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Culture Watch: 'If I Were a Rich Man: The Life of Jan Peerce'

March 23, 2011 |  4:22 pm

Peerce “If I Were a Rich Man: The Life of Jan Peerce”

(EuroArts)

This 1980 documentary traces an unlikely career. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side, Peerce began singing in the synagogue as a boy. Then he played the fiddle in the Catskills. Then he crooned popular songs on the radio. Toscanini tuned in, heard an Italian tenor in the making and turned this short, pudgy entertainer into an opera star.

The documentary, which Isaac Stern hosts and participates in, is a treasure of Yiddishisms and of Italian singing at its most shamelessly ingratiating. In interviews, Peerce takes a warm, frank, folksy look at the music business, and he gives advice as if offering a mitzvah. Late in life, returning to his entertainer roots, when he sang "If I Were a Rich Man," he was the perfect Tevye. After all, he had been a real fiddler on the roof and a star of the Metropolitan Opera.

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