The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s and Madison Opera’s maestro John DeMain triumphs in Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago | February 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Some people act as if it is easy to make it big in Madison but then fall flat or fail in a bigger city or on a bigger stage.

But that is certainly not the case for John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera who is now in his 18th season in Madison.

Currently, DeMain — who guests conducts a lot of opera productions all around the US  — is celebrating his latest success: A triumphant production of Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photos below are by Robert Kusel for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

DeMain also did an acclaimed production of “Showboat” in San Francisco.

Now, The Ear – who loves Kern’s tunes (“Ol’ Man River” and “We Could Make Believe”) and other music from the show — tends to think of “Showboat” as a Broadway musical.

But apparently The Ear is wrong.

A lot of other more knowledgeable critics and historians consider “Showboat” a cross between traditional opera and Broadway theater — maybe an American form of operetta? — much like George Gershwin’sPorgy and Bess,” which is coincidentally one of the high points of DeMain’s career.

In 1976 DeMain won Grammy and Grand Prix du Disque awards for his recording of “Porgy and Bess” as well as a Tony award, and then an Emmy award years later when he performed it on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” He also won Leonard Bernstein’s outspoken admiration for his “Porgy and Bess” production.

And DeMain will close out the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s current season in mid-May with an all-Gershwin concert that includes soprano Laquita Williams (below), one of the stars of “Showboat,” in excerpts from “Porgy and Bess.” For more information, visit:

DeMain’s production of “Showboat” – he is the music director — opened last weekend in Chicago to great reviews, many of which are linked to below.

The show runs through March 17.

Maybe some readers can make it down to Chicago to see and hear it.

But even if you can’t, we can all take pride in the achievement of this now Native Son and his conquest of the Windy City.

And to think we hear him in Madison more often than they do! Are we lucky or what?

Here is one review that is a rave:

Here is a review of the Chicago Tribune:

And another rave from the competing Chicago Sun-Times that talks of the show as a hybrid of opera and Broadway musical that DeMain is long familiar with:

Another review from the site Chicago Theatre Addict:

And another rave with a lot of photos:

For some background about the production here is a story:,0,1139328.column


  1. […] Classical music review: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s and Madison Opera’s maestro John De… ( […]


    Pingback by I Saw Sunday « Ruined for Life: Phoenix Edition — February 19, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

  2. Madison and Wisconsin are so proud to call Maestro John DeMain “our own.” And is it all right to be just a little smug when we share him with opera capitals of the world? I hope that as the performances progress critics and appreciators, who have already delivered praise without exception, will realize anew and acknowledge the all-encompassing role of Show Boat’s Music Director and Conductor. When the lights go down all artistic and musical preparation are elegantly distilled and revealed under his baton. He alone pulls it all together and delivers the show.

    Can’t wait to be there!


    Comment by Anne — February 16, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

    • Hi Anne,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I think you speak for many of us.
      I hope you enjoy the show when you see it and maybe will even drop the blog a paragraph or two about seeing it in person.
      We would appreciate that.


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 17, 2012 @ 10:18 am

      • Hi Mikko,
        I heard the same performances, I think.
        I can understand your disappointment.
        But I think you mustn’t be such a perfectionist about the playing that you let some flaws in the performance blind you to the overall value or glory of the music itself.
        I would also suggest there are some terrific recordings — both current and historical — of both works that might change your mind.
        You might check out the reader review sin the classic music section of to see which performances people seem met to agree on.
        Still, I hope you find that some of the other works — the Fourth Symphony and the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 as well as the violin sonatas (I love the Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy performance) and the Piano Quintet (try the Rubinstein-Guarneri performance, which is sublime). For solo piano music, try Radu Lupu and Richard Goode.
        Anyway, don;t be too impatient. You are too good a musician and too young not to find something of interest somewhere in Brahms.
        Good luck on your quest.
        Let us know what you think of now unfamiliar works to you as you get to know them better.


        Comment by welltemperedear — February 17, 2012 @ 10:27 am

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