Marc A. Scorca: John DeMain: thank you so much for taking time this afternoon to talk to me about the last half century of opera in America. As you know, our 50th anniversary was to have been celebrated in 2020; that celebration was cut a little bit short, but we are conducting an oral history with 50 people, who've really shaped opera in America in the last 50 years, and you are one of those people. So thank you so much for taking this time.
John DeMain: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Marc A. Scorca: John, who brought you to your first opera?
John DeMain: That's a good question. My first opera was the radio: my parents putting The Met on, on Saturday afternoons, when I was five years old. And then I think my first opera I went to, I was in, 'cause I sang the role of a Amahl and the Night Visitors when I was nine with the Youngstown Symphony and it was a co-production with the Playhouse. But, the very first really great experience I had was: there was a gentleman involved with the Youngstown Playhouse, which was a very, very, very thriving community theater in Youngstown, Ohio. And he saw that I had this special affinity for music and so he asked my parents if he could bring me to Cleveland to see The Met on tour when I was 13 years old. And so I got to see Carmen with Risë Stevens; Cavalleria with Zinka Milanov; the Pagliacci I remember was Leonard Warren, and (Renata) Tebaldi in a recital with piano in her prime. And that transformed my life; that just transformed my life.
Marc A. Scorca: And you were 13.
John DeMain: I was 13. And you know, in those days The Met traveled with...Fausto Cleva was in the pit: it was absolutely the top of the line, all the big stars. And I just was star struck. It was so fabulous.
Marc A. Scorca: Now you were a music student through high school, of course. Did you have an instrument?
John DeMain: I'm a pianist.
Marc A. Scorca: Did you go to Juilliard as a pianist?
John DeMain: Yes. I have a bachelor and master's degree. I studied with Adele Marcus and then I took some elective courses in conducting, but I was conducting...I was involved with the community theater (when they) did their first musical. And when I was 14 years old, I put an orchestra in the pit and conducted Brigadoon. So I was doing stuff just on instinct without any real formal (education). My grade school music teacher was the founder of the Youngstown Symphony, and so he took an interest in me. And so I sort of learned the basics of conducting, but I was doing stuff that people probably would do after they got out of college. And so when I was a senior in high school, I won a local piano competition; made my debut with the Symphony. And that really sort of cemented my thoughts about maybe majoring in music, because I had just so many interests. And so I thought, "Well, I'll try to go to Juilliard," and I went to Juilliard and the rest happened after that.
Marc A. Scorca: When was the pivot moment for you when it went from being a student of piano at Juilliard to thinking, I'm going to be a conductor?
John DeMain: Well, I took elective courses at Juilliard. And then in the summers - because of all of my work in the community theater - I immediately got hired for the professional summer stock: companies like Cohasset, Beverly and Hyannis, Massachusetts: that was the south shore music circus at the time. And I went there during in the summers and I made enough money to pay my tuition to go back to Juilliard. So I was always conducting; it was always musical theater. And then, as I got more and more involved, I was always playing for voice teachers at Juilliard. I was one foot in musical theater, one foot in classical. I remember when (I think it was before I even got out of Juilliard) I went, during my master's years, out to San Francisco Opera and played for Dennis Russell Davies' spring season Rigoletto, and Kurt Adler heard me play; offered me a job, but I didn't wanna have a job as a coach, I wanted to have a job as a conductor. And I felt that his personality, he probably would keep me in the mail room. You know what I mean? So if I go there as a coach, I would always be a coach. So I turned it down. But I said to him, "I want to conduct." And he said, "Well, what have you done?" Well at that point, I had done tons of musical theater and everything, but one of these New York out-of-the-Bowery opera companies: Virginia Maray was her name. I did a Traviata; that was the first thing I ever did. So I had all these big, famous Broadway stars, Ethel Merman, doing all these shows in summer and he said to me, "What does that have to do with Verdi's style?" And I wasn't smart enough at the time to say, "You've been hearing me play it for the last month," but he had a point. When I graduated Juilliard, I knew I wanted to conduct opera and symphony, but opera with chorus, orchestra and my love for theater and I wanted to be an actor and all this... I wanted to be everything, right? This is, I think, the qualification to become an opera conductor, or an opera director, but I just wanted it so badly. And, I remember coming back after my master's degree to New York. I was determined that I was