February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
No other impresario ever matched the record of the indomitable Max Maretzek in bringing new works and new stars to America
He was called “the indomitable Max,” “the indefatigable Max,” “the hardy pioneer,” “the Napoleon of Opera.” About that Napoleonic designation Max Maretzek himself disagreed. It would be more accurate, he ruefully said, if he were described as the Don Quixote of Opera. And in a way he was right. For some forty years the indomitable, indefatigable Max tilted at the American public and at assorted singers, mostly Italian, making and losing fortunes in the process. A stout, ebullient, eternally optimistic man, a good musician, a canny infighter when he had to be, a gambler, he was in many respects the Sol Hurok of his day, and he did more to establish opera in general and Italian opera in particular in the United States during the period before and after the Civil War than any other man.
This was recognized by all, and even his enemies paid tribute to his work. Maretzek had his share of enemies in the press and in the business, but he was always good copy, never reticent in talking about himself, and he. had almost a Hurok-like ability to identify himself with his product. The American public followed his ups and downs with fascination. The press gave credit where credit was due. As early as 1855 the New York Times was referring to Max as “the hero of nineteen opera campaigns.” “Seven years ago,” said the Times , “he landed in America with nothing but talent and a wooden baton. Today he has nothing but talent and a wooden baton.” Max had just lost a fortune on a low-priced opera project. In Boston, Dwight’s Journal of Music referred to him as “the hardworking protagonist of the Italian opera. … To Mr. Maretzek, New York is indebted for much of its best musical education.” The same kind of comment was echoed by the New York World in 1858: “No man has done so much for operatic music.”
There was not much opera in New York when Max Maretzek arrived in 1848. Indeed, New York had never even been exposed to the art until 1825, when a company headed by Manuel García came from London to give a season at the Park Theatre. In the 1830’s there was an attempt to establish opera in the city, but so much money was lost that very few attempts were made in the next decade. In 1847, however, the Astor Place Opera House was built, and that is where Maretzek came in.
Maretzek, born in Moravia (now Czechoslovakia) on June 28, 1821, had studied music in Vienna. He developed into a composer and conductor. Indeed, at the age of nineteen he composed an opera, Hamlet , which had a bit of a run. He settled in Paris as a conductor, became friendly with Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and other heroes of the romantic movement, and then moved to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Covent Garden. There he was choral director and assistant conductor. It was in 1848 that he came to the attention of Edward P. Fry, an American impresario who was looking for talent for the new Astor Place Opera House. Fry asked Maretzek to come over as chief conductor, and the adventuresome Max jumped at the chance. Every European knew that the streets of New York were paved with gold. Max arrived at his El Dorado in September, 1848, and almost immediately started putting his mark on the musical life of the country.
The most complete account of his adventures reposes in his two autobiographical volumes— Crochets and Quavers (1855) and Sharps and Flats (1890). Considering his importance and popularity it is surprising that there has been no biography or other full-fledged study. There is not even a scholarly study of any kind, and anybody interested in his doings has to leaf through newspapers and magazines of his day. There plenty can be encountered to supplement—and correct—the often imaginative exploits recounted in his own books. There is, incidentally, something of a mystery about those two volumes. Max soon became fluent enough in English, but not so fluent that in 1855 he could turn out the amusing, highly idiomatic, combative prose that makes Crochets and Quavers such a delight. Max admits as much. He says that while working on the book he “rushed from the world,” secluded himself in his Staten Island home “with an English Grammar, an English Dictionary, and an English friend,” and made up his mind “with the assistance of these three indispensable necessaries to my task, to attempt its completion.” Nobody knows who the English friend was. Whoever he may have been, he was a first-class ghostwriter. Yet a spirit that can have come from nowhere but the mind of Max animates the book.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
