The Don Quixote Of Opera

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He was called “the indomitable Max,” “the indefatigable Max,” “the hardy pioneer,” “the Napoleon of Opera.” About that Napoleonic designation Max Maretzek himself disagreed. It would be more accurate, he ruefully said, if he were described as the Don Quixote of Opera. And in a way he was right. For some forty years the indomitable, indefatigable Max tilted at the American public and at assorted singers, mostly Italian, making and losing fortunes in the process. A stout, ebullient, eternally optimistic man, a good musician, a canny infighter when he had to be, a gambler, he was in many respects the Sol Hurok of his day, and he did more to establish opera in general and Italian opera in particular in the United States during the period before and after the Civil War than any other man.

This was recognized by all, and even his enemies paid tribute to his work. Maretzek had his share of enemies in the press and in the business, but he was always good copy, never reticent in talking about himself, and he. had almost a Hurok-like ability to identify himself with his product. The American public followed his ups and downs with fascination. The press gave credit where credit was due. As early as 1855 the New York Times was referring to Max as “the hero of nineteen opera campaigns.” “Seven years ago,” said the Times , “he landed in America with nothing but talent and a wooden baton. Today he has nothing but talent and a wooden baton.” Max had just lost a fortune on a low-priced opera project. In Boston, Dwight’s Journal of Music referred to him as “the hardworking protagonist of the Italian opera. … To Mr. Maretzek, New York is indebted for much of its best musical education.” The same kind of comment was echoed by the New York World in 1858: “No man has done so much for operatic music.”

There was not much opera in New York when Max Maretzek arrived in 1848. Indeed, New York had never even been exposed to the art until 1825, when a company headed by Manuel García came from London to give a season at the Park Theatre. In the 1830’s there was an attempt to establish opera in the city, but so much money was lost that very few attempts were made in the next decade. In 1847, however, the Astor Place Opera House was built, and that is where Maretzek came in.

Maretzek, born in Moravia (now Czechoslovakia) on June 28, 1821, had studied music in Vienna. He developed into a composer and conductor. Indeed, at the age of nineteen he composed an opera, Hamlet , which had a bit of a run. He settled in Paris as a conductor, became friendly with Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and other heroes of the romantic movement, and then moved to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Covent Garden. There he was choral director and assistant conductor. It was in 1848 that he came to the attention of Edward P. Fry, an American impresario who was looking for talent for the new Astor Place Opera House. Fry asked Maretzek to come over as chief conductor, and the adventuresome Max jumped at the chance. Every European knew that the streets of New York were paved with gold. Max arrived at his El Dorado in September, 1848, and almost immediately started putting his mark on the musical life of the country.

The most complete account of his adventures reposes in his two autobiographical volumes— Crochets and Quavers (1855) and Sharps and Flats (1890). Considering his importance and popularity it is surprising that there has been no biography or other full-fledged study. There is not even a scholarly study of any kind, and anybody interested in his doings has to leaf through newspapers and magazines of his day. There plenty can be encountered to supplement—and correct—the often imaginative exploits recounted in his own books. There is, incidentally, something of a mystery about those two volumes. Max soon became fluent enough in English, but not so fluent that in 1855 he could turn out the amusing, highly idiomatic, combative prose that makes Crochets and Quavers such a delight. Max admits as much. He says that while working on the book he “rushed from the world,” secluded himself in his Staten Island home “with an English Grammar, an English Dictionary, and an English friend,” and made up his mind “with the assistance of these three indispensable necessaries to my task, to attempt its completion.” Nobody knows who the English friend was. Whoever he may have been, he was a first-class ghostwriter. Yet a spirit that can have come from nowhere but the mind of Max animates the book.