Baritone Hermann Prey
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
As a society, we are gravitating more and more toward
specialization. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing
— or perhaps just a thing — is a
topic for discussion at another time. But many aspects of our
lives are, indeed, being presented and consumed in a shrinking
vista. There are exceptions, but the large, general-merchandise
stores have mostly given way to the specialty shop. There have
always been large and small food dispensaries with varied menus, and
others with single-genre fare, but just coffee??? That
was a startling success, though they seem to be offering a wider
selection at time moves along. Athletes have always gravitated to
one particular sport, with only a few participating in the bi- or tri-
or dec-athalon. That is why the winner of the latter is
acknowledged as the World's Greatest Athlete. But even there, we
now have specialists who mostly (or only) hit or kick or run within
their individual game. We now even see punters or place kickers, starting
relievers, to say nothing of offensive linesmen or defensive players!
In my own line of work, broadcast outlets used to be filled with radio
and TV stations which ran a variety of programming. The same
station would have comedy shows and dramas and even the
Philharmonic. But as time progressed, first radio
(with the advent of FM) and then TV (with the rise of cable) mostly
became niche market
outlets. The old joke is more and more true — it’s
no longer BROADcasting, but NARROWcasting! In my own case, while
I enjoy and present the whole spectrum of Classical Music — from
the Medieval and Renaissance ages through today’s
living composers, both large ensembles and chamber groups in the
instrumental and vocal varieties — I freely
admit to having no affinity for jazz or pop, to say nothing of rock or
hip-hop or rap, or any of the other forms on today’s
version of Your Hit Parade.
Turning to vocalism of the Fine Art variety, the Romantic Age ushered
in the need for a more heroic singer. Rarely did you find one who
would regularly perform Wagner and bel canto. These days, there
is a whole sub-culture which presents music solely penned after,
roughly, 1950. Serious singers fit into their fach, and rarely venture away from
that stone-carved list of roles. And while many do cross over
from the opera house to the concert stage and recital platform, few are
regarded as Great in any two of those arenas, to say nothing of the
rare songbird who is heralded in all three.
One such master is Hermann Prey. His operatic repertoire, though
certainly an identifiable fach,
was highly regarded. He was always in demand for oratorios and
cantatas, and he conquered the recital hall as few others have done
before or since. In this he was not unique, but his varied
abilities placed him in a small, select company.
It was my pleasure to hear this man a couple of times in recital, and a
privilege to sit down and talk with him the fall of 1985. Here is
that conversation . . . . .
Tell me the secret of singing
[Laughs] You know, it is very
difficult to explain; it would take hours, if I want to get
really into the point — and
if I can get into the point in English,
since my mother tongue is German. I don’t know. It is very
difficult. I cannot explain it in English what you have asked
me. In general, I always say to my
students I don’t like very much to be a “Mozart
singer” or a
or a “Verdi singer.”
A singer must be able to sing
everything. As far as I’m concerned, I sing
Père Germont in La Traviata
the same way vocally as I sing the
Winterreise by Franz
Schubert. There is no difference for me.
BD: Is there
any special joy in singing
HP: Yes, it’s
the music. For me, Mozart was
always, so far as opera is concerned, the composer. I sang
Mozart in my life than I sang any other composers. I have sung
all the Mozart operas
for twenty years at the Salzburg Festival, and I made some recordings
of it. Mozart was always, so far as opera is concerned, the
center of my opera life.
it especially good for the voice?
HP: I would
put it this way: it is better than
Wagner! [Both laugh]
BD: But you
sing both Mozart and Wagner!
HP: Yes, but
I try to sing not very many
Wagner parts. I sing only two, as a matter of fact, until
now. I plan that I will do, maybe later, some more. I sang
and still sing Wolfram von Eschenbach in
Tannhäuser; that was my
debut at the Metropolitan Opera in
1960, and I sang it at the Bayreuth Festival as well. And three
years ago I added another part, which really isn’t my part
thought it will not be my part — Beckmesser
But it helped me, what you asked me before, since I tried to sing
this part a little bit in the direction of Mozart. I sing this
like a Mozart character, and that came out very well. If you look
at the partitura, at the score, then you see it’s written very — how
say? — it’s marvelous to
sing, this part! Yeah,
fabulous part! It’s the best part in
the whole opera for the singer, because you can show
everything. You can show brilliance, and you can sing
everything. And he should be the best singer in the whole cast
because he is the marker. He must know most of all
of them. And Wagner gave him a Latin name, so he’s Sixtus
Beckmesser. Sixtus means that he is an
BD: But is he
a better singer than Walther?
