in 2003 and two from her alma mater, Queens College.
Grist lives in Hamburg with her husband, Dr. Ulf Thomson, 1981-87 Artistic Administrator of the Norddeutsche Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Hamburg, 1987–91 General Manager of the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.
- The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia, edited by David Hamilton, (Simon and Schuster, New York 1987). ISBN 0-671-61732-X
- Opera News Magazine, February 2006 issue.
- Amazon.com: Mahler: Symphony No. 4: Reri Grist, Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra: Music
- Ariadne auf Naxos (1965), Zerbinetta
- Le nozze di Figaro (1966), Susanna
- Don Pasquale (1972), Norina
- Un ballo in maschera (1975), Oscar
- Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1980), Blondchen
- Die Schweigsame Frau (1972), Aminta
- Reri Grist – Singer,(1976), director Axel Corti
- Da Capo with August Everding, (1996)
- Tatort, Bayerischer Rundfunk, (1996)
- Aida's Brothers and Sisters, Marieke Schroeder
- Opera is Theatre/Oper ist Theater, (2002) Marieke Schroeder