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Hermann Prey was a truly versatile performer — aside from lieder, sacred music, operetta, and opera, toward the end of his career he became a beloved television host and comedian in his native Germany. He was a particularly warm and genial recitalist, and was known for varying his lieder interpretations according to the moods and reactions he picked up from the audience. Such lieder performances were at the core of his work as a singer, although he was also a gifted actor on the opera stage, and was noted for his very human, rather than buffoonish interpretation of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. He and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were near-contemporaries, sharing almost the same repertoire. Though they rarely sniped at one another in public or threw temper tantrums over the other's publicity (unlike many of their precedents or successors), there was a certain tension between them, which did ease as time progressed, and both were generally acknowledged as different artists who brought different strengths to music, rather than one being a less successful version of the other. He was also a noted teacher, both of singing technique and lieder interpretation.
While his father had no special interest in music, his mother was a music lover, particularly devoted to vocal music. At school, Prey sang in the choir, with occasional solos, and at the age of eleven successfully auditioned for the highly selective Berlin Mozart Choir. The war disrupted all of this, but Prey still sang whenever possible and also played in some amateur bands. After school, he applied to the local music conservatory, and while he was not accepted, the judges recommended that he study with a young teacher, Harry Gottschalk, though Gottschalk was still in college at the time. One of the first tasks was determining whether Prey was a tenor or a baritone, and while his voice did deepen throughout his career, he kept a strong upper register. Gottschalk's teaching focused on vocal exercises and songs, and Prey made enough progress that when he re-auditioned for the conservatory in 1948, he was accepted. At the conservatory he greatly improved his aural training and intonation, and developed a wide repertoire of musical styles, from the medieval to contemporary. Here Prey received his first in-depth introduction to lieder, and it was while he was a student that he decided that 19th century lieder would be the core of his career.
In 1950 he made his first professional concert appearance in a concert at Grunewald Castle, singing the baritone part of Paul Hoffer's Woodland Serenade. During this period, when he was getting as much experience as he could, he also sang a good deal of popular music, and was even urged to become a popular rather than a classical singer. Though his heart remained with lieder and, to a lesser extent, opera, he maintained an interest in popular music, performed and recorded it to some extent throughout his career, and was steadfast in maintaining that a singer need be neither "just classical" or "just popular." Early in 1952, he was expelled from the conservatory for having covertly continued his studies with Gottschalk, whose methods of vocal teaching he preferred to that of the conservatory professors. By that time, however, he had enough experience and exposure as a singer that his career was not particularly affected.
Shortly after this, he won the first prize in the American Army's German youth organization's Mastersinger Competition (out of 3,000 singers who auditioned), which brought him even more publicity, and so many new offers for engagements that unlike most students, he was turning down more offers than he accepted. One of the ones he accepted was for the Hesse State Theater in Wiesbaden, and he made his stage debut as Moruccio in d'Albert's Tiefland. In late 1952, as part of the prize package of the Mastersinger Competition, he made a four-week tour of the United States, where he made his first television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as singing in several concerts. Returning to Germany in January of 1953, he auditioned at the Electrola Studios, where he was engaged for several recordings, and in 1954 he made his first recording for EMI, in The Gypsy Baron, as well as singing his first lead role with the Hamburg Opera, Don Carlo in Verdi's La Forza del Destino.
In 1960 he made his Met debut as Wolfram in Tannhauser, and in 1962, he made his Salzburg Festival debut as Gugliemo in Cosi Fan Tutte and recorded Schumann's Dichterliebe for Electrola. In 1963, he made his San Francisco opera debut as Rossini's Figaro. He sang Papageno for the first time in 1964, and it was to become his most popular operatic role; in 1965, he sang Wolfram in his Bayreuth debut.
He first met Fritz Wunderlich in 1959, and they two became very close friends as well as professional associates. In his autobiography (Premierefieber/First Night Fever), in the chapter entitled "Amico Fritz," he described his desolation at Wunderlich's untimely death. He and Wunderlich had recorded an album of Christmas music, which was published about a month after Wunderlich's death. Prey wrote a tribute to Wunderlich on the record sleeve, ending "We were going to take the world by storm. We were to become the Castor and Pollux of song. But fate would have it otherwise. I must remain as the lonely and abandoned twin. I mourn the loss of a friend and brother singer, whom no one can ever replace." Fortunately, they made several recordings and radio broadcasts together, many of which are available on CD.
In 1967, he made his first television show, Schaut Her, Ich's Bin, which became wildly popular. In 1970, made an eight-LP collection of folk songs for Philips, and in 1971 he made a belated debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as Rossini's Figaro. He made a still more belated debut in the same role at Covent Garden in 1973. During the '70s and '80s, he continued to record and present recitals, even adding new roles to his repertoire such as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. In 1976, Phonogram released a long-time project of Prey's, a recording of The Prey Lied Edition, a collection of 450 German songs, from Minnesinger compositions to modern works. That same year, he established the Schubertiade Festival at Hohenems, which he directed until 1981, when he and the management disagreed over some of the festival's artistic aims, specifically Prey's wish to present all of Schubert's songs in strict chronological order. He made his directorial debut in 1988 in Salzburg, directing Le Nozze di Figaro. He died unexpectedly in 1993 of heart failure. He and his wife, Barbel, had three children, one of whom, Florian Prey, is himself a singer, whose timbre has some of the same richness of his father's voice.
While he left a number of recordings, unfortunately the Prey Lieder Edition is not currently available on CD. However, EMI released some of his finer Schubert and Brahms recordings in CDZC 68432, and on Intercord Klassische Diskothek he recorded an excellent collection of lieder by Loewe, who was largely overshadowed by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Brahms, but whose music Prey considered greatly underappreciated. In 1988, EMI also released a selection of opera arias (545-CDM), mostly recorded in German. While his rendition of the Toreador Song sounds avuncular rather than swaggering, the other selections, drawn from both his regular repertoire (Die Zauberflaute, Le Nozze di Figaro) and works not associated with his career (Faust, Pique Dame) are excellent.