The Arts Unveiled

The dynamic new arts season combines big names and local favorites, time-honored standbys and cutting-edge risks

Twenty Years of Twin Delights

John DeMain celebrates two decades of leading both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and
Madison Opera 


John DeMain with Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (left) and Madison Opera soprano Jeni Houser (right)

Let’s face it: Madison was lucky to get John DeMain two decades ago. He wasn’t the only finalist for the music director position at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but no one else applying for the post had conducted major world premieres of John Adams and Leonard Bernstein, or led the first uncut performance of Porgy and Bess. Nevertheless, when DeMain was offered the job, no one could foresee that he would be the driving force in building a plucky community orchestra and a small opera company into national models of what regional companies can be.

DeMain was only the fourth director since the MSO was founded in 1926, taking over from Roland Johnson, who began nurturing the ensemble in 1961, around the time he founded Madison Opera. DeMain recalls, “Roland Johnson took a community orchestra and moved the arts in Madison ‘from gown to town.’ That is, the center of arts activity had been on campus, but that had shifted to the Civic Center by the time I took over the orchestra. He told me, ‘The greatest honor you could do me would be to double the audience.’”

DeMain went one better: Twenty years ago the orchestra played one Saturday night concert; following the move to Overture Hall in 2004, it now plays three performances of eight programs. Of course, there were some growing pains along the way.

“Closing the first season with Mahler’s First Symphony said, ‘fasten your seat belts.’ Sure enough, a number of players came to me after the season and said, ‘You know, this has been great, but I think it’s going to be more work going forward than I’m ready to do.’”

But those who were willing to hang in there and work became the core of an ensemble that the New York Times favorably compared to the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. Now when a position opens up, the MSO gets more national attention: “We have unlimited access to top musicians. In our recent tuba auditions, we had thirty-three applicants, from New York to California.”

While his time in Madison has established DeMain’s reputation as an orchestra builder, what is it that makes him special as a conductor? I asked Richard Mackie, executive director of the MSO, who took the job five years into DeMain’s tenure.

“My first impression of him as a conductor was that he was no-nonsense, very direct,” Mackie says. “There were no histrionics, no posing—and he conducted lines and phrases, not beats. What I’ve seen over these last fifteen years is that John embraces a format that is imbued with monumentality: the big setting, the big works. Then he applies his expansive thinking, and he loves the journey that each work offers.”

I also asked Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera since 2011. “In the interview process, my impression was that it would just be plain fun to work with John. He has a strong musical theater bent, and his depth of knowledge is immense. John is one of those conductors who actually cares what the costumes look like. And my instincts were right—it is fun to work with John.”

DeMain by all accounts is still having fun, too. When that nice, round number of “twenty” is in the books next May, how much longer can we expect him to grace the podium at Overture Hall?

“Conductors conduct until they can’t. As long as my health permits and the committee wants me here, I want to do it as long as I can,” DeMain says. “I don’t want to overstay—but I feel like a kid!”

– Greg Hettmansberger

A Peek Ahead

Reviewing the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2013–2014 season brochure makes it nearly impossible to select the “highlights”—virtually every concert offers something
special. While the opening concert in September granted maestro John Demain’s wish to show off his ensemble with a soloist-less concert, there’s plenty to enjoy in the rest of the season.

One of the toughest tickets will come in January, with a single presentation of “Beyond the Score,” developed by the Chicago Symphony. The first half of the January 26 multi-media matinee will dissect and illuminate Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” with the MSO giving a complete reading after intermission.

The closing concert brings perennial favorites with some new twists: a healthy dose of Gershwin, along with Bernstein and selections from Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein and Stephen Sondheim, other composers who straddled Broadway and the concert hall.

It’s hard to imagine a more balanced and stimulating lineup than what Madison Opera will offer this year. Puccini’s Tosca provides the quintessential melodic melodrama to start, with an overdue local premiere in February of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. The final work should have all of Madison buzzing for weeks, as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is staged, along with myriad events: Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the book, and composer Heggie will both be in town, along with panel discussions and library and museum events that promise to make this a season to remember.

For more information on the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera seasons, visit and

– Greg Hettmansberger

Classical Acts

While John DeMain’s anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera put those groups in the spotlight, don’t forget the city’s other classical music gems. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra puts on an exciting Masterworks season and caps it each year with the beloved Concerts on the Square. Putting new spins on the classics are the innovative ensemble con vivo! … music with life and the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, which hosts a creative music series each June. Don’t miss the Ancora String Quartet and the Oakwood Chamber Players, or the Pro Arte Quartet, the resident quartet of UW–Madison for 101 years. The university also boasts an incredibly eclectic lineup of concerts through the UW School of Music, and its University Opera stages two full operas each year. And if you’re into opera, be sure to catch a production by Fresco Opera Theatre—the group interjects contemporary references and humor into traditional songs and storylines from the canon. 

