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The Trials of Eric Mareo


Although New Zealand had been on the international entertainment circuit since the 1860s, according to a local musician in 1934 'in this remote corner of the earth' celebrated musicians invariably caused 'a great stir in the community'.1 This seems to have been particularly so in the years just before Eric Mareo's arrival in Wellington, at least judging by the popularity of visiting companies. According to one historian, the 1920s was a 'golden age' for touring companies with 'a greater variety of stage shows in New Zealand during the years 1920 to 1930, than ever before or since'.2

Moreover, even classically-trained musicians such as Mareo would have performed popular works to not always exclusive audiences. Although some cultural historians have argued that this period, the so-called 'Modernist' era, was characterised by what is often called a 'great divide' between 'mass' and 'high' culture, the musical world from which the Mareos had come was far less divided.3 As well as having conducted classical music, Mareo had, for example, performed in British music halls. Besides, this 'great divide' was far less pronounced in a country of only about one and a half million people. The country could not support either a professional theatre or orchestra and, according to Adrienne Simpson, the widening of the gap between 'high' and 'comic' opera 'occurred more slowly in New Zealand' than most other Western countries.4 A musician like Mareo could therefore expect to enjoy both the cultural prestige of the classical musician and the popularity of the entertainer.

And Mareo was a particularly versatile and energetic musician. As the musical director of the famous Australian musical company the Ernest C. Rolls Revue, he had arrived in page 14Auckland in September 1933 with Thelma Trott and 200 tons of theatrical equipment. The company performed two extravagant revues — one, according to a reviewer, 'filled with snappy dancing, some really spectacular scenes, and some comedy hits of hilarious quality'.5 After touring the North Island with this company he married Thelma, left the company, returned to Auckland, secured the services of 45 musicians, and rehearsed and conducted the first performance of the Mareo Symphony Orchestra. In the course of several concerts, the orchestra performed such standards from our classical repertoire as Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies, the latter with a choir of 150 voices, Ravel's Bolero (which had never been performed in the southern hemishere, and which Mareo needed to transcribe from a gramophone recording), and Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole with the noted New Zealand violinist Vincent Aspey as soloist. However, more surprising was the orchestra's performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a piece which was 'acclaimed by critics and public alike to the dismay of those musicians who had contended that Mareo was lowering the prestige of his orchestra in performing it'.6 Less than a year later Mareo had formed the Mareo Operatic Society and staged Ivan Caryll's The Duchess of Danzig, a light opera set in the Napoleonic period and featuring Thelma Mareo in one of the principal parts as a washerwoman who befriends the 'Little Corporal' 'when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb, and who later, as the wife of one of his great generals, becomes the Duchess of Danzig'.7 Just after the last performance of The Duchess, Mareo was employed by the St James Theatre to conduct a pared- down orchestra during the screening of films. At the time of his arrest, he was collaborating with a judge of the Native Land Court, Frank Acheson, to adapt his novel Plume of the Arawas, a historical romance set in pre-colonial New Zealand, into a £20,000 movie. Mareo claimed to have 'written over seven hundred works, many of which are recorded for the gramophone'.8 These works were both 'serious' and 'light' and were published under seven different names because, as he told a reporter, 'in England, they won't allow you to be versatile. They page 15think a man who can write a symphony ought not to be able to write light stuff'.9 Like some kind of modern-day Proteus, Mareo was not only keen to assume any kind of musical role but he was in a country that apparently provided him with that opportunity.

It seems his audiences were not disappointed. The New Zealand Radio Record reported that the first performance of the Mareo Symphony Orchestra 'was an outstanding success musically, and was a triumph for Mr Eric Mareo… who proved that his great courage and determination to form such an organisation was well founded'.10 It then went on to observe that the second half of the concert was broadcast live by a local radio station to an audience who 'were agreeably surprised at the high standard of the orchestra's work'.11 The Mayor of Auckland had promised to introduce Mareo and his orchestra at this concert but had been detained in Wellington. Nevertheless, he 'sent a telegram, which was read, expressing regret for his absence and commending the orchestra and wishing it every success'.12 About nine months later the premiere of The Duchess of Danzig was equally well received, the New Zealand Herald commending 'the sureness of principals, chorus and ballet', the 'lavish and spectacular scale' of the 'general staging', the 'strength' but not obtrusiveness of the orchestra and concluding with the observation that 'Mr Eric Mareo… was responsible not only for the musical direction, but for the general production of a most successful performance'.13

Even offstage, Mareo made a strong impression. Just prior to the first performance of his orchestra, a reporter from the Observer found that 'Mr Mareo is a genial soul… [who] amused me for an hour recounting some of his varied musical experiences'. These included a couple of no doubt well polished stories about a thirsty cornetist who was always 'harf a pint flat', a polite request distorted by members of an orchestra to an indignant bassoonist to 'hold yer — row!!' and a cheap champagne dinner for fourteen in inflation-ravaged Leipzig just after the War.14 Not only was Mareo adept at self-promotion but he was able to flatter the locals. He told the Radio Record, page 16for example, that '[w]hen I came here first I immediately liked the city, particularly your fine harbour, as I am a keen yachting enthusiast'.15

More importantly, Mareo was able to inspire confidence in the local musicians. Even after the trials the Observer reported that a 'man who worked with him described him as "a sublime optimist"'16 (a frequent observation) and that a 'prominent musician' is reported to have said that

[h]e was a genius from start to finish. He could get you to do anything. He had a capacity for making any player, even if only a moderate performer, think he was really good, and we played for him like people possessed. He showed us new interpretations of old works, and there was an undeniable thrill in playing for him.17