HP: I would
say he knows more about the tabulatura
than Walther. Walther knows nothing about it. Walther is
just exploding and is improvising. He brings something new into
this squared family of mastersingers. But this is what makes
Beckmesser really angry. Besides that,
he is also keen on Eva.
Beckmesser, then, is the best singer
in the old style?
Walther is something new?
brings something new. The masters
don’t understand him in the beginning. Sachs is a
little bit more advanced; he knows more about youth. He would
know more about rock today than the other shoemakers! [Both laugh]
Is it good, then, that singers like
René Kollo or Peter Hoffman, who sang rock, also sing Walther?
HP: I don’t
know! [Both laugh] I did also
these excursions in
music. I sang many musicals and operettas, but a
few years ago I gave up. We have in German a saying which means,
with your piece of wood. I don’t know anybody who was a good,
outstanding classical singer who made a career as a pop singer. Peter
did sing rock until two years ago, but I haven’t heard that he is
continuing with this
in his career, Ezio Pinza did it with South
Pacific, and Cesare Siepi tried
it in Bravo, Giovanni.
singers today mindful of the great Wagnerian
traditions, especially at Bayreuth?
HP: I cannot
talk very objectively about
Bayreuth because I’m a little bit mad at Wolfgang
Wagner. In spite of it, I will sing Meistersinger again next
year, but I don’t like the policy of the Bayreuth Festival as
it is now.
hiring of stage-directors?
HP: Yes, and
everything. It’s very difficult,
you know, because I think Wagner deserves
more than what they do. They try too many experiments! If I
were the director of the festival, it would not be my policy to hire
somebody who has never in his life conducted a Wagner opera before, and
just tries out to see if he can do it in Bayreuth.
should get the great Wagner conductors and
Yes! Let them try it before, and then
you can have an eye on him, and you see. Perhaps he has done a
thing in Amsterdam, so then he can come. It’s the same thing with
know the last Ring they did
with the English group? It was also,
somehow, a try out! Nobody has proved that he can do it
But if I go to Bayreuth, I’m a veteran! [Laughs]
Bayreuth should be the pinnacle, then?
HP: It should
be the end, yes, not a workshop.
BD: Let the
rest of the world be a
Yes! That is my idea, but maybe it’s the
which they go now, the decisions they make now; it’s very good.
They talk about Bayreuth because there are flops and successes all
mixed together. [Both laugh]
BD: Tell me
about the character
is a lieder singer, except in
the third act when he meets Heinrich
again. Then he has really some dramatic lines to sing. But
Wolfram sings only three songs and that’s it; three songs like
BD: Is there
a line from Schubert to Wagner?
HP: I think
Wagner knew Schubert very well; I believe
that he studied him. Schubert is my favorite composer, I must
say, and I’m not
objective. [Both laugh]. But some of the lines in his
lieder, I feel
that Wagner knew them.
BD: Knew them
and understood them?
HP: Yes, but
more, it’s Verdi. For instance,
the opera Alfonso und Estrella,
which was written
years before Verdi, sounds like a young Verdi. It is fabulous!
BD: Why is
that work not more well-known?
HP: He was so
unlucky in picking the right scripts;
the scripts are not very good. I’m just studying
for my next season. I have a Schubert festival in Vienna, and
we are the fourth year. We will do the opera Adrast. It’s only a torso
completed, but it has beautiful music! I think he was not very
clever in picking the right men for making him the script especially
was very, very young. So that might be the reason. But
there are at least four or five operas which you could play on the
stage, and that is what I have in mind with this festival. In
twelve years we will do the whole work of Schubert in chronological
order; all the chamber music, all the songs,
everything. It’s more than one thousand opus including opera and
chamber music. This year we have four
It’s the third year, and we
are up to 1815. That year was the first year when he had an
explosion of lieder
composition. He wrote more than a hundred and
fifty songs in this year. [Here, Prey picks up a book which
listed titles and dates.] For instance, on the 19th of August in
1815, he wrote one, two, three, four,
five songs! These included “Der
Bundeslied, und An den Mond!
songs! Except Bundeslied,
not so known, but all of them are highlights! [Laughs]
truth. And you see here? On the 25th of August
in 1815, he wrote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
ten, eleven different songs! Some are quartets, two are for
tenor, one for soprano, one for baritone, another one for soprano, and
then quartets. And in the same month he wrote the
Minuet und Trio for
Clavier! Then on the 14th of
September, one, two, three, four, five, six songs, some very
well-known. I want to show how this man worked.
