Although popular with the public back in the 50s and 60s, thanks to his cross-over appeal, ("Bluebird of Happiness" was his signature song), Jan Peerce has largely faded from today's memory of great opera stars. This hour-long show, narrated (a little too much) by Peerce's good friend, violinist Isaac Stern, presents a fascinating look at an American original. Born in 1904 in New York of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Peerce originally began as a violinist and didn't start singing professionally until he was in his late 20s, doing popular music. He didn't start singing classical and opera until he was in his 30s, making his Metropolitan Opera debut when he was 37 in 1941, replacing Tito Schipa who opted to return to fascist Italy.
He became a sort of protege of Toscanini, who recorded a number of opera with him--often from live radio broadcasts. Many of these are available on Amazon, such as Peerce's first recording with Toscanini, a 1946 La Traviata, with Licia Albanese and Robert Merrill, pieced together from the rehearsal tapes. There is also an incredible 1957 Don Giovanni with Cesare Siepi in the title role, Jan Peerce as Don Ottavio, plus Elenor Steber, Lisa della Casa, Roberta Peters, Fernando Corena, Theodore Uppmann and Giorgio Tozzi, conducted by Karl Bohm. In addition, the Met has just released, on Sony, the 1955 broadcast of Un Ballo in Maschera, with Peerce, Merrill, Zinka Milanov, Roberta Peters, and making her historic debut, Marian Anderson.
Peerce had an ease and flexibility of voice, plus tremendous diction, which may have come from his early singing as a cantor. His repetoire was varied, including Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Pucinni. Also one who sang on the "interest, not on the principle", he was able to continue singing and singing very well into his late 70s. His voice was bright and brassy, which can come across as a nasal quality. But he sang with tremendous style and conviction.
I would have liked a little more depth on his career, such as why Rudolf Bing didn't favor him, and his long-standing feud with his famous brother-in-law, tenor Richard Tucker. Still, this DVD is a valuable piece of history about one of America's top tenors of the 1940s and 50s, and a delight to watch.