Minnie Kronfeld, who was to become well known in New Zealand theatrical circles as Maria Dronke, was born on 17 July 1904 in Berlin, Germany. She was the youngest child and only daughter of Salomon Kronfeld, a barrister, and his wife, Laura Liebmann. The family was Jewish, although not orthodox in observance. Minnie was educated at the Dorotheen Lyceum in Berlin, where she was the top student, then at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, where she took philosophy and modern literature. She also studied, and for a period taught, elocution and voice production.
In December 1924 Minnie Kronfeld gave her first public recital, at the Meistersaal in Berlin. For the next seven years she performed classical roles in Germany's major theatres. Her parts included many of the great Shakespearean female roles, Gretchen and Helen in Goethe's Faust, Minna in Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm, and Elisabeth in Schiller's Don Carlos. She also gave performances in Vienna, The Hague and Paris. When the poet Rainer Maria Rilke died in 1926, Kronfeld was invited to read his work at the memorial celebrations in Vienna. As her career became established she took Maria Korten as her stage name.
In 1928 she converted to Catholicism, taking the baptismal name Maria Magdalena; she remained a Catholic for the rest of her life. On 7 July 1931, at the age of 26, Maria married Adolf John Rudolf Dronke, a judge in Hamburg-Altona and later in Cologne. She then gave up her full-time career, returning to the stage only periodically. Maria and John Dronke had two children, Ernst Peter Michael and Maria (Marei) Gabriele.
From 1933 the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi regime placed the Dronke family under increasing threat. In 1938 John was removed from the judiciary, but it was Maria who was in the greatest danger because of her Jewish background. Members of her church helped her to find sponsors in England, and she left Cologne in December 1938. In England she was given refuge by the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart at their convent, a teachers' college at Fenham, Newcastle-on-Tyne. To contribute to her upkeep she assisted in the library and undertook some teaching. During this time all her energy was directed to finding a country that would accept her and her family. Eventually, Thomas O'Shea, archbishop of Wellington, arranged for them to come to New Zealand. After several months of separation Maria was reunited in England with her husband and children, and with Frieda Burkhardt (Löhlein), her childhood governess who became a friend and nanny to her own children. The family, including Burkhardt, arrived in Wellington in August 1939.
Maria Dronke was almost 35 when she started a new life in New Zealand. Earning a living and finding somewhere to live were the most urgent needs. While invitations came 'for the "interesting" and well dressed foreigners', there was no offer of work, nor a flat at a reasonable rent. As John could obtain only poorly paid factory work throughout the war years (his legal training was not recognised in New Zealand), Maria became the principal earner in the family. They lived in a series of rented houses until the early 1950s when they were able to buy a small cottage in Eastbourne. John later played double bass in the National Orchestra and worked for the copyright and patents division of the Department of Justice.
Opportunities in New Zealand for Dronke to resume her acting career were limited. Instead, she turned to teaching, giving poetry readings and dramatic recitals. She began teaching drama and voice production with two pupils in a studio at the family's home in Oriental Bay, but numbers increased as her reputation grew. About 1951 she moved to a spacious studio in Lambton Quay which became a focal point for workshopping plays, poetry readings and student presentations. Dronke also taught speech craft to a study group formed by Ngaio Marsh in 1948, lectured from time to time for the WEA on drama, and wrote about speech and drama. She also broadcast a series of talks for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.
Maria's first production and performance in New Zealand was probably The kingdom of God by Gregorio Martínez Sierra in 1940. An early performance (1941) was as Phaedra in the Hippolytus of Euripides. Perhaps her most successful production was T. S. Eliot's Murder in the cathedral, staged in Wellington's St Paul's Cathedral Church in 1947. Other notable productions in the late 1940s and 1950s included Eliot's The family reunion and The cocktail party, G. B. Shaw's The devil's disciple, The Trojan women of Euripides, Goethe's Faust, and Ibsen's The masterbuilder and Ghosts. It is estimated that she produced 25 plays in New Zealand.
Dronke's poetry and play readings also began in the early 1940s. She recited a wide selection of poetry ranging from medieval lyrics and Elizabethan works to contemporary writers. Quickly becoming familiar with the works of New Zealand poets, she included them in her recitals. She is perhaps best remembered for her compelling readings of the poems and plays of T. S. Eliot. Reviewers noted her ability to freshen an audience's interest in familiar poems, commenting on her beautiful voice – rich in quality, highly expressive and always equal to the most dramatic situations – and on her vibrant stage presence 'abetted by a strikingly beautiful face and sad, splendid eyes'. Edith Campion, a former pupil, recalled 'a woman of particular beauty, and a voice of extraordinary quality: trained, but blessed by nature…She was volatile, brimful of temperament, and never tepid'. She was also accustomed to being the centre of attention, and capable of speaking candidly, even harshly, if opposed.
On 12 March 1947 Maria Dronke became a naturalised New Zealand citizen. In the late 1950s she embarked on academic study. She obtained an MA with honours in English in 1963 and began work on a doctorate on Heinrich von Kleist. She was appointed an OBE in 1980 for services to the performing arts. John Dronke died on 26 December 1982 after a long illness. Maria's health then declined, and she died on 28 August 1987 in Lower Hutt, survived by her two children.
Maria Dronke made a significant contribution to the theatre in her adopted country. As director and producer, she helped improve the standard of acting and production of amateur theatrical societies, and a number of her pupils achieved success locally and overseas. Just as important was her enlivening of the cultural and social climate. Along with other refugees from central Europe, such as Karl Wolfskehl, she brought with her something of the world of Heine, Büchner, Toller and Brecht. Her soirées were 'warm and intimate sharings of ideas and talents' and led many to a deeper appreciation of their European cultural heritage.