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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
Max bounced back. He always did. Wherever there was opera, there was Max. He took a troupe to Mexico and made money. He competed with new impresarios. One of those was an immigrant named Max Strakosch, and the “war of the Maxes” enlivened and amused New York for many years. Great singers started coming to the United States, sometimes with their own companies. In 1853 New York could enjoy a company headed by Henrietta Sontag and another headed by Marietta Alboni. Sontag was one of the all-time greats. She had been a favorite artist of Carl Maria von Weber (creating the title role in Euryanthe ) and was admired by Beethoven (she was the soprano in the world premiéres of the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis ). Max worked out a deal with Alboni for a short season at Niblo’s Garden and then contracted with Sontag for a summer season at Castle Garden. Max always had his eye to the main chance. Poor Sontag, incidentally, did not have much longer to live. She contracted cholera while on a tour of Mexico the following year.
In 1854 the Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street near Third Avenue was built, and Max took it over the following year. One of his achievements was the preparation of the American première of Il Trovatore . The public loved it, but not John Sullivan Dwight in Boston. Dwight came to New York for the première and also attended all performances when the company played Boston. His stern Unitarian heart almost stopped beating. What was opera coming to? Dwight took off on Il Trovatore in his Journal of Music . He could find nothing new in the work, nothing that showed any progress. The opera demonstrated “only a hardened habit in the old false way; —the way of substituting strong, glaring and intense effects , at whatsoever cost of theme and treatment for the real inspirations of sincere human life and feeling.”
There was a trip to Havana. Maretzek decided that since Havana had been without opera from 1853 to 1856, “the señoritas began to grow tired of toreadors and were longing for sweet tenors, and the caballeros, satiated with the blood of bulls and horses, were clamoring for prima donnas and ballerinas.” So Maretzek whipped together a company, chief among which was the baritone Signer Amodio.
Amodio had a fresh, appealing voice. He also weighed “about 300 pounds, with a body like a Heidelberg wine cask surmounted by the head of a young boy.” As soon as the company disembarked, Amodio was the center of attraction, especially when he entered a carriage and went right through the floorboards. “The horse, frightened by the shock, started, and Amodio, with his head above and his feet below the volante , had to run under a scorching sun about six blocks in the Calle Obispo, among repeated cheers and screams of the following crowd, until at last rescued by the police. … From that day until the end of the season, whenever Amodio approached a stand of volantes , there was a general stampede among the black drivers, who stoutly refused to carry and to have their volantes broken by that monster.”
Amodio was promptly nicknamed el niño gordo —the fat baby—and every performance in which he sang was sold out. All Havana wanted to see him. Maretzek even ordered him to dance a tarantella in “Masaniello,” and Amodie, a good sport, did so, to universal applause.
One thing Maretzek liked about Havana: the authorities stood no nonsense from singers. That made Havana the promised land for an operatic manager. If a singer reported in sick, the police would send a physician. If the physician could find nothing wrong with the singer—no fever, no inflammation of the throat, no swelling of the vocal cords—and if the singer still refused to appear, a corporal and four soldiers were sent to escort him to the theatre “and there leave him the choice of advancing toward the stage before him, or retreating with four bayonets behind him.”
A return trip to Mexico proved a financial disaster. The great Adelina Patti promised Maretzek that she would be part of the company in Mexico. Maretzek immediately promised the Mexican public they would have Patti. But the prima donna finally changed her mind, at which point the Mexican public changed its mind about Maretzek’s company. The refunds were enough to make the goddess of music weep for very pity. Maretzek persevered, running into robbers, coming down with fever, borrowing money to pay his singers, and arriving home with exactly six dollars in his pocket. “After paying my hotel bill that night I reached my home on Staten Island absolutely penniless.” Six months later he was in business again, running a New York season with the best company he had ever had.