- Historic Sites
The Don Quixote Of Opera
No other impresario ever matched the record of the indomitable Max Maretzek in bringing new works and new stars to America
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
But let Max tell the story. In the last act the wretched Castrone rushed on stage: He … had forgotten what the Erse or Northern Scotch, though which it is I have suffered myself to forget, call their “gallygaskins.” In our own more fastidiously refined language, upon this continent, they are most generally and generically classified as the “unmentionables.” There he stood, representing the Spanish idea of an Inexorable Fate, clad in a black velvet doublet, but with a pair of flesh-colored and closely-woven silk inexpressibles upon his nether man. The horn, that fatal horn, hung from his neck in a position which it would be absolutely impossible for me consistently with propriety to indicate upon paper. Certainly, it was in anything but its right place. Some of the ladies who were present rose and quitted the theater. Others shrank back in their seats and veiled their eyes…
At the end of the season Maretzek was offered the company. He took it over, leased the Astor Place Opera House for twelve thousand dollars annually, got together a troupe, and was in business for himself—as he was to be for the next thirty and more years. In the troupe was a soprano named Bertucca. Maretzek shortly afterward married her. After her voice went, she played the harp in the orchestra and also did solo work on that instrument.
The doughty Max spread himself wide, meeting crisis after crisis with aplomb, taking on the competition as it appeared, jousting with the press. The New York Times on the whole supported his work, but the Tribune took out after him. Max was convinced that the Tribune critic, William Henry Fry, was hostile because he, Max, did not stage his opera. William Henry Fry, the brother of the Edward Fry who had brought Maretzek to the United States, did write the first opera ever composed by an American— Leonora , staged in Philadelphia in 1845. But Maretzek had a low opinion of Fry as a critic. Fry, he said, “uses in every ten or a dozen words some four or five technical expressions. By this simple means, he has the satisfaction of rendering his writing unintelligible to the general reader, while it is of no service to the practical musician.”
Max not only took on Fry, he also fought the Tribune editorial staff and the terrible-tempered publisher, James Gordon Bennett himself. When the Tribune attacked Maretzek after his singers for the 1866-67 season were announced, Maretzek counterattacked with a letter to Bennett that was published in all the New York papers. Maretzek pointed out multiple errors and inconsistencies in the Tribune article and ended with: “You may, therefore, continue for a few more years your opposition. … A little personal abuse from the Herald may even increase my success, and is, therefore, respectfully solicited.”
Those were the days before unions, and Max ran his companies with an imperious hand. His orchestra once pulled what these days would be called a wildcat strike. It was at the final rehearsal of the American première of Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan . It seems that Max had rebuked some players with particular asperity. He was not only the Napoleon of opera; he also seems to have been the Toscanini of his time. This rehearsal saw him in fine form, and he went too far. The orchestra walked out, and a committee said it would not return until Max apologized. So Napoleon-Toscanini struck a pose, pulled out his watch, and said that if the orchestra was not in place in fifteen minutes, everybody was fired. The players did not show up, and Max did indeed immediately fire them. But what about the première the following night? Max rushed out to find a replacement orchestra. “They were impressed everywhere. We seized them in the streets. Descents were made upon the highly moral dancing-houses. Fiddlers were taken from the vessels of war in the harbor. That night, no musician was secure.” At 5 A.M. Max had an orchestra. At 7 it was in rehearsal. Rehearsals continued all day, with Max supplying food and encouragement. “The key [to the theatre],” he wrote later, “was in my breeches’ pocket. There was not the slightest possibility of escape for any one of them.” At 8 P.M. the première went on as scheduled.
Max was not only imperious; he could be ingenious, not to say devious. When Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America in 1850, Max was desperate. He knew that he would have trouble attracting an audience to his opera presentations; everybody was talking about the Swedish Nightingale. Barnum was making a fortune out of her. So Max quickly “purchased,” for twenty thousand francs, the great Teresa Parodi from London. Then, fighting fire with fire, he started a rumor that the old Duke of Devonshire was lusting after the attractive young soprano. America, then as now, always was titillated by the life-style of British nobility. A duke! In love with an opera singer! Maretzek’s planted stories were picked up by virtually every paper in the country. When the innocent Parodi arrived, she was no little surprised to learn about her love life. Everybody came to see her, and Max rode the publicity for a profitable season in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.