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

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