If I were a rich man: The Life of Jan Peerce
Hosted by Isaac Stern
Directed by Peter Rosen and Larry Peerce
Original release 1991
EUROARTS CLASSIC ARCHIVE DVD 2058328 [59:00]
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 YouTube incarnation.
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 “Pinky Pearl”.
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.
A reminder of a fine singer whose career was unique and remarkable.