Gerald Perman, a Washington psychiatrist who became a concert impresario in his late 60s when he founded the Vocal Arts Society, a group that presented celebrated and unknown singers in classical repertory from around the world, died April 11 at his home in Washington. He was 91.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his son, Richard A. Perman.
To date, the Vocal Arts Society, which Dr. Perman started in 1990, has presented more than 100 recitals. These included the Washington solo debuts of many of the leading classical singers of our time, including soprano Renée Fleming, mezzo-sopranos Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and countertenor David Daniels.
From the beginning, the stated VAS mission was “to promote and support greater interest in the art of song; to restore the song recital as a serious and exciting performing art; to present accomplished artists in well-planned programs of fine vocal literature; to acquaint the audience for voice with the largely unperformed/ underperformed vocal repertory.”
“The fees are modest but no one minds,” the writer Austin Baer observed in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998. “An all-
volunteer staff takes not a penny in overhead, and the talent — a bright mixture of top names and stars-in-waiting — is treated like royalty by an audience of connoisseurs.”
Matthew Epstein, former artistic director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Welsh National Opera and an executive with Columbia Artists Management, one of the world’s largest classical music management companies, once called the VAS “an example of what can be — and should be — done in every American city.”
Part of the appeal was the intimacy of the venues Dr. Perman chose. “There’s nothing more depressing than going to a song recital in a 2,500-seat hall with only 800 people there,” Epstein told The Washington Post in 1998. “However, when you have 300 enthusiastic people in a 300-seat hall, it works wonderfully and the effect is exhilarating.”
Another attraction was the latitude the society allowed for singers to choose a program without concern for the box office.
“Our artists appreciate the fact that we will present them singing the music they really want to sing,” Dr. Perman told The Post. “They know that the hall will be comfortable and that the audience will be appreciative. And, after all, we’re right in the middle of the capital of the United States and people want to be heard here.”
Gerald Perman, the elder of two sons of immigrants from Russia, was born in Elizabeth, N.J., on July 6, 1923, and grew up in Chicago. After Army service in World War II, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1947 and from its medical school in 1949. He came to Washington for further training and decided to stay, subsequently serving as president of the Washington Psychoanalytic Society.
In 1970, he founded a three-year advanced psychotherapy program at the Washington School of Psychiatry with an interdisciplinary faculty and student body consisting of psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric social workers. He remained the chair of that program until 1990.
That same year, inspired by a short-lived vocal series presented in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Dr. Perman decided to present his own programs. He had no previous experience in concert production.
“I spent the first year simply meeting people, asking them everything,” Dr. Perman told The Post in 1998. “Who were the best managers? Who were the up-
and-coming singers? How do you reach your potential audience? Incorporating as a nonprofit institution was a pretty intense learning experience all by itself.”
Dr. Perman assembled a board of directors, originally made up mostly of friends and colleagues, and presented the first series in the 1991-1992 season. The venue was the Sumner School Concert Hall, and every one of the 150 seats was filled for all three programs.
The VAS later moved to the French Embassy and, in 2002, at the invitation of Michael Kaiser, then the president of the Kennedy Center, to the Terrace Theater.
In 2012, Dr. Perman relinquished leadership to Peter Russell but remained artistic director emeritus until his death. He often put up visiting artists in his home.
His first wife, Dagmar Horna Perman, died in 1978. His second wife, Ann Arkin Perman, died in 2000.
Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Richard A. Perman of Titusville, Fla., and Linda Lonsbury of Millersville, Md.; a brother; three stepchildren, Marion Arkin of Arlington, Va., Elizabeth Arkin of Nibe, Denmark, and John Arkin of Boulder, Colo.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed Dr. Perman’s middle name as Paul. He did not have a middle name.