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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
No wonder both went broke in this opera war. Maretzek believed that Strakosch was irresponsible. Strakosch was even more of a plunger than Maretzek was, and he just about put his rival out of business by paying his leading singers outlandish fees. Then when Maretzek’s singers learned what Strakosch was paying, they would not return until those fees were matched. Strakosch was paying his leading sopranos four thousand dollars a week, his leading tenors two thousand, other singers four to six hundred dollars. The whole orchestra those days could be hired for fifteen hundred dollars weekly; a chorus, eleven hundred; and the house rental was three thousand dollars.
After a short season at the Academy of Music in 1875, Max Maretzek retired as an impresario. For a while he was missed; New York musical life was not the same with him gone. “Max Maretzek,” announced the Herald in 1877, “to whom New York owes so much for good opera, is compelled to teach to eke out a livelihood, but he is looking younger and fresher than in his halcyon days.” Perhaps Max stopped every now and then to think of his past accomplishments. What a record he had compiled! In his thirty-odd years as an opera impresario he had been responsible for a list of American premières that no other manager in the history of music in America has come near. Thanks to Maretzek the United States heard for the first time the following Donizetti operas: Betly , Il Poliuto , Maria di Rohan , and Don Sebastiano . Verdi operas introduced by Max were La Traviata , Rigoletto , Il Trovatore , La Forza del Destino , Attila , Aroldo , Luisa Miller , and I Masadnieri . Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète , L’Africaine , and Étoile du Nord were presents from Max. So were Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, Roméo et Juliette by Gounod, L’Ombra by Flotow, Saffo and Medea by Pacini, and Duchess of Amalfi and Ione by Petrella. This is at best a partial list; the records are untabulated, and exhaustive research should turn up many more.
Besides setting himself up as a teacher and vocal coach, Maretzek also resumed composing. He finished an opera called Sleepy Hollow , which had its world première at the Academy of Music on September 25, 1879. The Times called it an opera of “decided merit… nothing sleepy or hollow about it.” Maretzek took out advertisements after the first night: IMMEDIATE AND COLOSSAL SUCCESS! NEARLY EVERY NUMBER REDEMANDED! ALL THE SCENES ENCORED! UNANIMOUS FAVORABLE VERDICT OF THE PUBLIC! After which it is with a sense of anticlimax that one looks at the New York newspapers of October 5 and reads the following notice: Notwithstanding the gratifying and nightly increasing artistic success of American opera, the financial result has been so far such as to confirm the unanimous opinion of the press and public that the Academy of Music is not the proper place to risk English or American opera. Under these circumstances, the management feels justified in discontinuing the performances for the present. Arrangements are pending for its revival elsewhere.—Max Maretzek.
But there was to be no revival, ever. And little was heard from Max after that. In 1883, the year the Metropolitan Opera House opened, he did come out of retirement to conduct four operas— Faust, Der Freischütz, Martha , and La Traviata —at the Lexington Avenue Opera House. On opening night at the Met, Max was in the audience. He ran across Henry Abbey, the general manager, and said: “You’ll lose $300,000 this season.” Actually the Metropolitan Opera lost $275,000. The music critic Henry Krehbiel once encountered Max standing forlornly outside the new opera house. “Well,” he told Krehbiel, “when I heard the house was to be built, I did think—I did think that some of the stockholders would remember what I had done for opera. … I thought somebody might remember this and the old man, and come to me and say, ‘Max, you did a great deal for us once, let us do something for you now.’ I didn’t expect them to come and offer me the house, but I thought they might say this and add: ‘Come, we’ll make you head usher,’ or ‘You can have the bar.’ But nobody came, and I’m out of it completely.”