Growing up during the regime of the the National Socialist Party, Hermann Prey was scheduled to be drafted at the age of 15 when the end of World War II brought peace and a chance for him to study voice with Gunther Baum and Jaro Prohaska at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin. He sang his first lieder recital in 1952 and the following year he made his operatic debut as Monuccio in d'Albert's Tiefland at Wiesbaden. He was then engaged by the Hamburg State Opera (1953-1960) where besides singing most of the standard baritone roles he was also highly acclaimed for his work in modern operas by Liebermann, Dallapiccola, and Henze. During the next several years, Prey sang at the Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and at Cologne. His Bayreuth debut came in 1956 as Wolfram in Tannhäuser. After 1959, Munich became his operatic home although he continued to sing at all of the important opera houses in the world including London, New York, Paris, Milan, Chicago, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. He was also a regular visitor to the festivals at Salzburg and Edinburgh. He was internationally recognized for his Mozart interpretations including Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Guglielmo, and Papageno, but achieved fame with his Figaro in Barbiere di Siviglia, the elder Germont in La Traviata, the Barber in Die Schweigsame Frau by Richard Strauss, Harlekin in Ariadne auf Naxos and Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss. He also sang in many contemporary operas, including Pallas Athene by Krenek and Prinz von Homburg by Henze. Late in his career, he was a very successful Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.
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. On the concert stage, Prey was well known for his singing of the Bach Passions and more especially the Brahms Deutsches Requiem.
Many listeners compare Prey with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a song interpreter, yet their approach to music making was quite different. Fischer-Dieskau gives each word and phrase an individual importance whereas Prey allowed the whole composition to unfold as an entity. Both approaches are valid and have their adherents. 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. In 1982, he began teaching at the Musikhochschule Hamburg in order to pass along what he learned about music interpretation. 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.