Schreier was born in Meissen, Saxony, and grew up in the village of Gauernitz, near Meissen, where his father was a teacher, cantor and organist. In June 1945, when Schreier was almost ten years old, and just a few months after the destruction of Dresden, he entered the boarding school of the Dresdner Kreuzchor boys’ choir. Its conductor Rudolf Mauersberger recognized his talent. He let him sing many solo alto parts and created compositions with his voice in mind. Solo recordings from the time (1948–1951) were reissued on compact disc.
Schreier was 16 years old when his voice broke, and he became a tenor, as he had passionately wished, because of the several Evangelists – all tenors – in J.S. Bach’s Passions and in his Christmas Oratorio. After he had decided to become a professional singer he took voice lessons, privately from 1954 to 1956, then at the Musikhochschule Dresden, where he also studied conducting.
Peter Schreier made his professional debut at the Dresdner Staatsoper in 1957, as the First Prisoner in Beethoven’s Fidelio. His breakthrough came in 1962 as Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and he also appeared as Tamino in The Magic Flute. In 1963, he became a member of the Berlin State Opera. Starting in 1966, he was for many years an annual guest of the Vienna State Opera. That same year he made his debut in Bayreuth Festival as the young seaman in Tristan und Isolde with Karl Böhm as conductor. For 25 years, beginning in 1967, he took part in the program of the annual Salzburg Festival. In 1969, he starred as The Witch in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in a CD recording that featured the Staatskapelle Dresden. He performed more than 60 operatic roles. It was important to him to sing the title role of Palestrina, the opera by Hans Pfitzner, not only in Munich but also in East Berlin — a controversial issue at the time in East Germany.
Schreier was one of few singers from the German Democratic Republic to perform internationally, including at the Metropolitan Opera. He appeared regularly at the Vienna State Opera, where he sang 200 performances, beginning as Tamino in 1967, also as Belmonte, Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the title role of Idomeneo, Flamand in Capriccio by Richard Strauss, Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Loge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. His Wagner roles also included Mime in Siegfried.
He recorded Bach cantatas regularly with the Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Erhard Mauersberger, with soloists including Adele Stolte, Annelies Burmeister and Theo Adam, such as the cantata for Pentecost Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, in 1970. He was the Evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion in recordings conducted by both Rudolf and Erhard Mauersberger, Karl Richter, Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan. He recorded Bach’s St John Passion and Christmas Oratorio with Helmuth Rilling.
In June 2000, Schreier left the opera stage. His last role at the Berlin State Opera was Tamino; he argued that he could no longer pretend to be a young prince. He ended his singing career on 22 December 2005, combining the functions of Evangelist and conductor in a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Prague. He kept singing lieder, a genre he had pursued throughout his career, including the song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.
From the early 1970s, Schreier was also a conductor with a special interest in the works of Mozart, Bach, and Haydn. He conducted orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.
Photo: Klaus Winkler