The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Madison Opera casts young Sewell and young DeMain for Britten’s ‘Turn of the Screw.’

January 8, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might call it a family affair — at least as far as coaching singers and inheriting musical genes are concerned.

That’s because the torch of classical music is being passed on to a younger generation of DeMains and Sewells, which are familiar names to fans of classical music in Madison.

Jennifer DeMain and Alistair Sewell recently won top spots in the auditions to play the lead roles of the sister and bother Flora and Miles in the Madison Opera’s upcoming original production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera reworking of Henry James’ famous ghost-story novella “The Turn of the Screw.” (A photo from a different production by the English National Opera, with the two children, the governess and the housekeeper, is below.)

Performances are Jan. 28-31 in The Playhouse of the Overture Center. Tickets are $20 and $52. Call the Overture box office at 608 258-4141 or use the link below.

Other performers include Caroline Worra—called “a new soprano powerhouse” by 
The New Yorker—stars with Madison favorites Gregory Schmidt, UW soprano Julia Faulkner and Jamie Van Eyck. 
Director Doug Scholz Carlson (“The Tender Land” in 2008) will create a new production to bring this 
classic ghost story to life. John DeMain conducts his own daughter and other soloists and singers as well as members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Here’s a link with information about performance times, related events and guides:

Jennifer is the 17-year-old daughter of Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor John DeMain, himself an internationally known opera conductor and the music director of Madison Opera.

Alistair Sewell is the 13-year-old son and youngest of three children of Andrew Sewell, the musical director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra since 2000.

Lest you think favoritism was shown, Madison Opera officials emphatically say it was not.

It was competitive, says Brian Hinrichs, the communications and outreach director for the Madison Opera.

According to Hinrichs, Allan Naplan, the general director of the Madison Opera and a former touring opera singer himself, heard approximately 25 children audition for the two roles, including many talented vocalists from the Madison Youth Choirs and some from the Madison Opera Chorus.

For the role of Miles, Hinrichs explained, a boy soprano was needed, but it also had to be someone with enough skill and maturity to handle Britten’s music. For Flora, the same challenges exist, but there is the added issue of making sure the voice is not too mature.

Some opera companies cast professional singers — in the role of Flora especially–but Allan was looking for a voice and actor that could still be childish and innocent-sounding.

“This was particularly important because of the intimacy of the Playhouse,” Naplan said. On a larger stage, you can get away with casting an adult in the role, he explained, but for the drama to be effective in the Playhouse, the children need to be children. And he added, no favoritism was shown.

“It’s a fluke,” says John DeMain, who is proud of his daughter but who removed himself from the selection process.

So here are comments form each of the two young soloists.


“It’s exciting and kind of scary,” Jennifer DeMain (below) told The Ear. The Edgewood High School senior, who plays piano and is principal cello of her high school orchestra. She has played other roles and sang on stage before with Four Season, Madison Opera, Edgewood production and CTM. “But I’ve never had an operatic role.

She remembers seeing a production of the same opera when she was young, but she thought it was atonal.

“I remember thinking it was bizarre and I didn’t understand it. But learning it now, I’m hearting all these melodies. I always think it’s atonal, but my dad says it isn’t. Now I find it melodic and accessible. The melodies are there and they are beautiful. When you perform it, you hear it differently. The audience only gets to hear it once, but you hear it a lot.

She and Sewell have been coached by Andrew Abrams, a Madison native and the director of Fours Seasons Theatre, who is also her regular singing teacher. Jennifer is in the process of auditioning for schools to pursue a career in theater or musical theater.

But, she admits, she may change her mind and go into classical music.

“My dad says ‘If you have that kind of classical voice, then that’s where you’ll want to go,’ and he may be right.”

“I get a lot of help from Andy, but it’s good to get coaching from my dad,” says Jennifer. “He was shocked I got the part and very happy for me. He left it up to Allan. But he’s going to be tough as nails. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m up for it. And it won’t spoil family relations at all.”

“I just hope I represent the opera company and my family well, and I hope that it is a good experience,:” she adds. “It may open some doors. We’ll see how my voice develops.”


Jennifer DeMain’s enthusiasm about landing a lead role in the Madison Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” is shared by Alistair Sewell (below), especially now that the two have started rehearsing together.

I was definitely thrilled that they offered me the part,” he says. “That was fantastic.”

But it does not seem entirely unpredictable.

Alistair sings with other family members, including two older sisters who are musical. He plays cello in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and also the trumpet in the band and jazz band at Jefferson Middle School, which he attends. He also plays the piano.

He says he wants to go into music professionally. It might be classical music, and he likes composing.

“So I want to try that too.”

Sewell also likes rehearsing.

“Whenever I read through the score or study it, I always discover new things, he says. “It’s very interesting. There’s a lot that goes on in these characters’ minds. It’s fascinating to examine.”

After all, it’s a very psychological story.

“And very dark,” he adds. “You have to listen hard to find out what is going on. Is Quince something from the governess’ mind or is he a real ghost? It’s a very interesting story. The concept is really cool and it leaves you hanging at the end about why Miles dies.”

To prepare for the role, Sewell is taking private voice lessons from Dan Krunnfusz, who teaches at his school. But his father is also doing some coaching. “It’s fun to practice with him. He’s not too hard on me.”

“It’s really nice to work with Jennifer. The first rehearsal went very well,” he says. “It’s nice to sing with Flora because it’s easier to rehearse the opera when you have the other parts. I’m glad we got a head start, but it’s easier with others there. It’s going to be a nice environment to work in. This is really going to be fun, I can’t wait.

He says he may want to do more operas in the future because “It’s a very good experience. It different from the theater. To do acting and singing at the same time is quite fun.”

As you might expect, his father is very pleased.

“It’s a perfect storm. It’s so difficult for a boy just at the right age to play this role. It requires just the right aptitude. So yes, I am proud.” Andrew Sewell admits.

But there is a catch.

“I’m just sorry I can’t be in town for the performances,” says Andrew Sewell. “I’ve adjusted my schedule to see dress rehearsals. But I was already committed to the Wichita Symphony, which is celebrating my last season with them and I’m the guest of honor. So I can’t very well ask for a substitute conductor and will have to miss the actual performances. But I will get to  see the dress rehearsals.”

Andrew Sewell also says he pleased about the local angle of two prominent classical music families coming together in an opera.

“It’s nice to see Jennifer in the role of Flora,” he says. “Our families have known each other for about 10 years, ever since we moved here.”

And what about the son following the career path of the father?

“He’s not a professional working musician yet,” Andrew Sewell adds, with a laugh. “But it’s in the blood.”

Posted in Classical music

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