An Historical Sketch of Martinez Opera,
“Behind the Scenes in 1898”

From the Executive Director


In 1889 Professor Walter R. Bartlett came to California to visit his sister. The son of a Civil War hero, a student of the famous Lamperti, a performer at La Scala Italy and a teacher, he brought his knowledge and experience to a small town in the West.



Once here, he not only fell in love with Martinez, but he also fell in love with Margaret McMahon, a school teacher, and a member of the most prominent singing family in Martinez. It was Margaret who introduced the Professor to a small singing group called the “Martinez Choral Society”. Professor Bartlett took the group under his wing and taught them the Bel Canto theory of singing.

He gave them voice and piano lessons, and also coached them with acting. One of his most prized students was Albin McMahon, the son of Tom McMahon, who went on to Europe to have a famous career as an opera singer. Once under his direction, the group flourished into a traveling opera company that continued into the next century.

Martinez had a population of about 1500 people which at that time was the cultural center of Contra Costa County that encompassed the entire region east of San Francisco Bay from Stockton to Napa.

The professor produced an opera or operetta every three months, and for a time, Martinez held the record for putting on the greatest number of operas in the United States in one year.

Professor Bartlett was able to boast of many accomplishments, including conducting and directing a cast of Christian Chinese immigrants in “Esther the Beautiful Queen”, toured the entire Bay area from Stockton to Napa, and is the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” record holder for the longest song leader in the world for the Martinez Kiwanis club.

One of Professor Bartlett’s first and most successful productions was “The Lovely Galatea”, a popular comic operetta composed by Franz Von Suppé. “Behind the scenes in 1898” recreates the events leading up to the performance of the “The Lovely Galatea” on one cold and rainy February evening in Grangers Wharf, Martinez. The original cast members included once Mayor Tom McMahon, the leading tenor, Edward Blum, of the famous Blum family of merchants, and Emily Wolford, the sweet voiced soprano who lost her husband, John Tennant, to a serious illness. The original cast also included Chan, professor Barlett’s trusty right hand man, Chan’s son Pang who could not accept his life in America, Gueirllmo, a hard working Mexican immigrant, and Professor Bartlett’s students who loved and admired him. “Behind the scenes in 1898” takes you on a playful journey before the curtain rises.





As published in the Contra Costa Times, July 13, 2003

Martinez boasts a history of opera productions

FOR THE SECOND TIME in its history, Martinez has its own opera company. While opera may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing this town with its big oil refinery neighbor, Martinez has had quite an admirable history of musical happenings.

In 1889, Professor Walter R. Bartlett arrived in the town on the Carquinez Strait to produce opera. Bartlett, a native of New England, started singing solos at the age of 9 in the church choir in Providence, R.I. He studied in Milan, Italy, and performed at the famous La Scala opera house. He returned to the United States to pursue his career in Boston, but in 1888, he made a trip West to visit his sister in the East Bay. He liked California so much, he never did go back to Boston.

Martinez had a population of about 1,500 people in 1889, but it was the cultural center as well as the county seat of Contra Costa County. And it did boast a choral society.

Bartlett conducted rehearsals in the Grangers Hall, which was conveniently near the railroad station. People didn’t always take the train, however; they came in spring wagons from all over the county to sing, perform, or listen and enjoy.

“Martinez was the muddiest place in the world,” said the professor in an interview in 1942. “And yet people came -- and lost their galoshes by the dozens in the slush in front of the hall. The players brought their own wood to keep warm at the rehearsals.”

While the players had to provide their own wood, there was a magnificent piano at their disposal. It belonged to the John Strenzel family. The Strenzels’ daughter, Louie, had played the wonderful instrument when John Muir came courting in the 1870s.

No scrimping

The first Martinez opera company was not a penny-pinching operation, in spite of the wood situation. The company got its costumes from San Francisco, and paid as much as $200 per performance.

Bartlett put on a new performance every three months. For a time, Martinez held the record for putting on the greatest number of amateur-produced operas in the United States in one year.

It was during the rehearsals that Bartlett met Margaret McMahon, a schoolteacher with a passion for singing.

Margaret had been singing for most of her life. She often sang at the musical evenings put together by Mrs. Simon Blum, the most socially prominent matron in Martinez. At that time, the Blums had the only grand piano in the small town.

The idea that she could be a paid performer never entered Margaret’s head, and she did love to sing in the amateur productions. Bartlett noticed the lovely young woman, and she returned his attentions.

“No one else was as blonde as she,” the professor recalled years later, while Margaret would remember his beautifully curled and parted beard. The courtship lasted close to three years, and the marriage itself was a quiet one: “I taught school Friday and was married Saturday morning, and not even the other teachers knew about it.”

The couple married at the McMahon family home, with only the bride’s brothers in attendance. The Bartletts made Martinez their home for another two years, then moved to San Francisco, where the professor continued to produce operas, but not solely for Martinez.

“It was sort of a gypsy life and always fun,” remembered Margaret on the couple’s 50th anniversary.

Traveling opera

The professor commuted to Sanford University, to the Napa Valley, Oroville, UC Berkeley and all over the East Bay producing operas. Many times he took a ferryboat to Vallejo. It was on one of these trips coming back to San Francisco that Bartlett saw clouds of smoke arising from the city. The whole place was on fire.

It was 1906

Margaret had been alone during the earthquake. She got out of her house and walked down to the embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, looking for Bartlett’s ferryboat. Luckily, she found someone from Martinez, Sheriff R.R. Veale. Veale had been in the city attending a sheriff’s conference, and he agreed to take back word that Margaret was safe. However, the ferryboat couldn’t dock at its regular spot, and had to search for a few hours to find it.

And while the Bartletts were safe, their home (including their piano) burned down. They moved back to Martinez, but only stayed for a few weeks. They went back to San Francisco and rebuilt their home. “For a year or more things were in a terrible state of upheaval. Money was thrown around like water, because everyone felt uncertain of the future, and moreover there were funds because of the insurance collected after the fire,” said Margaret.

The Bartletts came back to Martinez in 1927. The professor retired from producing operas, but he continued giving vocal lessons. Students came from all parts of the county. Bartlett also took over as song leader of the Martinez Kiwanis Club. He became listed as the oldest Kiwanis song leader in the world at 85 in Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!”

Bartlett led the Martinez Kiwanis in song until a few weeks before his death on Dec. 12, 1942. Margaret died eight years later at the home of her youngest brother, A.J. McMahon. He lived on Willow Street.

The new Martinez Opera will have its gala benefit opening on July 26 at Telfer Hall, 604 Ferry St., with a performance of “Prince Orlofsky’s Party.” There will be cocktails at 6 p.m.; the show starts at 7:15. For more information, call 925-989-1477.

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