going to break into opera. I didn't know how, but I was going to do it. I went to the opening of the new Juilliard and Rhoda Levine, who I had done work with at Juilliard on Luciano Berio operas: we were doing these things as sort of extracurricular projects. There was this alumni concert with Leontyne Price to celebrate the opening of the new Juilliard at Lincoln Center. And I went to it 'cause I'd just graduated, and Rhoda came up to me and she said, "Hi, Johnny: how nice to see you.” (She was one of the few people to call me Johnny) and she said, "Do you have any interest in getting involved in opera?" And I said, "I've been looking into a crystal ball telling everybody that this is what I want to do." And that's what she said. "Peter Herman Adler is looking for an assistant conductor with the National Education Television Opera Project." And she said, "I think you would be perfect because he will like your background," because Peter Adler, I didn't know much about him, but he'd done some stuff on Broadway, The Great Caruso; The Consul, all those different things. And I went over and I took a formal conducting audition with him and he hired me. So Kirk Browning was doing those shows back then. I mean, you're so young: this was like 1968/69. And we were in New York. So this is before Live from Lincoln Center? Peter Adler had founded the NBC television opera. Then they switched over to public television. They had just begun. The first show they had done was Janacek's From the House of the Dead. And then I participated in all the other shows after that. And we did things like The Queen of Spades 'cause we did it in English: Jennie Tourel and John Reardon, and it was a lot of fun. We'd only do two a year and we'd go up to WGBH in Boston and the Symphony would be in studio B and my job was to get in between the television cameras sometimes on my belly and learn the staging because the orchestra and Peter would be pumped in on these monitors. But if you got a television camera on you, you can't be looking like that; you're supposed to be looking at the person you're singing to. So I had to do that. And they would keep the volume soft so that they could post op. Well, anyway, that led to the Boston Symphony guys taking an interest in me and saying that I should be invited to Tanglewood. So I went as a fellow to Tanglewood and while I was there Jan Strasfogel said that Christopher Keene was leaving City Opera, and I should apply for the Rudel Award.
Marc A. Scorca: I was going to bring that up. So the Julius Rudel Award was early on in this formative time for you?
John DeMain: Very early on. And I was scared to death because I didn't come up the traditional way in an opera house. You know, I was young. I'd be learning these pieces for the first time, and I thought I don't have...this is kind of a funny story, 'cause I said, "I don't have the rep to be at the City Opera,” that's...before I went to Tanglewood that summer, I took my father and I on a kid's first trip to Europe. And I took my dad with me cause he'd never been out of the country. And he had just retired from the steel mill. And so we had a six week trip. And when I was in Frankfurt, I had the names of some agents, but it wasn't really an audition tour, it was a kid's first trip to Europe, but I called them and they said, "Well, Frankfurt is looking for a head coach, so why don't you go take an audition?" So I did; they invited me back the next day to audition for the head coach. And he invited me the next day - and Christoph von Dohnányi was the GMD at the time. And so I went back. I played the formal audition. When it was over, he looked up and he said, "Das ist der beste Hammerklavierspiele wir haben gehoert, aber er spricht kein Deutsch." (That's the best pianist we've heard, but he doesn't speak German). So he looked at me and he said, "Look, there's two more people coming. If they play as well as you do, and speak the language, we'll take them over you. If not, we'll take you, but you won't do any coaching for six months until you learn the language, because we cannot conduct in coaching rooms any sessions in English: the Germans will protest.” And they did find somebody, but the agent said, "Learn German; we'll get you a position the day you arrive back." So I went back home and I went to Tanglewood that summer. I tossed in an application for the Rudel Award. I got it, but I had this idea to go to Germany. And so I got hired by the studio arena in Buffalo to do a pre-Broadway version of Mama based on the television show I Remember Mama with Celeste Holm and Wes Addy, and they were paying me top Broadway scale, and I would go there for a couple months and I would save up enough money to go hide at the Goethe Institute in Frankfurt for six months. That was my plan. I went to the New School to try to learn German on Saturday mornings: three hours and a bottle of Riesling, and so that's just no way to learn a language. So that was my plan. I went so far as having a charter flight on February 28th to Frankfurt, in January, in the midst of a blizzard and snow storm up in Buffalo, Bobby Edals - Roberta Edals...
Marc A. Scorca: I knew Bobby well...
