Jan Peerce, 80, who began his musical career more than 50 years ago on New York's Lower East Side as "Pinky Pearl, the fiddler," and went on to become principal tenor of New York's Metropolitan Opera, died Dec. 15 at his home here. He died without ever coming out of a coma he slipped into two years ago after a stroke.
Known for his silvery tenor, Mr. Peerce distinguished himself in French and Italian repertoire. Some of his best-known roles included Alfredo in "La Traviata," Rodolfo in "La Boheme," Riccardo in "A Masked Ball," and the duke in "Rigoletto."
Unlike some operatic stars, he did not look down on so-called popular music. For six months, he sang the role of Tevye on Broadway in "Fiddler on the Roof." His recording of "The Bluebird of Happiness" became an all-time best-seller as a single, and he was involved in the recording of more than 40 long-play albums, as a solo artist and in operas. He also appeared in night club acts in New York City and in the resorts of New York state's Catskill Mountains.
He made his singing debut in 1932 at Radio City Music Hall, where he performed an estimated 2,500 times. He sang in radio programs originating at a Radio City and later was featured on his own program, "Great Moments in Music." A 1936 a national poll named him the "leading male radio singer."
Mr. Peerce made his Met debut on Nov. 29, 1941, in a Saturday matinee performance of "La Traviata." A few years later, he recorded the role of Alfredo under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. He became Toscanini's favorite tenor, and sang with the great orchestra conductor and his NBC Symphony in numerous concerts.
Jacob Pincus Perlmuth was born on the Lower East Side on June 3, 1904. Early in his career, his stage name was changed to John Pierce by Samuel (Roxy) Rothafel, an impresario who hired him to sing at the new Radio City music hall. The name again was changed a few years later to Jan Peerce and it remained with him the rest of his life.
Mr. Peerce's family was poor and he grew up among street toughs. Although he knew how to play stickball and other street sports, he became interested in music and learned to play the violin while earning his first money singing in a synagogue. As he grew older, he made a living as a violinist and band leader and put some of his savings toward singing lessons.
Perhaps his first big break was meeting Roxy Rothafel. His stint at the Radio City Roxy Music Hall lasted eight years and during that time Rothafel hired the best vocal teachers for Peerce and paid for the lessons from his own pocket. The music hall became Mr. Peerce's springboard to the stages of the great opera houses.
He sang his first role in San Francisco and then went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he won the praises of the city's critics as Alfredo in "La Traviata." One critic called him the "all-America successor to greats of opera's almost extinct 'Golden Age.' "
He became the first American singer to perform at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow after World War II. But the Met was his home stage and he returned there to sing youthful roles at an age when most men were thinking of retirement. In 1979, he sang in 50 concerts on a schedule that took him across the United States and to Australia.
He celebrated his 50th anniversary as a tenor with a Carnegie Hall recital on Dec. 4, 1980. He was felled by two strokes in 1982 and had to cancel a recital at Carnegie Hall later in the year. In January 1983, he went into a coma and was kept alive from that time by a support system.
He married his childhood sweetheart, the former Alice Kalmanowitz, who survives him. Her brother, the late Sidney Kaye, was an owner of the Russian Tea Room, a famous New York restaurant located to the left of Carnegie Hall and a favorite hangout of opera singers and concert artists. Mr. Peerce was often seen there regaling friendly patrons with stories about the opera and its singers.
In addition to his wife, of New Rochelle, N.Y., survivors include three children and four grandchildren, and two brothers.