BD: He worked
Constantly, and very hard! When you imagine
that he had only about fifteen years’ time, and he wrote over one
BD: It was
Incredible! And there are big things like
the Wanderer Fantasie, or
operas like Alfonso und
significant. And you’ll
get all of this done then in twelve festivals?
HP: In about
twelve festivals. Each festival is
ten or twelve concerts. This year we have, for instance, Die
Bürgschaft, a big ballad by Friedrich Schiller. It
takes about eighty minutes, and last year we had Der Taucher, The Diver,
also by Schiller. It was twenty-five minutes. A big thing,
like an opera, but only for piano and one singer.
recorded some of these songs which have
orchestrated by other people. Is that a mistake to orchestrate
HP: No, I
don’t think so. I
did some last week in New York with Zubin Mehta and New York
Philharmonic, and I
feel it is a great homage by Brahms and Reger to Schubert. Some
of the songs come out very well, don’t they? Some are
much better with piano; all of them are better with piano, but you have
the possibility to sing
Schubert songs in front of an audience which never would come to a
lieder recital. You have different audiences. Some of them
go only to symphony concerts, and then they suddenly hear a Schubert
song. I sang this concert three times to about seven
thousand five hundred people. If five
hundred say, for my next Carnegie recital, “We will go and see
It was very nice,” it was successful!
BD: How do you
career, opera and concert?
would put it this way. If my year has
four quarters, I devote one quarter for lieder recitals, one quarter for
opera, one quarter for recordings and television, and one quarter for
vacation. But “vacation”
is not really a
vacation. Vacation is a kind of working vacation, a training camp
to prepare new things. I don’t appear in
public. I am just learning things for the next year, for the next
season because many of those
Schubert songs I have never sung in my life. Leonard Hokanson’s
pianist, and we just prepare the next group of songs. I think
there are about thirty or forty songs I have to sing, and at least half
of them I don’t know; I have to learn them.
BD: Do you
ever get the working
closeness with a conductor that you do with your pianist?
seldom. After many years of knowing
each other, I had a very good relationship to Karl
Boehm. We did Mozart in Salzburg. It was not all right
the first year or the second, but it came. I got
used to him, he got used to me, and the last years I did not watch him
at all. Everybody was looking at him like the rabbit at the
snake. He was complaining all the time, and I
found out that if you don’t look at him, it’s much better. Then
you! [Both laugh] I had a very good relationship with
him. The advantage of my singing life is
that I have both; I can have the recitals and I can have the opera
appearances. You have so many possibilities of
improbabilities in opera. It can be the stage, it can be the
lighting, it can be the staging, or the register. It can be the
conductor, it can be the colleague, it can be the chorus or the
orchestra, everybody! If you have a recital, you have only
one! [Both laugh] Maybe two — you do have the pianist, and
piano. Yesterday we had, not a terrible, but a very difficult
piano. It was a kind of a challenge for Leonard. It came
out very beautifully, because he was so brilliant, but he had to choke
out of this
piano everything he could, and he did!
BD: So it’s
more of a challenge, then?
Yes! But sometimes it’s better if you have
such a good piano!
BD: You have
to work harder?
because [laughs] you don’t tell him! I
find if the
piano is too smooth and too beautiful and it is so easy to play, that
it sometimes is not so challenging as it was yesterday.
BD: Do you
find the pianist gets a little lazy?
HP: No, not
lazy, but the whole thing is maybe too
smooth, too good!
recordings be too good, too perfect?
HP: I think
yes. I make many, and I
always try to make like productions. I’m doing now
twenty-four hours for Compact Video Disk. This is live, you know;
you cannot cut
it. You must sing the song, and then either it works or if it
doesn’t work. You cannot make pick-ups in these filmings.
can’t edit, as in tapes when you do only the audio. If you
do video, you must make the whole take, and that means one song.
BD: The whole
song? Not a group of songs?
I used to do many live concerts for
recording. Sometimes it’s very
dangerous if you have these perfect productions especially of lieders. It’s the same
with opera; they are a little bit antiseptic.
BD: It loses
Yes. You sing it, and then the conductor
“Oh, let’s do it once more.” Something is gone. If you have
done it once, then the slice of salami has gone;
it never comes again. [Both laugh]
me about the character of
Figaro. What kind of a man is he?
