If I Were a Rich Man


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A documentary

Jan Peerce; hosted by Isaac Stern; with Toscanini, Antonioni; Peter Rosen, dir. Giovanni, Rigoletto (3 selections), Traviata, Pagliacci, Tosca, Onegin, Hymn to the Nations, Fiddler, cantorial selections, songs + excerpts from recordings. (1990). 59m. B&W/Color.

Joseph McLellan, reviewing in The Washington Post

“The ranks of Jan Peerce’s admirers have dwindled somewhat in the last generation, but at the height of his career he surpassed even the popularity of Pavarotti today. His recording of ‘The Bluebird of Happiness,’ a song written for him, topped the pop charts in 1945, at the same time he was dazzling opera audiences with his work at the Met and with Arturo Toscanini. A highlight of this documentary is his superb performance of Lensky’s aria from ‘Eugene Onegin.’ Another is Tevye’s big number from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’; but this arch-romantic tenor, exemplary Broadway stylist and expert purveyor of Tin Pan Alley schmaltz could also sing ‘Il mio tesoro’ with an instinctive sense of Mozart’s style rare among the tenors of his generation. Isaac Stern, a close friend from Peerce’s youth until his death (at 80) in 1984, narrates the story of his life with enormous empathy and a fine sense of relevant detail.”

Tony Angarano, reviewing in The Hartford Courant

“Posterity may remember tenor Jan Peerce for his performances on the historic Toscanini radio concerts, reissued on compact disc. His life, superbly documented on this video, exemplified the American success story.

“As Pinky Perelmuth, the son of Russian immigrants, his ascent to stardom began in the 1930s when he sang on broadcasts from the newly-opened Radio City Music Hall. Earlier, he had earned a good living playing the violin and singing with dance bands. When he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1941, Peerce represented a different kind of crossover performer-a popular entertainer who went on to have a major operatic career.

“In ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ Peerce discusses his background and career with an old friend, violinist Isaac Stern. Their lively conversation frames fascinating clips showing preRevolutionary Russia, New York City’s turn-of-the-century Jewish neighborhoods, Peerce’s appearances in movies and on television with Ed Murrow and Ed Sullivan. There are also scenes from his Broadway run in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and his final Carnegie Hall recital in 1982.

“Particularly interesting are the insights Peerce reveals about learning to sing in childhood by listening to the celebrated cantors who performed in his synagogue (‘The other kids fidgeted; I listened.’) and how he preserved his voice.

“For both music lovers and social historians, this video offers an authentic portrait of a memorable American singer.”

Shirley Fleming, reviewing in Opera News

“Those who are familiar with the art of Jan Peerce, and even those who aren’t, will find much that is engaging in the documentary ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’ Under the affectionate prodding of his old friend Isaac Stern, the tenor talks with refreshing directness about his career and the technique of singing. The interspersed film clips cover much of his long performing life, from appearances with Toscanini and an interview with Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person to the first tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1956 and the final, famous stint on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof (whence comes the title of the documentary). The rags-to-riches story, as Stern describes it, emerges warmly, and so does the likeable character of the man himself.”

Click for an additional review, by Tully Potter in Classic Record Collector