NEW YORK — Georges Prêtre, the debonair French conductor who led the premiere of Poulenc’s one-woman opera “La Voix Humaine,” accompanied Maria Callas in several celebrated performances and recordings and became a favorite in Vienna, died on Wednesday in Navès, France. He was 92.
His death was announced by the Vienna Symphony.
Mr. Prêtre led many of the world’s leading orchestras during a remarkable 70-year career that lasted through October when, visibly frail, he gave an emotional farewell concert with the Vienna Symphony, of which he was honorary conductor. At the end of the concert, he blew kisses to the musicians.
At times he could seem to bristle at the idea that he was a conductor, preferring to think of himself as an interpreter who went beyond merely beating time as he struggled to bring music to life. The results could be erratic — sometimes puzzling critics and even the players who tried to follow him — but also included many electrifying, memorable performances.
“You can study orchestra conducting: 1, 2, 3, ” he told a video interviewer at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2013, pretending to beat time mechanically. “But knowing how to influence the orchestra to play to create the atmosphere that I’m looking for is something you can’t study.”
The Vienna Symphony, which he first conducted in 1962 and where he served as principal guest conductor from 1986 to 1991, said his brand of music-making could be challenging but he was the “genuine article” and he had left his mark on two generations of the orchestra’s musicians.
“His now legendary art of improvisation was like walking a tightrope with the ever-present risk of falling,” the orchestra said in a statement after his death.
Mr. Prêtre was born in northern France on Aug. 14, 1924, and studied music at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris. He made his debut at the Marseilles Opera in 1946 at the age of 22.
That led to engagements at the Opéra Comique in Paris, then at the Paris Opera and, by the 1960s, a growing international career, with appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and the Teatro alla Scala, and with top orchestras.
With movie-star good looks and an athletic build, Mr. Prêtre cut a dashing figure on the podium; at his first appearance at Lincoln Center in 1965, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a member of the audience described him as “France’s answer to Leonard Bernstein.” But early critics were sometimes perplexed by the flamboyance of his interpretations.
He developed a strong rapport with Callas, a collaboration that can be heard in a famous recording of Bizet’s “Carmen” that they made together.
After he conducted Callas in the title role of Bellini’s “Norma” at the Paris Opera in 1964, a performance at which her fans as well as her detractors were exceedingly vocal, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Prêtre had “conducted with unusual spirit” and “worked with his star singer with the delicacy of a surgeon on a tricky job.”
In 1970, Mr. Prêtre briefly became music director of the Paris Opera. But his tenure was short-lived, and for many years he concentrated his career outside France.
He sometimes said that he preferred being a guest conductor to be being a music director, seeing his relationships with orchestras more as love affairs than commitments. But in 1989 he was brought back to conduct the inaugural concert at the Bastille Opera House in Paris.
Stéphane Lissner, the director of the Paris Opera, said in a statement, “Georges Prêtre left his mark on the history of the Paris Opera, namely by conducting great works of the French and Italian repertoires at the Palais Garnier up until the end of the 1980s.”
While he was especially valued in the French repertoire — he conducted works by Berlioz, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns, and others — Mr. Prêtre was also in demand to conduct Italian operas, works by Strauss and Wagner, and a wide range of classical music.
He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert twice.
Mr. Prêtre leaves his wife of more than 50 years, Gina Marny, and their daughter, Isabelle Prêtre Koch, a philosopher and writer. A son, Jean-Reynald, died in 2012.