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June 3: Jan Peerce

June 2, 2016

MI0001386316Legendary tenor Jan Peerce (Joshua Pincus Perelmuth), who launched his career in 1932 with the Radio City Music Hall Company, caught the attention of Arturo Toscanini, and launched a twenty-seven-year career at the Metropolitan Opera in 1941, was born on the Lower East Side of New York on this date in 1904. From 1941 to 1968, Peerce sang 205 performances in eleven operas at the Met, as well as more than a hundred performances on tour, as the leading tenor in “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “La Boheme,” “Madama Butterfly,” and other classics. “He produced a beautiful sound and had a perfect legato,” said Robert Merrill, who often sang as baritone to Peerce’s tenor on the Met stage. “He also had high notes, and who can forget the C he used to take at the end of the first act of ‘Boheme’?” Peerce produced many records intended for Jewish and Yiddish-speaking audiences, including cantorial music, and was an “out” Jewish public figure at a time when most Jewish celebrities obscured their Jewish identities. In 1956, Peerce became the first American to sing with the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, and in 1971 he made his Broadway premiere as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. In 1976, he published The Bluebird of Happiness: The Memoirs of Jan Peerce, named for his 1945 best-selling record, which became his “signature tune,” second in sales for opera-star records only to Caruso’s 1918 recording of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” Peerce died at 80 in 1984. To hear him singing in Yiddish, look below.

“He became America’s own tenor — the self-effacing ‘favorite uncle’ who dropped into your hometown regularly to sing.... If he never generated the wild acclaim of a Pavarotti or a Caruso, he was the steady, ready-to-sing, faithful-to-the-music performer who almost always filled the concert hall.” —Bruce A. Folkart, Los Angeles Times