Prey grew up in the era of Germany’s Third Reich and would have been drafted into the army had not World War II ended just in time. Having studied singing at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Gunther Baum and Jaro Prohaska, he won a singing competition organised by Hesse radio in Frankfurt in 1952, the year in which he also gave his first professional song recital, and made his operatic debut in 1953 at Wiesbaden as Monuccio / Tiefland.
In the same year Prey joined the Hamburg State Opera, where he remained a member until 1960, singing in that year’s premiere of Henze’s Der Prinz von Homburg. He also began to appear at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin and (from 1956) at the Vienna State Opera. He first sang in 1959 at both the Bavarian State Opera, Munich and at the Salzburg Festival as Schneidebart / Die schweigsame Frau. Prey returned to both centres frequently: at Salzburg he sang Guglielmo / Così fan tutte (1960– 1965, 1972–1977), Papageno / Die Zauberflöte (1967–1968,1970, 1974) and the Count / Le nozze di Figaro (1971) as well as giving numerous concerts and recitals. Roles at the Bayreuth Festival included Wolfram / Tannhäuser (1965–1967) and later Beckmesser / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1981–1984 and 1986).
At the Metropolitan Opera, New York Prey first appeared in 1960 as Wolfram. Again, he returned frequently: for example as the Count (Figaro) (1964, 1972), Papageno (1967), Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia (1973), the Music Master / Ariadne auf Naxos (1987, 1994), Eisenstein / Die Fledermaus (1989–1990, 1994–1995) and Beckmesser (1993, 1995). He also appeared with the San Francisco Opera in 1963 and with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1971.
In 1965 Prey had sung Storch / Intermezzo with the Munich Opera in the first British performances of that opera at the Edinburgh Festival, but his debut at the Royal Opera House, London came only in 1973, as Rossini’s Figaro. Later roles at Covent Garden included Figaro / Le nozze di Figaro (1977), Eisenstein (1977, 1978, 1979, 1983–1984), Guglielmo (1979), Papageno (1983) and Beckmesser (1990).
Prey appeared widely as a guest artist at such venues as the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires; the Aix-en-Provence Festival (Don Giovanni, 1962); the Bregenz Festival; Florence (Beckmesser, 1986); Frankfurt; Stuttgart, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf-Duisburg and Wiesbaden. Acclaimed equally as a recitalist as for his operatic appearances, Prey gave his first recital in America in 1956, continuing to sing in concert there right to the end of his career; and was also popular as a lieder singer in Japan.
Although Prey had sung Verdi parts in his early years, he later concentrated on Mozart and Strauss: Olivier / Capriccio (Hamburg 1957), Harlequin / Ariadne auf Naxos (Munich 1960) and Storch (Munich 1960). He also frequently appeared in the lighter genres of Spieloper and operetta as well as on television shows, which made him extremely popular in Germany.
From 1982 Prey taught at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik. As late as 1997 he sang the Speaker / Die Zauberflöte at the Salzburg Festival and died of a heart attack just a few days after giving a concert in Munich.
Especially successful in music that required a comic touch, Prey possessed a lyric baritone voice of great warmth, with complete dynamic control.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).