Jan Peerce was an American operatic tenor. He is the father of film director Larry Peerce.
Jan Peerce’s parents, Louis and Henya Perelmuth, came from the Russian village of Horodetz. Their first child, a daughter, died in an epidemic. In 1903 they emigrated to America along with second child, a boy named Mottel. A year later, on June 3, 1904, their third child, a boy named Jacob Pincus was born, in a cold water flat in the Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York. He was nicknamed “Pinky” by his neighborhood friends. When he was three years old, his older brother Mottel was killed in an accident as he hitched a ride on an ice wagon. Jan remained on the Lower East Side until his 1930 marriage to Alice Kalmanovitz, a childhood friend. He attended De Witt Clinton High School and Columbia University. At his mother’s urging he took violin lessons, and gave public performances, including dance band work as Jack “Pinky” Pearl. Sometimes he also sang and it was soon discovered he was an exceptional lyric tenor.
In 1932 he was hired as a tenor soloist with the Radio City Music Hall company by the impresario Roxy, who renamed him John Pierce. They soon compromised on the spelling Jan Peerce, which the singer felt better reflected his ethnicity. Thanks to radio broadcasts and stage programs, Peerce soon had a nationwide following. The legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini heard him singing Wagner on the radio and was able to contact Peerce through a mutual friend to see if he would like to audition for him. Toscanini found him to be the tenor he had sought to sing operatic and choral works with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The recordings made during, or following, the NBC broadcasts are among the outstanding musical legacies of the mid-20th century. Toscanini was reportedly pleased with Peerce’s professionalism, as well as his extraordinary musical talents; many have said that Peerce may have been Toscanini’s “favorite tenor” during the Maestro’s 17 years at NBC. Peerce recalled that Toscanini never lost his temper the way he famously did with other musicians even though Peerce believed he had the right to, on a few occasions. Peerce first sang with Toscanini on February 6, 1938, in Carnegie Hall in a broadcast performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; the soloists also included soprano Vina Bovy, mezzo soprano Kerstin Thorborg, and bass Ezio Pinza.
Peerce joined the roster of principal tenors at the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company in 1938. He made his professional opera debut with the company on December 10 of that year as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto with Robert Weede in the title role and Fritz Mahler conducting. He also sang Alfredo in La traviata with Annunciata Garrotto as Violetta and Weede as Germont during the company’s 1938-1939 season. Peerce sang in several more performance with the PLSOC through 1941, singing Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Elda Ercole as Cio-cio-san, and reprising the roles of the Duke and Alfredo a number of times.