The American bass-baritone, Donald Gramm, was born of German ancestry with the surname Grambsch, which he later changed to Gramm. He received his early musical training at the Wisconsin College Conservatory of Music (1933-1944) and sang his operatic debut at age 17 at Chicago's Eighth Street Theater as Raimondo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. He later studied at the Chicago Musical College and with Martial Singher.
Donald Gramm made his New York debut in 1951 in Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ with the Little Orchestra Society. The following year he made his New York City Opera debut as Colline in Puccini's La bohème and continued to sing with that company in nearly every season for the next 30 years. His roles there included both the Count and Figaro in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Orlofsky (transposed down from the original) in Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Dandini in Rossini's La Cenerentola, Bartolo in Rossini's The Barber of Seville, and the title role in Verdi's Falstaff. In 1953 he created the role of The Bachelor in the world premiere of Bohuslav Martinů's The Marriage with the NBC Opera Theatre.
Donald Gramm also performed major roles frequently with Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston and John Crosby's Santa Fe Opera. In an interview Caldwell had this to say about Gramm as a performer: "Conductors and stage directors love him. Donald's high level of musicianship and intelligence, and his beautiful voice are attributes which make him the logical choice of a conductor. His remarkable ability for physical characterization and his deep interest in its development make him the logical choice of a stage director. This fusion of musical and dramatic qualities sets him apart as one of the most extraordinary singing actors of our time."
Donald Gramms career was divided between opera and concert performances. His appearances were primarily limited to the USA, which at the time was unusual for an American singer. Among the most notable of his many operatic roles were the title role in Verdi's Falstaff, Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper in Alban Berg's Lulu.
Dopnald Gramm's Met Opera debut was on January 10, 1964, in the minor role of Truffaldino in Richard Straus's Ariadne auf Naxos. One of the most important roles he performed during his career at the Met was Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni. He performed the part 24 times with the company between 1966 and 1981; of these only 5 were in New York, the remainder were on tour. He was otherwise, however, often confined to smaller parts. Roles performed in the 1964-1965 season included the Maharajah in Menotti's The Last Savage (a part which rises to high F-sharp), Don Alfonso in Mozart's Così fan tutte, and the Doctor in Alban Berg's Wozzeck; in the 1965-1966 season, Count Waldner in Strauss's Arabella, Pedro in Offenbach's La Périchole, Geronte in Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Leporello in Don Giovanni; in the 1966-1967 season, Dr.Falke in Die Fledermaus; in the 1967-1968 season, the Speaker in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Plunkett in Flotow's Martha, and again the Doctor in Wozzeck; and in the 1968-1969 season, the Doctor in Wozzeck. He did not perform in the 1969-1970 season.
In the 1970-1971 season he appeared again as Pedro in La Périchole and Leporello in Don Giovanni but also added Don Basilio in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and the Bailiff in Massenet's Werther. In the 1971-1972 season he repeated the role of Bailiff in Werther, added Kothner in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but most importantly sang Sulpice in Donizetti's La fille du régiment (with Dame Joan Sutherland as Marie and Luciano Pavarotti as Tonio). In the 1972-1973 season he was cast as Zuniga in Göran Gentele's new production of Georges Bizet's Carmen (with Marilyn Horne as Carmen and James McCracken as Don José); he repeated his roles as the Speaker, Leporello, and Sulpice, and added Captain Balstrode in Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (with Jon Vickers in the title role). In the 1973-1974 season he performed Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. In the 1974-1975 season he repeated the Doctor in Wozzeck and added Varlaam in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In the 1975-1976 season he repeated Papageno and added the roles of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper in Alban Berg's Lulu, the Met's first production of the opera, directed by John Dexter. In the 1977-1978 season he repeated Captain Balstrode and Leporello. In the 1978-1979 season, on the Met's Spring Tour, he added the title role in Donizetti's Don Pasquale. He never performed this part at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
In the 1980-1981 season he again sang only on tour, repeating his portrayal of Leporello; but in the 1981-1982 season he appeared as Don Alfonso in in a new production of Così fan tutte; on the tour he repeated his portrayal of Papageno. In 1982-1983, his final season at the Met, Gramm alternated with Paul Plishka as Varlaam and Pimen in Boris Godunov, and repeated the role of Count Waldner in a new production premiere of Arabella on February 10, 1983. Patrick J. Smith, writing in Opera, described his performance as follows: "Donald Gramm, as Waldner, underplayed the role rather than making it into a broad-accented German buffo, and brought to life the inner pride of the down-at-heel nobleman. His first-act scene with Mandryka was a highpoint of the evening (this must be one of the most closely characterized duologues in opera); the clarity of his enunciation was exemplary." Gramm repeated the role 6 more times, giving his final performance at the Met in a matinee broadcast on March 5, 1983. In total he had appeared 230 times with the company.
Donald Gramm died of a heart attack in New York City in 1983. He was 56 years old. He had just finished a set of performances in Bellini's Norma with Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston on May 29. His publicist said he had complained of chest pains in the last week, but otherwise appeared to be in good health.