– Katie Vaughn


Mega Musicals


'Sister Act' will be in town January 14–19

Overture Center continues to bring Broadway smashes to Madison audiences. Highlights of the new season include musical-turned-movie favorite Chicago (October 1–6) plus two film-to-stage hits: Sister Act (January 14–19) and Flashdance—The Musical (February 25–March 2). And the season closes with War Horse (June 10–15), the story of a boy whose beloved horse is sold to the cavalry, carried out by actors as well as life-size puppets that somehow manage to convey the movements and personalities of horses. Find details at

– Katie Vaughn

Stage Notes

With productions by nearly a dozen local theaters striding the boards between now and next spring, there’s no shortage of great dramatic choices for Madtown theater lovers. Let’s note a few highlights: Forward Theater continues to live up to its name, and its production of Stephen Karam’s bittersweet and Pulitzer-nominated comedy Sons of the Prophet is an absolute don’t-miss (November 7–24). Tennessee Williams fan? This is your year—Madison Theatre Guild is mounting Night of the Iguana as you’re reading this (through October 5), and in late fall University Theatre presents, (cont. next page) ironically, Williams’ Summer and Smoke (November 1–15). The Frequency on Main Street isn’t exactly known as a theater space, but it’ll become one January 29–February 1, when Music Theatre of Madison offers Hostage Song, an edgy rock opera in which a pair of doomed hostages find escape in an imaginary universe. Parents have watched their grade-schoolers devour Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel The Giver. In late February 2014, Children’s Theater of Madison presents the stage version—take the kids before the inevitable film adaptation hits. And how about we close with a big slice of cheese? The ’80s kid in me totally can’t resist Mercury Players Theatre’s rendition of Xanadu: The Broadway Musical, set for March 28–April 12. The only real question is how those roller skates will rock on the Drury Stage.

– Aaron R. Conklin

Stepped Up

It’s hard to recall over the past few years a more exciting dance season than the one we’re about to enjoy. Guest artists join Kanopy Dance for Martha Graham: REVERENCE (November 15–17), an exciting performance celebrating the modern dance pioneer. Madison Ballet expands its lineup from the Nutcracker and Dracula to include two Spring Repertory concerts (January 31–February 1 and March 21–22). Also this spring, Li Chiao-Ping Dance offers Rise, a work sure to showcase the athleticism and lyricism of the company’s dancers. Pre-professional Dance Wisconsin is planning a spring concert, too, and Overture Center welcomes Complexions Contemporary Ballet (February 19), Atlantic Steps (March 21) and STREB: FORCES (April 16). 

– Katie Vaughn

Tuen In

Looking for local music? Rick Tvedt, founder of the Madison Area Music Association and Madison Magazine blogger, suggests checking out lineups at the Stoughton Opera House, the Inferno (“our most underrated venue”), the Majestic Theatre, High Noon Saloon and the Orpheum Theatre.

Standout Art


This work from Tyanna Buie is included in MMoCA's 'Wisconsin Triennial'

Madison’s visual arts scene plays out across galleries, coffee shops and public spaces—and, of course, a trio of standout museums whose changing exhibitions continue to inspire and challenge viewers and introduce them to artists close to home and farther afield. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s major show of the season is its Wisconsin Triennial (September 21–January 5), a wildly diverse showcase of Wisconsin artists. Other highlights include Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey (through November 24), a full-scale presentation of the artist’s groundbreaking series based on Homer’s epic poem at the Chazen Museum of Art, and the James Watrous Gallery’s Ida Wyman exhibition (March 14–May 4), which reveals the photo-grapher’s images from the 1940s and ’50s, taken on assignment for Life, the New York Times and other publications.

– Katie Vaughn

Fresh Fun

Discover a few of Madison’s unique, creative offerings that are off the beaten path: 

Are We Delicious?
In an extraordinary example of creative collaboration, this fresh, fun, fast-paced show is conceived, written, rehearsed and performed by a small cast over the course of one frenetic week. The result is an entirely original one-hour show by some of Madison’s most talented and hardworking artists, all for $12.

Playwrights Ink
Would you like to be part of the art? If you are fascinated with words and brave enough to share your talents with a group of like-minded souls, then check out this group. Open to writers of all levels, Playwrights Ink participants gather monthly to read and respond to their original works, from one-minute to full-length. Although they don’t often mount full productions, their members have received acclaim in theaters all over the country. Come listen, bring a piece to share, or volunteer to read a part.

Johnson Public House Story Slam
Whether you are a raconteur or simply love to hear great stories, come to this coffee shop Fridays at 7 p.m. for the monthly story slam. This free event is technically a competition (judged by audience members); the real goal is a entertaining evening of hilarious, harrowing or heartbreaking stories around a theme. All stories are true, less than five minutes long and delivered without using notes or props.

– Gwendolyn Rice



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