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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
Season after season Max gathered unto himself a company and introduced America to the operas of Verdi, Donizetti, and many others. In the fall of 1850 he took command of a company that had come from Havana. This was an eye opener. Never before had he encountered a group of singers with equivalent jealousies, intrigues, and pettiness. Much of this, Max believed, could be traced to stage husbands. If there was one thing Max hated more than operatic tenors, it was the stage husband. One of his leading sopranos, Angelina Bosio, had a husband who rejoiced in the wonderful name of Signer Panayotis di Xindavelonis. Max watched him aghast. Xindavelonis’ mission in life was to impress his wife with his usefulness and importance. He would see that her soup was hot and her champagne cold. He would dutifully carry her poodle under one arm and her music under the other. He would argue with conductors about the tempos in her arias, though he knew as much about tempos as did the poodle under his arm. He would pick fearsome arguments over trifles so that his wife would think he had saved her from artistic ruin.
In that company was a tenor named Lorenzo Salvi, with whom Max was to be associated for many years. Salvi, like so many tenors, was a little crazy. Max firmly believed that Salvi thought himself to be the Louis Quatorze of opera. “L’opéra, c’est moi.’ ” One of Salvi’s cuter tricks was to insist on a contract containing a provision to the effect that in case of illness there were to be fourteen days of grace. Sure enough, if Salvi did not feel like singing, his servant would come to Max with a medical certificate “certifying to an attack of bronchitis, yellow fever, or cholera morbus.” Thus for thirteen days Salvi had a vacation with full pay. Then he would sing. On the following day he would have a relapse—unless the manager humbled himself and sot down on his knees.
It is the job of an impresario to learn to handle this kind of nonsense. Salvi had a good voice, and popular tenors are always in a position to pamper their lusty egos. Max put up with Salvi and the others; he had to; there was no other option. But it was hard, hard. It was Salvi who in 1853 ruined Maretzek’s benefit. In those days it was the custom for certain nights of the season to be given for the benefit of the manager, who would take all the proceeds, pay off the major outstanding debts, and perhaps pocket a few surplus dollars. The Maretzek benefit was scheduled for December 19, 1853. Salvi suddenly decided, the afternoon of the concert, that he wanted his fee in advance. Max, the last one to submit to blackmail, closed down Niblo’s Garden instead. The New York Times did some digging and learned that Salvi was in debt and being dunned. Among the debts was $253.00 “to the druggist Dubuic for 80 gallons of cod liver oil.” Tenors are eccentric folk, but it was the general feeling that 80 gallons of cod-liver oil was carrying things a bit far. What on earth did Salvi do? Bathe in it? (It later was found that he had purchased it for delivery to Italy.) The Times pointed out that in the previous twenty months Max had paid Salvi “upwards of thirty thousand dollars.” Was Salvi worth it? The Times thought no. “Signer Salvi cannot be ranked with the first tenors of the present day, except by a traditional and extremely unsatisfactory fiction. He is passé and tolerated simply because he is one of the best we have among us.”
Salvi was one member of a strong company with which Max all but ruined himself in 1854. He got the idea of giving a season of low-priced opera—fifty cents admission for all seats—at Castle Garden in Battery Park. Such prices, he thought, would popularize opera. And as Castle Garden had about five thousand seats, there even was the possibility of a hefty profit. (Five thousand seats in those days before electronic amplification! The singers were a leatherlunged breed.) “Dreaming a golden dream,” Max wrote, “I fancied that with such a Company as this actually was, with prices no higher than the regular theatrical ones, and a large house, the taste for Italian Opera might be established, not amongst the ‘Upper Ten,’ but in the public heart of New York.” Alas! The company found itself playing to audiences of a hundred or a hundred and fifty, scarcely enough to meet the printing bills. Max ended up with a $22,000 deficit.