HP: He is a
lover, not a revolutionary. He
wants to get his girl.
BD: Just one
girl? Not many girls?
HP: He’s a
lover, but he loves one girl. He
wants Susannah. That’s all the old stories! It’s against
his goal, and that makes him angry.
Figaro grow from Barber of Seville
to The Marriage of
HP: I think
not very much. In the Trilogy
Beaumarchais, Figaro should be at least
ten years older than the Countess. When the Count enters stage in
Barber of Seville,
he is sixteen years old, and Figaro is about twenty-six to
thirty. He is a businessman. He has his own
shop, and his own clients. And the Contessa also is very
young. Bartolo is her
uncle, and he is maybe forty. He cannot be a very old man because
he still has
mind. He thinks, “With my money and being a dottore, I can
get this girl.” So Figaro is about thirty, and then comes this
BD: Is Figaro
happy to help them get together and
outwit the old man?
HP: I do
everything for money! [Laughs] I
mean, not as Hermann Prey, but as Figaro!
BD: So if
Bartolo had gone to Figaro, maybe
Bartolo would have wound up with Rosina?
HP: No, I
think he sticks more to the youth, to the
BD: Even if
Bartolo was to offer more money?
HP: I have an
offer to produce
Marriage of Figaro, and I have
not decided. I have to
decide on the 5th of this coming November, and I think about
what you’re asking me. So I don’t want to speak so much about it
because I have something in mind when I do this
production. But I’m not sure if I will do it. If I do, I’ll
do something which should show that this couple, Count and
Contessa, should be much younger than Susanna and Figaro. The
relationship between Susanna and Figaro is, for me, very
difficult to bring onstage so that everybody understands it.
Susanna act like a governess?
something like that. She confides in
her. She is not like a mother, not like an aunt, but
like the older sister. This is very
important in this piece, that there’s a
relationship between these two women. They make the whole
story. They use Figaro and they use the Count to get to
they modern women?
BD: Up to
date, twentieth century women?
women’s lib types?
HP: No, I
don’t think so.
sung both Figaro and the
BD: Does that
pose any problems when you’re doing
one or the other?
HP: It’s very
difficult in counting, especially
in the ensembles that you don’t come in with the other part!
Vocally the Count is better for my
voice, but as a character, I liked more to play Figaro. I
sang it very late; I started, I think, in ’76, to sing Figaro for the
time onstage. Before this, I sang for sixteen
years Count. The Count was my first opera.
the logical progression, from
the Rossini Figaro to the Mozart Count...
than from Figaro to Figaro.
Yes. I was very lucky. But I always
had it in mind. Once in Vienna I sang it one week, Figaro in
Barbiere, and Figaro in Marriage of Figaro.
HP: And it
was very good.
BD: Were you
able to keep the continuity?
HP: Yes, it
was very good.
always been disappointed that
the third play has not been made into a popular opera. Milhaud
has done one, but it has never caught on.
HP: That is
the opera where the Countess gets a child
BD: In The
Marriage of Figaro, should the
Countess be aware of what is coming? Should she know what
will happen later?
HP: I think
so, yes. And she shouldn’t be too
tragic about the whole thing. At the end, he kneels
and he says, “Contessa, forgive me.”
BD: Does she?
forgives him, yes. That’s what I told
you — she wants him back! She wants this man and
Susanna wants Figaro.
BD: So it all
works out in the end?
How do we get more people into these concerts?
HP: For lieders?
Prey’s Agent (who has been in the room with
us): You’re helping with this.
BD: Of course.
I was in Atlanta. I think
it was the first time that ever somebody sang a Schubert cycle in
Atlanta, but I was astonished — it was full! A fabulous
Yeah, that’s even more important, to have a
BD: So are we
building a tradition in America
HP: I tried
since thirty years. I
came here first in 1952; it was a part of the prize when I
still was a student. I was twenty-three then; I was born in
’29, and then I came back in ’56 to sing my first recital in
Carnegie Hall. I traveled every year to this country and was in
every little spot here. And I was always
successful! But, it’s very difficult. Twice I sold out
Carnegie Hall. There was no subscription, nothing, just
box office. That’s something! I’m proud of that!
sure! Were the people coming to see
Hermann Prey, or were they coming to hear Schubert?
doesn’t matter. If they come to
hear the Schubert cycle, then they want to hear it sung
by me. Otherwise they wouldn’t come. They can go to
Fisher-Dieskau or they can go to Jessye Norman to hear other Schubert
BD: Is there
any competition among singers for that
kind of thing?
