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
pitchers or 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,
It was my pleasure to hear this man a couple of times in recital, and a
privilege to sit down and talk with him in Chicago in the fall of 1985.
Here is that conversation . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!
Hermann Prey: [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 “Schubert singer” 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 Mozart?
HP: Yes, it’s
the music. For me, Mozart was always, so far as opera is concerned,
the composer. I sang
more 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.
BD: Is it especially good for the voice?
HP: I would put
it this way — it is better than Wagner! [Both
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. Then three years ago I added another part, which really isn’t
my part — everybody thought it will not be my part
— Beckmesser in Meistersinger.
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 you say? — it’s marvelous to
sing, this part! Yes, a 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 coloraturas, 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. Wagner gave him a Latin name, so
he’s Sixtus Beckmesser. Sixtus means that he is an educated man!
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 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
BD: So Beckmesser,
then, is the best singer in the old style?
BD: And Walther
is something new?
HP: Walther 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]
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 them up. We have
in German a saying which means, shoemaker stay 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 direction.
Late in his career, Ezio Pinza did it with South Pacific, and Cesare Siepi tried
it in Bravo, Giovanni.
BD: Are 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.
BD: The hiring
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.
BD: They should
get the great Wagner conductors and directors?
Let them try it before, and then you can have an eye on him, and you see.
Perhaps he has done a marvelous thing in Amsterdam, so then he can come.
It’s the same thing with directors. You 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
before. But if I go to Bayreuth, I’m a veteran! [Laughs]
BD: So 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 workshop?
That is my idea, but maybe it’s the way 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 of Wolfram.
HP: Wolfram 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 Schubert songs.
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 that’s
not completed, but it has beautiful music! I think he was not very
clever in picking the right men for making him the script, especially when
he 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 great
Liederabender. 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 Rattenfänger,
Der Schatzgräber, Heidenröslein, Bundeslied, und An den Mond!
BD: They’re great
HP: Great songs!
Except Bundeslied, which is not so
known, but all of them are highlights! [Laughs] That’s the 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
and very hard! When you imagine that he had only about fifteen years’
time, and he wrote over one thousand opus!
BD: It was incredible!
And there are big things like the Wanderer
Fantasie, or operas like Alfonso
BD: That’s 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 eighteen minutes,
and last year we had Der Taucher,
The Diver, also by Schiller.
It was twenty-five minutes. It is a big thing, like an opera, but only
for piano and one singer.
BD: You’ve recorded
some of these songs which have been orchestrated by other people. Is
that a mistake to orchestrate them?
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 you think? 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 come for my next Carnegie recital and
say, “We will go and see it. It was very nice,” it was successful!
* * *
BD: How do you balance
your career, opera and concert?
HP: I 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 my
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?
HP: Very seldom.
After many years of knowing each other, I had a very good relationship to
Karl Böhm. 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 he follows 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 regisseur.
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 the 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?
But sometimes it’s better if you have not such a good piano!
BD: You have
to work harder?
HP: Yes, 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!
BD: Can 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.
You 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
You sing it, and then the conductor says, “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]
* * *
BD: Tell 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 Susanna. That’s all the old stories!
It’s against his goal, and that makes him angry.
BD: Does Figaro
grow from Barber of Seville to The Marriage of Figaro? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at
left, see my interviews with Teresa Berganza, Paolo Montarsolo,
and Claudio Abbado.
Vis-à-vis the recording shown
below at right, see my interview with Tatiana Troyanos.]
HP: I think
not very much. In the Trilogy
of 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 her in mind. He thinks, “With my money and being a dottore, I can get this girl.” So
Figaro is about thirty, and then comes this young couple!
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 young people.
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.
BD: Would Susanna
act like a governess?
HP: Yes, 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 their
BD: Are they modern women?
BD: Up to date,
twentieth century women?
BD: Not women’s
HP: No, I don’t
BD: In the Mozart
opera you’ve sung both Figaro and the Count.
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, to be sure 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 first time onstage.
Before this, I sang for sixteen years Count. The Count was my first
BD: That’s the
logical progression, from the Rossini Figaro to the Mozart Count, rather
than from Figaro to Figaro.
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,
and it was very good.
BD: Were you
able to keep the continuity?
HP: Yes, it was
BD: I’ve 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 from Cherubino.
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?
HP: 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?
* * *
do we get more people into your concerts?
HP: For lieders?
HP: That’s your
business! [Laughter all around]
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 ever that somebody
sang a Schubert cycle in Atlanta, but I was astonished — it was full!
A fabulous audience!
Prey’s Agent: That’s
even more important — to have a wonderful audience.
BD: So are we
building a tradition in America of Liederabend?
HP: I have tried
for 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!
BD: Were the
people coming to see Hermann Prey, or were they coming to hear Schubert?
HP: It 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 songs.
BD: Is there
any competition among singers for that kind of thing?
HP: The field
is very small. If a singer sang a Schubert recital in Atlanta, let’s
say, it will be 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!
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 do.
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
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 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 the following 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 Requiem.
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
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 an autobiography
Premierenfieber (which was
later also issued in English as First Night
Fever). In 1988, he 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.
-- From the Bach-Cantatas website
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 12, 1985.
Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following year, and
again in 1989, 1994, 1998 and 1999. This transcription was made and
posted on this website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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
You are invited
to visit his website for
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