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Hermann Prey was born in Berlin and grew up in Germany. He was scheduled to be drafted when World War II ended. He studied voice at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and won the prize of the Frankfurt contest of the Hessischer Rundfunk in 1952.
He began to sing in song recitals and made his operatic debut the next year in Wiesbaden. He joined the Staatsoper, where he sang until 1960. During his last years in Hamburg, he also made frequent guest appearances elsewhere, including the Salzburg Festival.
He sang frequently at the Metropolitan Opera between 1960 and 1970 and made his Bayreuth debut in 1965. Although he often sang Verdi early in his career, he later concentrated more on Mozart and Richard Strauss. Prey was well known for playing Figaro (Mozart and Rossini), but he played other Mozart roles at least equally often, particularly Papageno and Guglielmo. He also played, and recorded, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro. He is regarded by many as the best Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus operetta.
He was at home with comic opera Italian-style, displaying scenic intelligence, liveliness and hilarity. His virtuoso agility and great comic acting made him an obvious choice for numerous productions of Mozart's and Rossini's operas in the 1970s. In 1972 he performed as Figaro in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's television film of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Teresa Berganza as Rosina, Luigi Alva as Almaviva and conductor Claudio Abbado. He appeared alongside Fritz Wunderlich and Hans Hotter in the live televised version of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in its German translation, Der Barbier von Sevilla. He also portrayed Figaro in 1976 in Ponnelle's film of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.
Prey also sang operetta and performed on German television, becoming extremely popular with television audiences. He shared media-celebrity with Fritz Wunderlich until the latter's untimely death, often playing Papageno to Wunderlich's Tamino.
He is best remembered for his recitals, his first American recital having been given in 1956. He was a gifted interpreter of Schubert, as well as other lieder (together with the German pianist Sebastian Peschko). He also appeared frequently in concert, particularly in the Bach Passions and Brahms' A German Requiem. A videotaped performance of Schubert's lieder-cycle Schwanengesang is available.
Prey possessed a clear, polished tone - darker and deeper-sounding than his slightly older contemporary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but equally refined and equally capable of soaring into the tenor range without the smallest suggestion of vocal effort.
He recorded a multi-volume set for Phillips, tracing the history of the lied from the Minnesänger to the twentieth century. In addition, he released numerous recordings of opera and song.
In 1988, he directed a production of The Marriage of Figaro in Salzburg. His son Florian is also a baritone.
He died in Krailling, Bavaria.
For many years, Michael Endres was the pianist to Hermann Prey.