Now and then Maretzek worked outside of New York. There was a three-year period when he was head of the new Academy of Music in Philadelphia while Maurice Strakosch (Max Strakosch’s brother) and Bernard Ullmann ran the Academy of Music in New York. Back in New York in 1860, Maretzek took over the Winter Garden Theatre and then resumed direction of the Academy of Music. The building was destroyed by fire in 1866. Unbowed, Max promptly announced a season for 1867 and set to work raising money to rebuild the house. Said the Times , admiringly, when the new Academy of Music opened over the ashes of the old one: “A great loser by the fire and its unavoidable results, Maretzek held on to his company, engaged new artists, and before the smoke had ceased curling above the blackened walls of his ruined temple, reorganized his troupe and laid plans for the coming season.” To celebrate the reopening there was a promenade concert—an opera ball, as Max called it. Three New York orchestras were engaged for the Saturday afternoon event, and the program tells a good deal about the popular tastes of the day:
- 1 March from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète
- 2 Potpourri from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine
- 3 Wagner’s Rienzi Overture
- 4 Valse, Le Guard
- 5 Selection, Ione [an opera by Enrico Petrella that Maretzek had introduced to America in 1863]
- 6 Trio, Crespino e la Comare
- 7 Yacht Club Waltz [composed for the occasion]
- 8 Selections from Donizetti’s Gemma di Vergy
- 9 Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture
- 10 Selection from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable
- 11 Jockey Club Gallop [composed for the occasion]
- 12 Aria from Verdi’s Nabucco
- 13 Potpourri from Gounod’s Faust
- 14 Marien Gallop
- 15 Six-in-Hand Lancers
- 16 Musical Telegraph
- 17 Potpourri of Marches
- 18 Medley
Said the New York Times of this program: “The music could not be more choice.”
There was great excitement in 1872 when Maretzek brought Pauline Lucca to his company. She was one of the important sopranos of Europe, and she lived up to her reputation. Maretzek alternated her with the famous American soprano Clara Louise Kellogg. Even more exciting was the 1873 season, when Maretzek had Enrico Tamberlik and lima di Murska in addition to Lucca and Kellogg. For this Max took over the Grand Opera House at 114 Broadway. Tamberlik may have seen his best days by then, but he was still an imposing stentorian tenor; and his high C and even C sharp rang out as brilliantly as ever. (It was not a high register to everybody’s liking. Tamberlik once asked permission from Rossini to visit. Rossini, whose ideal of singing was flexible bel canto, who hated high notes and loud attacks, told Tamberlik that he would be happy to receive him, but would he kindly check his high C sharp with the concierge.)
Max did not have many years left as an impresario. He was growing a bit old, was losing his zest, and times were changing. Strakosch and the others—the most formidable new entrant was an energetic Englishman named James Mapleson- were providing too much competition, and Maretzek was regarded as oldfashioned. It was not that Maretzek and Strakosch could not get along. Maretzek may have attacked Strakosch professionally, and gave some sizzling interviews about him, but they were really comrades-in-arms and could work together. Strakosch sometimes engaged Maretzek as conductor for his own companies. New York observers were amused. A strange combination, wrote one critic, “one day engaged in pitched battle, the next day walking arm in arm along Fourteenth Street, discussing some prodigious scheme to bring them nearer to bankruptcy than they both already were.” At one time Strakosch had a company with such international headliners as Alice Nilsson, Italo Campanini, Joseph Capoul, and Victor Maurel—the same season that Maretzek was offering Tamberlik and Lucca.
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.”
Yet he was not altogether forgotten, and on February 12, 1889, friends and admirers took over the Metropolitan Opera for a concert honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the old man’s debut as an opera conductor in the United States. Such important conductors as Theodore Thomas, Anton Seidl, Frank van der Stucken, Adolph Neuendorff, and Walter Damrosch contributed their services. Eminent musicians sang and played. Max must have been pleased. He made a speech. The presence of such a large audience, he said, repaid him for the trials, the troubles, and all of the vicissitudes of fifty years. He said he had been asked many times how he had managed to keep opera going for thirty years, while others who had more brains and money than he had, had given it up in three or four years. The answer, Max said, was simple; it was because they had more brains than he had.
That was Max’s last public appearance. Eight years later, on May 14. 1897, while living in obscurity in Pleasant Plains, Staten Island, he had a heart attack and died at the age of seventy-six.