René Pape was born in Dresden, then part of East Germany. His mother is a hairdresser and his father a chef. His parents divorced when he was two years old and he sometimes lived with his grandmother, who opened the way for his interest in music. His maternal grandfather was an operetta tenor.
Pape received his musical education from 1974 to 1981 with Dresdner Kreuzchor (he even appeared as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte) and the Dresden Conservatory in the early '80s. He had his debut with the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1988, and achieved international recognition in 1991, when Sir Georg Solti cast him as Sarastro in a production of Die Zauberflöte, a role he sang again the same year at La Scala in Milan under Solti's direction. He sang in Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten ("The Seasons") with the Orchestre de Paris and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, both under Solti (1992), then Don Fernando (Fidelio), the Speaker and Sarastro with the Vienna State Opera during the 1992-93 season, King Philip (Don Carlo) in Basle Switzerland) and had his Bayreuth debut under the baton of James Levine as Fasolt in Das Rheingold in 1994. The year 1995 saw his debut with the Metropolitan Opera, as the Night Watchman in Die Meistersinger, where he has performed practically every year since (Fasolt and King of Egypt (Aida) in 1997, the Old Hebrew (Samson and Dalila) in 1998, King Marke (Tristan) in 1999, Escamillo (Carmen) and Rocco (Fidelio) in 2000, Oreste (Strauss's Elektra) in 2002, Gurnemanz (Parsifal) in 2003, Leporello (Don Giovanni) and King Marke in 2004, Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust in 2005, King Heinrich, King Philip, and Sarastro in 2006, Banquo in Macbeth in 2008, Fasolt, Hunding in Die Walküre in 2009, Boris Godunov in 2010). About his role as King Marke, Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times' November 30, 2008 issue : Few singers have conveyed Marke's feelings of betrayal by his beloved nephew Tristan with such lofty, noble anguish. René Pape's King Marke is a magnificent and dignified performance, sung with the utmost compassion and with an enviable richness and range of bass tone, wrote Michael Kennedy in the Sunday Telegraph on 25 May 2003. As Heinrich, René Pape displayed what must be the most sumptuous operatic bass in the world, wrote Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph on 5 June 2003.
Pape was honored on 27 October 2010 by the Metropolitan Opera Guild as part of its Met Mastersingers series. In addition to the Metropolitan Opera, Pape sings often with the Chicago Lyric Opera (Pogner in Die Meistersinger in 1999, Rocco in 2005 and Faust in 2009). He had his first solo recital in Carnegie Hall on 25 April 2009, where he sang German lieder from Schubert, Hugo Wolf and Schumann.
Pape had his debut at London’s Royal Opera Covent Garden as King Heinrich in Lohengrin in 1997; at the Opéra National de Paris under James Conlon as King Marke in Tristan in 1998; and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago under Christian Thielemann as Die Meistersinger’s Pogner in 1999.
Pape made a highly acclaimed debut as Wotan on 17 April 2011 in Berlin, in a new co-production by the Staatsoper, directed by the Belgian Guy Cassiers, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. His rendition of Wotan, both virile and lyrical, was very compelling, with all the dilemma he faces and his human frailty.
His repertoire includes virtually all the great German bass roles, such as Mozart's Figaro, Leporello, and Don Giovanni, Pogner in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, King Heinrich in Lohengrin, Gurnemanz in Parsifal, Fasolt, Hunding and Wotan in the Ring des Nibelungen, Oreste in Strauss's Elektra as well as Ramfis in Aida, Filippo II in Don Carlo, Méphistophélès in Faust, Escamillo in Carmen, Gremin in Eugene Oneguine and the title role of Boris Godunov.
Pape performs regularly in major opera houses, concert halls, and symphony orchestras around the world, as well as opera festivals such as Bayreuth, Glyndebourne, Lucerne, Orange, Saint-Petersburg, Salzburg, Verbier and White Nights.
Pape made his film debut as Sarastro in Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute, which premiered simultaneously at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2006 Venice Film Festival. He has also performed in "Hunter's Bride", a film version of Der Freischütz, released in 2010, by film director Jens Neubert, in which he sang the role of the Hermit.
Pape is also known for his performances of the song cycle Mein Herz brennt, composed by Torsten Rasch and based on the music of the heavy metal band Rammstein. In 2007, he released the Rammstein-Song "Mann gegen Mann" by the German band Rammstein in a piano version by German composer Sven Helbig.
Pape has received two Grammys for his recordings ("Die Meistersinger" in 1997 and "Tannhauser" in 2002), was named “Vocalist of the Year” by Musical America in 2002, “Artist of the Year” by the German opera critics in 2006 for his Boris Godunov at the Berlin Staatsoper, and won in 2009 an ECHO award (the German equivalent of the Grammy) for his solo arias, Gods, Kings and Demons".
- Mozart: Requiem, Mar. 1992, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti, Decca
- Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane, Apr. 1993, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by John Mauceri, Decca
- Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Nov. 1993, Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Teldec
- Busoni: Turandot, Oct. 1993, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Gerd Albrecht, Capriccio
- Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Sep. 1994, Bayerischen Staatsoper conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, EMI Classics
- Mendelssohn: Antigone, Jan. 1995, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Stefan Soltesz, Capriccio
- Haydn: The Creation, Feb. 1995, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, Decca
- Busoni: Arlecchino, Mar. 1995, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Gerd Albrecht, Capriccio
- Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Jun. 1995, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti, Decca
- Beethoven: Choral Fantasy/Triple Concerto, Nov. 1995, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim, EMI Classics
- Mendelssohn: Oedipus, Jan. 1996, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Stefan Soltesz, Capriccio
- Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Feb. 1997, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, Decca
- Mahler: Symphony No. 8, Mar. 1997, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis, RCA
- Franz Schmidt: The Book with Seven Seals, Oct. 1998, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, EMI Classics
- Wagner: Lohengrin, Nov. 1998, Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Teldec Classics
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Dec. 2000, Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Teldec Classics
- Beethoven: Fidelio, Jan. 2000, Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Teldec Classics
- Wagner: Tannhäuser, 2001, Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Teldec Classics
- Torsten Rasch: Mein Herz Brennt, 2003. Dresdner Sinfoniker conducted by John Carewe, Universal Music/Deutsche Grammophon
- Rammstein: Reise, Reise, 2004, Motor/Republic
- 10th Annual Opera Gala in support of the German AIDS Foundation, May 2004, Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano, RCA
- Mozart: Bastien und Bastienne, Sep. 2005, Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Max Pommer, Brilliant Classics
- Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Sep. 2005, Royal Opera House Covent Garden conducted by Antonio Pappano, EMI Classics
- Rammstein: Rosenrot, Oct. 2005, Universal
- Mozart: Das Mozart Album, Jul. 2006, Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado, Deutsche Grammophon
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Oct. 2007, Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, Deutsche Grammophon
- Mozart: The Magic Flute, May. 2007, Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado, Deutsche Grammophon
- Gods, Kings & Demons, Aug. 2008, Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sebastian Weigle, Deutsche Grammophon
- Wagner: Parsifal, September 2010, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky
- Wagner: arias from Walküre, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tannhäuser Staatskapelle Berlin, dir. Daniel Barenboim DGG, 2010
- A Tsar is Born: René Pape is about to Have His Moment in Boris Godunov, by Zachary Woolfe, The New York Observer, October 5, 2010
- "René Pape wurde österreichischer Kammersänger" (in German). Vienna: Wienner Staatsoper. Retrieved 23 February 2019.