Peerce, Jan

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1904-06-03
Death 1984-12-15
Americans

Biographical notes:

Jan Peerce (1904-1984) was a noted American tenor. He was born on Jun. 3, 1904 and died on Dec. 15, 1984 in New York. He was engaged as a singer at Radio City Music Hall in 1932, and made his operatic debut in Philadelphia as the Duke in Rigoletto on May 14, 1938. His Metropolitan Opera debut was on Nov. 29, 1941, as Alfredo in La traviata . In addition to opera, he also sang musical theater, most notably in Fiddler on the Roof, and Jewish religious and secular music. His final appearance at the Met was in 1968, and he retired in 1982.

From the guide to the Jan Peerce collection of sound recordings, 1932-1983, (The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.)

Jan Peerce was born Jacob Pincus Perelmuth on June 3, 1904. His parents, Louis Perelmuth and Anna Posner Perelmuth, were Russian immigrants who settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Jacob’s mother wanted him to play the piano, but the family could not afford one for him, so she settled on the violin. Occasionally during this period, Jacob would sing at his local synagogue, winning praise for his high, pre-adolescent voice. Singing was far from the top of Jacob’s priorities, however. His mother envisioned a medical career for him, and Jacob had no objection. As he finished high school and began college, however, he began to have other ideas.

Jacob put together a small dance band, featuring his violin, and made some extra money by playing at social events. The band started by playing at weddings held in the Perelmuth’s catering hall, but soon found other work. Jacob enjoyed his musical work more than his schoolwork and saw that it could be far more remunerative than studying. When he failed out of Columbia University for neglecting his studies, he decided to try making a living as a full-time musician.

While struggling with his band, Jacob eloped with his long-time girlfriend, Alice Kalmanowitz. Although Jacob and Alice had first met as children in 1912, they did not begin dating until the mid-1920s. The Perelmuths did not approve of the relationship because they were afraid a serious girlfriend or wife might lure Jacob away from his studies and the Kalmanowitzes disapproved because, although they liked Jacob personally, they did not foresee a financially successful future for him. Jacob and Alice had actually married in secret in October, 1928, several months before their elopement, but they each went back to live with their parents and told no one of the marriage. Finally, in June 1929, Jacob and Alice ran off to Chicago and had their religious ceremony. Their parents were dismayed, but ultimately accepted the marriage and Jacob and Alice returned to New York. In 1930, Alice gave birth to a son named Lawrence, who, as Larry Peerce, would grow up to become a successful television and motion picture director.

The band had found some success by this time, especially once Jacob began singing the vocal choruses himself with his impressive tenor voice. Under the names Jack Pearl and Pinky Pearl, Jacob and his band worked more and more until 1932 when a job at a hotel brought Jacob together with impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel. Rothafel was in the process of creating entertainment programs for the newly-completed Radio City Music Hall and he approached Jacob after hearing him play and sing. Jacob was surprised that Rothafel was interested at all, but particularly that he was interested in Jacob as a singer, rather than a violinist. Rothafel changed his name to “John Pierce” and hired him as a singer. Jacob had little confidence in his chances for success, largely because he thought his short stature, ethnic features and wide body type would preclude him from winning over audiences. Rothafel told him he was “the handsomest man in the world” if he would only believe it and Jan Peerce would credit Rothafel for giving him the confidence that would last the rest of his life.

While singing classical and popular music at Radio City Music Hall, Jacob convinced Rothafel to compromise and call him “Jan Peerce”. The new name had the sound that Rothafel wanted, but made Jacob feel more comfortable and closer to his own identity. As Jan Peerce, he also worked in radio, sometimes anonymously and sometimes under his new name. In 1935, the Peerces had their second child, Joy. His repertoire grew wider and began to include operatic arias as the 1930s wore on. In 1938, Peerce was called upon to audition for Arturo Toscanini, the most famous conductor of the century. Toscanini needed a tenor for a concert performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Peerce had been recommended. After a successful audition in Toscanini’s hotel suite, Peerce got the job and his appearance with Toscanini expanded his reputation greatly. Toscanini frequently referred to Peerce as his “favorite tenor” and they maintained a friendship and occasional professional collaboration for fifteen years, until Toscanini’s retirement.

Peerce had still never performed a full opera, although some critics and many fans were discussing his future as a tenor at The Metropolitan Opera. Though Peerce was still unsure of his suitability for grand opera, Alice Peerce had no doubts and, while serving as her husband’s agent, she booked him, without his knowledge, to appear in Rigoletto in Baltimore with star Robert Weede. Peerce learned the part, honored his wife’s commitment and received great acclaim for his operatic debut. He began studying other operas and appearing in various touring companies throughout the United States, in addition to his concert tours. In 1939, the Peerces had their third child, Susan.

At last, in 1941, The Metropolitan Opera offered Peerce a contract and on November 29, Jan Peerce made his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Traviata . Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise and he made numerous subsequent appearances that season. Peerce remained a fixture at The Metropolitan Opera for twenty-five straight seasons. He was one of the institution’s most famous and commercially popular tenors, continuing to perform the roles he considered within the scope of his voice and personality. Despite urging by Toscanini and others, Peerce insisted that not every opera was for every singer and he kept to his repertoire of approximately twenty operatic roles. Peerce remained with The Metropolitan Opera, while also touring the country with various other companies, until 1966, when he retired from operatic performance because his vision had deteriorated and he could not navigate the complex sets anymore.

Peerce was in constant demand as a concert performer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He traveled the country every year and made several international tours, including trips to Japan, South Africa, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 1956, he became the first American singer to visit the Soviet Union on a concert tour. Although throughout his life, people mistakenly claimed he had been a cantor, Peerce did incorporate Passover services at various hotels into his appearance schedule. Each year from the 1960s through the early 1980s, Peerce presided over religious services for hotel guests, usually in Miami, Florida.

Peerce was a frequent and successful recording artist and pioneered a trail between classical or operatic singing and popular music. Frequently commenting that the only two kinds of music are “good” and “bad”, Peerce would record entire operas, albums of arias and classical songs, as well as popular singles and albums of Broadway show tunes. His recording of The Bluebird of Happiness was immensely popular, eventually becoming one of the best-selling records by a concert artist. It also became Peerce’s most requested number, to the shock and dismay of some classical critics.

After retiring from grand opera, Peerce embarked on a new phase of performance: the musical theater. Feeling a very personal connection to the story of Fiddler on the Roof, Peerce made it clear he was interested in appearing in the play. After a summer tour of the show in Ohio, Peerce took the lead role in the Broadway production for several months in 1971 and 1972. He would continue to tour with the show on and off through 1982. He never again appeared on Broadway, but did tour in The Rothschilds and an original musical intended for Broadway, Laugh a Little, Cry a Little .

Peerce was very concerned with maintaining the quality of his voice and rehearsed constantly. His longevity was rare, if not unique, and he continued to impress critics and audiences until 1982, when he became ill and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. Jan Peerce died on December 15, 1984.

From the guide to the Jan Peerce papers, 1918-1985, (The New York Public Library. Music Division.)

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Subjects:

  • Musicals--Excerpts
  • Opera
  • Synagogue music
  • Television programs
  • Jews--Music
  • Radio programs, Musical--United States
  • Television talk shows
  • Variety shows (Television programs)
  • Jewish singers--United States
  • Tenors (Singers)--United States
  • Songs

Occupations:

  • Performer
  • Tenors (Singers)

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