Peter Schreier was one of the most highly esteemed tenors of the 20th century, particularly in German lieder, oratorio, and cantata performances, as well as opera. He was also well-regarded as a conductor, specializing in the music of Bach and Mozart.
Schreier was born in Meissen, Germany, on July 29, 1935. His father was a church Kantor and gave him his first musical training. At age eight, Peter entered the preparatory class of the famous chorus, the Dresdner Kreuzchor. He made his first operatic appearance as one of the Three Boys in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in 1944, which led him to consider a musical career. At age 10, he was admitted as a boy soprano and rapidly rose to the position of first soloist with the choir. As such, he sang on some of the first German LPs ever released, of Bach cantatas on Deutsche Grammophon's Das alte Werk imprint. He traveled to France, Scandinavia, and Luxembourg, among other destinations, on tour with the Dresdner Kreuzchor; he remained with the choir as a tenor after his voice changed. In 1954, he began taking private voice lessons with Fritz Polster, while working as a member of the Leipzig Radio Chorus. He entered the Dresden Musikhochschule in 1956, where his teacher was Herbert Winkler. Schreier studied both singing and conducting. He also studied at the Dresden State Opera's training school. In 1957, he appeared in the opera studio's production of Il Matrimonio Segreto as Paolino. He graduated from the Musikhochschule in 1959 and joined the Dresden State Opera's company as a lyric tenor. His first professional appearance was there in the small role of the First Prisoner in Beethoven's Fidelio. During those years, he made an intriguing concert tour to India and the African nation of Mali.
He sang a guest appearance at the Berlin State Opera, and in 1963, he gained a contract with that company as its leading lyric tenor. He made numerous guest appearances in the Soviet Union and other countries of what was then known as the Eastern Bloc, and appeared fairly often in the West, in Vienna and the Salzburg Festival in Austria, the Bayreuth Wagner Festival House in West Germany, London (debuting in 1966), the Vienna State Opera (1967), Milan's La Scala (1969), and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (also 1969). He quickly won acclaim in particular for his portrayals of Mozart's main tenor roles and as a recitalist. He was also highly praised for roles as diverse as Alfred in Die Fledermaus and Loge in Das Rheingold and appeared in the premiere of Dessau's Einstein as The Physicist. He also sang the role of Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, Fenton in Verdi's Otello, and Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, to name a few. He regularly sang in Bach's passions, cantatas, and other choral works, and became a treasured lieder singer. His Schubert was especially regarded for its highly expressive projection and shaping of the words. Schreier retired from the opera stage in 2000, though he continued to give lieder and sacred music concerts for several more years.
In the 1970s, Schreier began conducting as well as singing, leading several prestigious orchestras such as the Vienna and New York Philharmonics in productions of sacred music by Bach and Mozart. His final vocal performance was in 2005 when he conducted and sang the Evangelist role in a production of Bach's Christmas Oratorio; he continued to teach and conduct following his singing retirement. After celebrating Christmas with his family, Schreier was taken to the hospital where he passed away on December 25, 2019.
He sang primarily on East German recordings, many of which have been re-released on the Berlin Classics and Philips labels. In 2019, Rondeau Productions released a recording of Schreier conducting the Sächsischer Kammerchor and Mitteldeutsche Virtuosen in a 2018 live performance of Bach's Johannes-Passion.