HP: The field
is very small. If a
singer is in Atlanta, let’s say, and sang a Schubert recital, it will
difficult to fill the hall again if two months later another singer
comes and sings another Schubert recital. It dumps us out, once
the steam is out!
You enjoy singing?
HP: Yes, very
much! Still! [Laughs]
BD: Thank you
for being a singer.
HP: This was
very nice, very nice. I’m very
astonished! I did better than I thought I can
Prey’s Agent: I am
sure you did,
because your English is very good.
HP: [Directed to
the agent] But it depends on him, on
his questions, and how
he asks me. [Directed to BD] This was very good. I am
pleased to speak with you today.
Born: July 11, 1929 - Berlin, Germany
Died: July 22, 1998 - Krailling, Bavaria, Germany
The German baritone, Hermann Prey, grew up during the regime of
the the National Socialist Party. He was scheduled to be drafted at the
age of 15 when the end of the Second World War brought peace and a
chance for him to study voice with Gunther Baum and Jaro Prohaska at
the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin. In 1952 he won a contest of
Hessischer Rundfunk Frankfurt.
Hermann Prey sang his first Lieder recital in 1952 and
year he made his operatic debut as Monuccio in Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland at Wiesbaden. Afterwards
he joined the Hamburger Staatsoper (1953-1960). Since 1956, he appeared
frequently at Berlin and Vienna. In 1959 he debuted at the Bayerische
Staatsoper Munich, as well as at the Salzburger Festspiele (as Barbier
in Strauss's Die Schweigsame Frau,
which was also Fritz Wunderlich's debut at Salzburg), where he often
sang Guglielmo and Papageno in subsequent years. 1968 he was the
protagonist in the Ponnelle/Claudio Abbado production of Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia. Between 1960
and 1970, he performed numerous times at the New York Met, where he
debuted as Wolfram. (In 1987, he again appeared at the Met as
Musikmeister in Ariadne auf Naxos.)
In 1965, he debuted at Bayreuth, again as Wolfram. In 1981, he returned
to Bayreuth as Beckmesser. In 1973, he debuted at London as Rossini's Barbiere, and subsequently sang
Guglielmo, Papageno, Eisenstein there. Although he had sung Verdi parts
in his early years, he later concentrated on Mozart and Strauss:
Olivier (Hamburg 1957), Harlekin (Munich 1960), Robert Storch (Munich
1960). In 1997, he sang Sprecher at the Salzburger Festspiele. He
frequently appeared in the lighter genres of Spieloper and Operetta as
well as on TV shows, which made him extraordinary popular in Germany.
For all of his fame as an opera star, to many musicians, Hermann Prey
is best remembered for his recitals. He gave his first American recital
in 1956 and was a regular visitor until the end of his career. He was
also a great favorite in Japan. He was especially well known for his
interpretations of the songs of Schubert, but he was equally at home
with the requirements of many other German and Austrian composers. He
was less successful in the few times he moved outside of the German
repertoire. Many listeners compare Prey with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
as a song interpreter, yet their approach to music making was quite
different. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gives each word and phrase an
individual importance whereas Hermann Prey allows the whole composition
to unfold as an entity. Both approaches are valid and have their
adherents. On the concert stage, Prey was well known for his singing of
the Bach Passions and more
especially the Brahms Deutsches
Hermann Prey's voice was a lyric baritone with great warmth and he had
complete control of all dynamic variations. He was able to convey a
sense of the comic elements of a song without losing the musical sense
of the entire piece.
He recorded a multi-volume series for Philips to trace the history of
German Lieder from the Minnesingers to songs by Reutter and Blacher.
His uncountable recordings range from Lieder to opera and oratorio.
In 1982, he began teaching at the Musikhochschule Hamburg in order to
pass along what he learned about music interpretation. In 1981, he
wrote a autobiography Premierenfieber
(which was later also issued in English as First Night Fever). In 1988,
directed a production of Le Nozze di
Figaro at Salzburg.He was also one of the founders of a Schubert
Festival in Austria. His son Florian has also made a career as a
baritone singing some of the same roles for which his father was most
famous. Hermann Prey will always be remembered for the fine
musicianship and the beauty of his voice.
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB the following year, and again in 1989, 1994, 1998 and
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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