Although co-director Peter Rosen’s booklet note boldly claims
that “since Jan Peerce’s death in 1984, the music world has
come to realise more fully the extent of its loss”, that is,
at the very least, a somewhat questionable assertion.
Fine singer though he was, I would suggest that Peerce is remembered
today by, primarily, two groups of people. On the one hand there
are Toscanini aficionados who recall him as one of the
conductor’s tenors of choice in the last phase of his career,
memorably seen and heard belting out national anthems with gusto
in the 1943 wartime propanda film of Verdi’s Hymn of the
Nations. On the other, there are apparently still many people
who rate his chart-topping recording of the mawkishly sentimental
popular song The Bluebird of Happiness as one of the
formative experiences of their lives. If you don’t believe me,
take a look at the on-line comments made by listeners to its
For everyone else, I’ll briefly outline this film’s account
of Jan Peerce’s career – which, compared to the path followed
by most well-known operatic performers, is, to say the least,
somewhat out of the ordinary.
Born Jacob Pincus Perelmuth in New York City in 1904, the boy
had no formal musical training but gained valuable experience
singing in choirs and as a solo cantor in synagogues before
becoming a violinist and singer in dance-bands under the name
In 1932 he auditioned at Radio City Music Hall and, performing
popular repertoire, was initially dismissed by the conductor
Ernö Rapée with the withering remark “You’ll never make it.
What are you doing here? Go back to playing your weddings and
bar mitzvahs and dances”. Rapée changed his mind, though, after
hearing Peerce sing La donna è mobile and offered him
the job of resident tenor, required to sing the widest range
of repertoire from popular songs to Wagner. Though initially
scheduled to perform only during intermissions and anonymously
from behind a curtain (he became known as the “phantom voice”!),
he soon achieved featured billing – first as “John Pierce” and
later, when the singer himself thought that a more “ethnic”
sounding name would suit him better, “Jan Peerce”.
After a successful 1938 audition (Una furtiva lagrima,
this time) with Toscanini, who’d first heard him performing
in a regular weekly radio broadcast, a close personal and professional
relationship developed. Interviewed on film, Peerce credited
the conductor with definitively establishing his “classical”
credentials in the eyes of both impresarios and the public.
By 1941 he had made the move from music hall to concert hall
circuit, recording studio and the Metropolitan Opera - eventually
clocking up 205 performances in 11 operas, along with another
119 on tour.
Peerce still, however, kept popular songs – often from musical
theatre - in his repertoire. He featured many of them on regular
worldwide tours where his insistence on eating only kosher food
sometimes caused notable difficulties. In 1971 he made his Broadway
debut, playing the lead in Fiddler on the roof. He retired
in 1982, two years before his death.
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 - as exemplified in some quite cringe-making
1950s TV interviews that are included in the film - 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.
video - The Bluebird of Happiness (1958)