Jan Peerce & Richard Tucker
Two Jews dominated the Italian Opera in the 1940’s and later: Jan Peerce and his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker.
Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth was born in Manhattan on
the lower east side, where so many Jews had settled between 1891 and 1923. A
gifted musician, Perelmuth changed his name to Peerce after graduating from
Columbia University as a music student majoring in violin.
Peerce also had a magnificent voice. Therefore he began
his career when he was hired by Radio City Music Hall in 1932 to sing in several
radio programs, which promoted his popularity and yielded him a nationwide
audience. This led to concert engagements and thereafter to his first appearance
in an opera in Philadelphia. There he sang the role of The Duke of Mantua in the
opera Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.
In 1939 Peerce gave his first solo recital in New York
City and was promptly asked by Arturo Toscanini to audition for him. A refugee
from Mussolini’s Italy, Toscanini was the founder and conductor of the NBC
orchestra since 1937. This led to numerous appearances by Peerce with the NBC
orchestra during the seventeen years of Toscanini’s tenure.
In 1941, Peerce made his “debut”, or start, with
the Metropolitan Opera of New York as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata.
Thereafter he sang the part of Cavaradossi in Tosca
and Rodolfo in La Bohéme. Peerce
was so successful that opera critics labeled him the successor to all the great
performers of Italian opera’s “Golden Age”.
In 1943 Peerce sang in the film “Hymn of the
Nations”, composed by Verdi, and accompanied by the Westminster Choir and the
NBC orchestra under Toscanini. This is available today on DVD.
In the 1950’s Peerce appeared regularly at the
Lewisohn Stadium in New York under the baton of conductor Alfredo Antonini.
That stadium seated 14,000.
In 1956, Peerce traveled to Moscow as a cultural
exchange “ambassador”. There he became a “sensation” as he sang in the
famous Bolshoi opera.
Thereafter, Peerce not only performed at the
Metropolitan Opera, he also played “Tevye” in the Broadway musical
“Fiddler on the Roof.”
Peerce retired in 1982 but performed occasionally
until his death in 1984.
It is not possible to list here all the recordings by Peerce even now available.
One of the best is his appearance in the Choral Symphony by Beethoven.
Richard Tucker was a Chasan, a cantor. His name had been
Ruvn Ticker. By that name he daven’d at the Tifereth Synagogue in lower
Manhattan after singing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. From there he became
cantor in Passaic, N.J. and Adath
Israel in the Bronx. Finally he was appointed cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish
Center, which was a synagogue and not a
In 1936, Tucker married Sara Perelmuth, the sister of
Jan Peerce. He was then introduced to a retired opera singer, Paul Althouse, who
coached him. This led to a visit by the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager,
Paul Johnson, to Adath Israel synagogue, where Johnson heard Tucker sing.
Johnson offered Tucker a contract to sing Enzio in La Gioconda by Amilcare
Thereafter, Tucker sang with Maria Callas in Verona,
Italy. Then, Tucker sang Radames in Verdi’s Aida . Tucker was praised for his
native sounding Italian and his excellent diction. Like Peerce, Tucker also
appeared at the Lewisohn Stadium, where he performed in several “Puccini
During all the years that he was a major star on the
opera stage, Tucker also officiated on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in New York
Tucker also appeared on the “Bell Telephone Hour”
and “The Voice of Firestone”, which may be seen on videotape even now.
Tucker died of a heart attack in Kalamazoo, Michigan in
1975. He is the only person whose funeral was held on the stage of the
Metropolitan Opera. A park adjacent to Lincoln Square in New York is named after
him. There is also a Richard Tucker Music Foundation, and recently a concert in
his memory was staged in New York City involving numerous major opera singers of
our own day.
Not bad for two Jewish boys.