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Michael Mark
American Record Guide, September 2011

This is greatly entertaining. Peerce (1904–84), Toscanini’s favorite tenor, is a wonderful storyteller. Through black-and-white photos and film and through intelligent, entertaining questions and comments by Isaac Stern, viewers get a look at Peerce’s humble beginnings…He did his father proud.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.



Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2011

This is the first DVD release of a documentary on the life of American tenor Jan Peerce (1904–84), hosted by his longtime friend and colleague Isaac Stern and produced by Peter Rosen. It does a much better job than most of chronicling the life and times of the artist because Peerce himself narrates so much of it and because he is truthful to the point of painful honesty about some of his career choices and setbacks.

As an interpreter, there was never very much to Peerce. He sang at an almost steady forte or mezzo-forte, only rarely caressing a line and almost never presenting an operatic character. For many years he was the favorite tenor of Arturo Toscanini during his long run with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it was that association with Toscanini that helped lift Peerce out of his long-running association with Radio City Music Hall to the Metropolitan Opera and classical legitimacy. As a singer, however, he was simply phenomenal. Seemingly incapable of distorting a musical line, he was among the earliest tenors of the 20th century to sing everything cleanly, with little or no musical distortion of line, and although his voice was sweeter in its earlier years (1932–41), even when it hardened it remained a remarkable instrument up until the day of his last public performance in 1982. I still recall seeing him on the Tonight show, in his 70s, singing “Mamma, quel vino e generoso” from Cavalleria Rusticana, with the freshness of a 35-year-old, and the final segment of this film splices various TV and concert performances of his hit song Bluebird of Happiness over a 20-year period. The acoustic settings were different, but the voice did not deteriorate one iota. Only Plácido Domingo has had as distinguished a career, and even Domingo went through years when the voice changed timbre and sometimes didn’t respond so well as in others. Peerce was as steady, and dependable, as a rock.

In conversation with Stern, Peerce attributes his longevity to always “singing on my interest and not on my capital” and “just letting the voice work without forcing anything.” As a child, he did sing occasionally in synagogue, and admits having closely studied the voices of famous cantors when he heard them. He rested his voice during puberty, not starting to sing again until he was 17, and even then only occasionally. He started his career as a violinist in a pop-klezmer band, only doing occasional vocals, until well-meaning friends directed him to good teachers and he was hired in 1932 at Radio City. An early (1937) film clip shows him dressed as a hot-dog salesman, singing of his fall from grace as an opera singer and doing part of “M’appari” to prove his pedigree. Although the tone at the time was more silvery, I find it interesting that his breath control was not as good as it later became.

After an audition for Toscanini, he was hired by the famed maestro to sing a performance of Busoni’s Arlecchino where he was an offstage voice. This led to performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in 1938 and ’39, concert performances of Verdi’s trio from I Lombardi and the last act of Rigoletto, the 1943 OWI film of Verdi’s Hymn of the Nations, then the complete opera performances of Fidelio, La Traviata, and La Bohème. I have read that, when rehearsing the latter opera, Toscanini stopped Peerce in the midst of his singing to ask him, “Peerce, have you ever been in love, really in love?” “Why, yes, Maestro,” the surprised tenor was said to respond. “Well, then why don’t you sing like it?” Peerce got through the opera, his usual rich-voiced but impassive self. For whatever reason, Toscanini did not use him again until the 1952 performance and recording of the Beethoven Ninth. Peerce’s last opera broadcast with Toscanini was Un Ballo in Maschera in 1954, where he replaced an ailing Jussi Björling.

One of the most moving events of his life, nicely documented and explained here, was his tour of Russia where he sang both Yiddish and liturgical songs. Russian Jews, kept under the thumb of the Soviet system, flocked in droves to hear him sing, and were moved to tears. Peerce had that quality. His liturgical singing displayed fine coloratura runs but not, like his brother-in-law Richard Tucker, a fine trill.

It’s refreshing to note that Peerce had absolutely no illusions about his stage appearance. He knew he was short, stocky, and unhandsome, and never tried to be or look anything than what he was. He did make a good figure onstage by being able to tableau well, and lasted at the Met for 23 seasons. Due to the rock steadiness of his technique, he never disappointed.

The film, naturally, also covers the years in which he sang Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a role he embraced as eagerly as those of Riccardo or Alfredo. The good thing about it is that the film doesn’t have to stretch to present Peerce as an essentially nice man, conscientious in his work but unpretentious in his personality. He exuded warmth whenever he sang and always tried to extend his art to those who couldn’t afford seats at the Met. Would that we had more people like Jan Peerce in the art world today.



Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, June 2011

This film, originally made for television, is introduced and narrated by Peerce’s longtime friend Isaac Stern who emphasises right from the start that the tenor only achieved success by those long years of hard work in his 20s and 30s when he “paid his dues” and followed his own credo of “study, work, develop, learn—and never give up, never give up.” In truth, that “unknown” period is the most fascinating of his career for, once he had attained success and had to conform to the expected public image of a star performer…it’s clear that he became less interestingly individual.

Co-directed by Peerce’s son Larry, If I were a rich man also puts considerable emphasis on the singer’s Jewish heritage. He insisted on singing in Yiddish in Cold War-era Russia in spite of official Soviet disapproval, visited Israel no less than 36 times and insisted to Stern that his early experience in synagogues had had a key influence on the direction of his later musical career: “Whether you sing as a cantor, or if you sing opera, there’s not a great difference…because if you sing of love and you sing towards a girl, and you sing of love towards God, there must be the same intensity.”

Plentifully illustrated by some fascinating film clips from all stages of Peerce’s long and in many ways unconventional career and winningly hosted and narrated by Stern, the film gives us a valuable insight into the singer’s life and work. My limited knowledge of Judaism means that I don’t know whether that religion promotes individuals to anything like sainthood. If it does, this hagiographic film could easily form part of the case for its subject’s beatification. As that remark suggests, though, the overall tone is rather one-sided and uncritical. Perhaps if the film were to be remade today, rather more objectively and without such close involvement by Peerce family members and friends, some interesting questions that were ignored and so went unanswered in 1990 might be addressed. As it is, I guess that we should, on balance, be grateful for this reminder of a fine singer whose career was, in many ways, unique and remarkable.



Frank Behrens
Art Times, April 2011

Euroarts has issued a lovely DVD titled “If I Were a Rich Man: The Life of Jan Peerce.” Opera fans of the 1940s and 1950s have fond recollections of this tenor who looked anything but heroic and was afraid to sing opera because of the tights he would have to wear. But his voice attracted the attention of Arturo Toscanini and then his future was established.

No, it was not a quantum leap from synagogue to Metropolitan Opera! This hour-long documentary traces all the steps in between in two sites. About half of the program is an interview with Peerce and master violinist Isaac Stern. (I admire the comparisons they draw between singing and bowing techniques.) The rest is archival video footage of Peerce’s career with a voiceover commentary by Stern.

Peerce is so likable, never egocentric, and always displaying his sense of humor. The best example is the story he tells of being the only person at a Metropolitan audition who was asked for an encore. Yes, of course I give this DVD a very high recommendation.






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8:19:18 PM, 17 September 2014
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