Peerce’s parents came from the Belarussian village of Horodetz and emigrated to the USA in 1903. Born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and nicknamed ‘Pinky’ by his friends, he attended the De Witt Clinton High School and Columbia University and took violin lessons with the encouragement of his mother. In 1930 Peerce married a childhood friend, Alice Kalmanovitz, who became a talent agent and was the sister of the tenor Richard Tucker.
Although Peerce formed a successful dance band (Pinky Pearl and his Society Dance Band) he soon noticed that when he sang he commanded greater attention than when he played. He therefore studied singing with the tenor Giuseppe Boghetti and in 1932 was engaged by the Broadway impresario Samuel Roxy Rothafel to sing on the Radio City Music Hall of the Air broadcasts, followed by an appearance at the opening of Rothafel’s actual Radio City Music Hall the same year.
Peerce became one of the best-loved radio singers of both popular and cantorial music. Toscanini heard him singing Wagner in a broadcast and through a mutual friend invited him to audition. As a result Toscanini felt that he had found the ideal tenor for his broadcasts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Peerce first sang with Toscanini in 1938 as the tenor soloist in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and went on to become known as the maestro’s ‘favourite tenor’. He broadcast (and so recorded) extensively with Toscanini, notably in several complete opera performances. Also in 1938 he made his operatic stage debut with the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company as the Duke / Rigoletto followed by Alfredo / La traviata and Pinkerton / Madama Buttterfly in 1941.
At the Metropolitan Opera Peerce first appeared in November 1941 as Alfredo, followed by the Duke, Edgardo / Lucia di Lammermoor (1942), Cavaradossi / Tosca and Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera (both 1943), Rodolfo / La Bohème (1944), Pinkerton (1948), Don Ottavio / Don Giovanni (1950), the title role in Gounod’s Faust (1954) and Turiddù / Cavalleria rusticana (1959). During the late 1940s Peerce suffered a vocal crisis, but following study with Robert Weede, with whom he had sung at the Radio City Music Hall, he regained his vocal placement and projection, making his last appearance at the Met as Faust in 1968.
Throughout the 1950s he was a soloist in the popular open-air ‘Italian Night’ concerts at the Lewisohn Stadium with Alfredo Antonini conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and he toured extensively with the Bach Aria Group. Peerce was the first American to sing at the Bolshoi Opera, Moscow: in 1956, as part of a cultural exchange programme. He made his Broadway debut in 1971 as Tevye, the central character in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and continued to make public appearances until his retirement in 1982.
Both Peerce and his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, with whom he had at times a tense relationship, had similar, cantorially derived, singing voices. Although short in stature, Peerce evidently possessed a noble demeanour on stage and his voice retained its strength and vitality throughout his career. He could sing to thrilling effect, as his numerous recordings clearly demonstrate.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).