The Don Quixote Of Opera


It has to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Max was naturally interested in presenting his side of any particular case, and he wrenches a few facts here and there while doing so. With his natural ebullience and feeling for the ridiculous, too, he often veers into sheer burlesque, especially when gleefully describing the personal and musical shortcomings of his singers. Could anything be as inept as some of the performances he describes? But History whispers “Yes.” The mid-nineteenthcentury operatic scene in New York, with its hastily assembled casts, its pampered leading singers, its skimpy rehearsals, and its poorly trained orchestras was an example of the lyric stage in extremis. Certainly the spectacle upon which Maretzek gazed on his arrival—even discounting his tendency to exaggerate—was cosmic humor of a sort that has passed from the earth.

The twenty-seven-year-old conductor arrived in September, 1848, and the first impression he received was one that will wrench a sigh from New Yorkers of the 1970’s: “I was immediately struck with the beauty of the Bay and its environs. That which principally delighted me was, however, its bright, clear and blue sky. Such a sky I had not seen since I last left Naples.” He looked around, settled in, and went to the Astor Place Opera House to observe a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia . He was, to say the least, not very impressed. The orchestra did not even have a conductor. As in the old days, the conducting, such as it was, devolved upon the concertmaster. This concertmaster, while playing, “trampled on the floor as though he had been determined to work a path through the deal planking, and made a series of … grotesque faces.” The trampling was to give the rhythm to the players, but nobody was looking at the concertmaster, and his tramplings were ignored. The other string players scraped away, producing sounds resembling those of a sawmill in full operation. Every musician in the orchestra “went his own way, and made his own speed.” It was chaos. As for the singers, “it became unmistakably evident to me that none of them would ever produce a revolution in the musical world.”


Max later goes into a description of his singers in some detail, concentrating on the tenors. Many years later Frances Aida was to write a book named Men, Women and Tenors ; and Giulio Gatti-Casazza, manager of the Metropolitan Opera, would tap his noble brow when anything went wrong and say, with infinite significance, “The head of a tenor.” Everybody in the business knows that tenors are a breed apart, followed closely by the prima donnas and then by all other musicians. Max spent many years wondering about and marvelling at the antics of musicians. He professed to be puzzled by the fact that musicians are the most quarrelsome of all beings upon the face of God’s round earth—that members of the most harmonious of all professions should be its most inharmonious set of denizens.

The leading singers for Maretzek’s 1848-49 season were a Signora Truffi, the tenor Sesto Benedetti, and the bass Settimo Rosi. Truffi, said Max, was a competent but not very exciting soprano. Benedetti was “as cunning as either a monk or a weasel.” He had a strong voice and a total lack of musical culture. “Did he chance to sing a false note, or commit an error in intonation, he would look daggers at some unoffending member of the orchestra.” That type is around to this day. Benedetti also had other jokers in his deck. “Whenever he could not keep time, he had the trick of beginning to beat it himself, although he literally never knew the difference between a sixeight and a two-four movement. This was for the purpose of showing the audience that the fault, supposing they discerned it, lay with the conductor.” As for Signor Rosi, his idea of acting was “to draw a long breath, put himself into a fighting attitude, and then rush to the footlights.” We still have those today, too.

It was a season that proved the theatrical theorem that anything that could happen would happen. There was an Ernani in New York with a cast of new and untried singers gathered together by Fry. The bass was Salvatore Castrone. He made a grand entrance, tripped over his sword, and rolled into a group of terrified choristers. Then he got his spurs tangled in the prima donna’s gown. After which, paralyzed with fright, he planted himself in front of the prompter’s box and simply refused to move for the rest of the act. Later in the opera he had troubles ol another sort. When he wanted to draw his sword, it stuck in the scabbard. When he did get it out, he never was able to sheathe it, desperately poking this way and that to find the aperture of the scabbard. If he was supposed to enter stage right, he entered stage left, surprising the whole company. When he knelt, he split his costume. Then…then …