The French conductor (and close associate of Maria Callas), who thought of himself as Viennese, has passed away at 92.
The distinguished French conductor Georges Prêtre has died at the age of 92 at his Château de Vaudricourt in Naves in Southern France. “A giant of music has been lost today,” said Stephane Lissner, director of the Paris Opéra.
The mildly flamboyant, invariably well-dressed maestro made his name with significant first performances of music by the likes of Poulenc and Jongen, but went on to become a household name following his close association with the later career of Maria Callas and his regular appearances at La Scala.
In later years he formed such an intimate relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic that he was once quoted as saying: “I am a Frenchman but my heart belongs to Vienna”. The orchestra has posted on its Facebook page that it is mourning “our charming and dear honorary member Georges Prêtre with whom we have performed for 50 years”.
Prêtre was born on August 14, 1924 in Waziers, near Lille in northern France. He studied first at the Douai Conservatory where early musical interests included jazz and trumpet before being accepted by the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 15 where he took harmony classes with Maurice Duruflé and conducting with, among others, André Cluytens.
His made his conducting debut at the Opéra de Marseille in 1946 and went on to appear at many of the smaller French houses. His Paris debut was at the Opéra-Comique (where he was director from 1955–1959) conducting Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Other major conducting posts included Lyric Opera of Chicago (1959–1971), music director of the Paris Opéra (1970–1971) and principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony (1986–1991).
Outside of the world of opera, Prêtre was a noted interpreter of French music by the likes of Poulenc, Roussel, Milhaud, Debussy, Ravel, Bizet and Saint-Saëns. Important premieres included Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra with Virgil Fox and the Paris Opera Orchestra in 1959. “Bénit soit le jour qui a vu naître Georges Prêtre,” said Poulenc after the maestro premiered his La Voix Humaine at the Opéra-Comique in 1959.
His Covent Garden debut occurred in 1961, followed by important first appearances at the Met and crucially at La Scala with whom he formed a 50-year partnership. It was around this time he first worked with Maria Callas who had recently settled in Paris. Although it was towards the end of her career, and the diva was bedevilled by a range of emotional and vocal issues, the pair recorded a series of recitals of French repertoire (Callas à Paris I and II) and then her legendary Carmen (1964) and the valedictory Tosca of 1965.
His links with La Scala began in 1966 conducting Gounod’s Faust with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Gedda and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Two years later he conducted Turandot and Die Walküre with Régine Crespin and James King. Other notable performances included Samson et Dalila with Shirley Verrett (1972), Carmen with Fiorenza Cossotto (1973) and La Bohème, directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Luciano Pavarotti and Ileana Cotrubaş (1975). In 1978 he brought Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortileges and L’heure Espagnole to Milan, and in 1982 he conducted Les Troyens by Berlioz. His last operatic engagement there was Turandot and Pelleas et Melisande in 2001 but he continued to give regular concerts with the orchestra.
Prêtre is also preserved on film in Zeffirelli’s 1982 Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, both of which starred Plácido Domingo.
From 1986 until 1991 Prêtre was the first invited leader of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and his noted enthusiasm for Vienna and all things Viennese saw him on the podium with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein on 177 occasions. He was invited to helm the famous New Year’s Concert twice, in 2008 and in 2010 (still the only French conductor to have led the annual event). The Musikverein is reportedly black as a mark of respect for the death of an honorary member.
A passion for horse-riding, swimming, aviation, judo (he was a black belt) and karate kept him conducting well into his 80 and in 2009, at the age of 85, he conducted televised performances of Cav and Pag with Roberto Alagna in the Roman amphitheatre at Orange. Prêtre famously disliked modern opera productions, and blamed directors for his cutting down on opera performances. Directors, he maintained, produced work that often had nothing to do with the music and simply caused scandals. “But for this scandal, the conductor pays the bill,” he said in 2009.
Alexander Pereira, Artistic Director at La Scala and former Intendant of the Salzburg Festival paid tribute in a statement put out by La Scala. “The Scala loses today one of the masters who wrote their story, I lose a great friend, with whom I have shared 35 years of artistic life since he was conductor of the Vienna Symphoniker”, he said. “Prêtres unique musicality, his magic inspired the orchestras with which he worked, and every musician wanted to surpass him”.
Georges Prêtre celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Milan debut on February 22, 2016 with a concert at the Scala that garnered a standing ovation. “After the concert, the Scala musicians had thought that Prêtre was younger than he was,” said Pereira. At the time of his death, the maestro still had concerts scheduled at La Scala for 2017.