John DeMain: Oh, she was great. She calls me on the phone and she said - I don't know whether we knew each other at the time. She said, "You're lucky I don't have anything to do today. I've been trying to find you for three months. Rudel wants to consider you as a finalist for the Rudel Award." So when I got back to New York, I had an interview with him and he said, "Just make yourself at home. You can go up to the viewing booth; go to the rehearsals, just see if it's a good fit for you." I wanted to ask him years later if he ever considered anybody else, because I hung around that building for a month, and I never saw another conductor there. So it was February 22nd and I asked to see him because I hadn't heard anything, and I said, "Maestro, I have a reservation on a charter flight to Frankfurt on Saturday,” and I was thinking...so I told him what my plan was. And he said, "There are careers that can be made over there at different times. There's also times you could go over there and get buried. I don't think this is a good time for Americans right now; I think you would get buried over there.” So he said, "The position is yours if you want it." So I suddenly became The Julius Rudel Award winner.
Marc A. Scorca: And of course, with as much rep as you would find in any German opera house at that point in City Opera's history, and you got to coach it in English.
John DeMain: Yeah, I got to coach it in English. Right. So you would be assigned seven operas a season, back when they had the double seasons. But any one of those 20 operas, they could call you the day before and tell you, you have to fill in. So, you know, I'd never played Butterfly, and so I stayed up all night sight reading. I was a good sight-reader. And the next day - remember Giuseppe Morelli? I think was his name. He was the Italian conductor, at that time when Rudel was conducting. He probably did 40 Butterflies a year in Italy; it would all be very routine for him, but it excited him that I had never done it before. So he focused and he got me through that (rehearsal). In those days - remember O'Neal's? I made a lot of trips there (for) the good scotch after I survived some of those challenges.
Marc A. Scorca: How many seasons were covered by that Julius Rudel Award?
John DeMain: Well, it was a three-year award, but I didn't last three years, because in the second year, Dennis Russell Davies had become very entrenched with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and with all those investments, back in those days being made by the Ford Foundation and all these arts (foundations); that was going full time; it was going on tour and he wanted a resident conductor. And he was my roommate in my freshman and sophomore year at Juilliard, along with a couple of other guys. I actually ran into him on the steps of Lincoln Center. I was conducting the Norwalk Symphony, preparing rehearsals for him, because that's what he was doing when he first got out of school before he went out to St. Paul. So he knew I was doing this. And he said, "Do you want to take the audition? I'll fly you out." And I knew what my duties would have been. They were a fantastic opportunity for a conductor. It wouldn't be like a pianist who gets thrown in at the last bit, with no rehearsals at City Opera with The New York Times sitting out there, which if you have no other choice, that's what you do. I said, "I'll take the audition. I'll prepare, but I can't go when Rudel is in town, because that would speak of real ingratitude." So he had his auditions on Tuesday and Rudel was going out of town on Friday. So I sneaked out to St. Paul; took the audition. Dennis said, "Since we know each other, it's between you and the orchestra; we didn't like anybody on Tuesday." And the orchestra applauded my audition and Dennis offered me the position. I was in my second year (of the Rudel Award) and I just asked Rudel for a conducting debut. And he was giving me Hoffmann, the following September, which was one of his shows, and that was that new production with (Beverly) Sills and (Norman) Treigle at the top. Rudel was like...you trembled when he walked by...he was a tyrant in a way. He really made you (quake). He was fabulous; he was the best conductor; he was great, but he ruled with an iron hand. And so I thought, "What do I do?" So I thought I'm going to just treat him like he's my grandfather. So I went in; I sat down; I told him that I had sneaked out of town because I was invited to take this audition with the orchestra, and I don't know what to do. And he said, "What would your duties be?" And I told him, I'd have my own subscription concerts; I would take the orchestra on tour; I'd have that chamber ensemble; I'd be playing chamber music. He said, "When I was your age, I would've killed for something like that." He said, "If you want it, I won't stand in your way." I said, "What about the debut in September with Hoffmann?" He said, "You're making me change my whole music staff; I want more dividends from you for that." Well, I wasn't smart enough to call up Dennis and say, if you want me, you've got to give Rudel a guest engagement at St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. So I left, and it was a glorious two years in St. Paul. And that was the Exxon Arts Endowment initial thing to make American music directors for symphony orchestras operated by Affiliate Artists. And of course, a lot of people don't know what Affiliate Artists is anymore, but I'm sure you do.
Marc A. Scorca: It was such an important place for people to get a career start, and not only a career start, but to understand the community connection: what it was to connect to community through the music they were making. It was an incredible program.
John DeMain: It was an incredible program. And so there were the six of us. And at the end of the first year, there was an Affiliate Artists convention. And they're talking to us about outreach and I was the mouth in the group and I said, "Anybody who has a resident conductor position or assistant conductor position with an orchestra: all we do is outreach. We do the education programs; we do the run-outs; we play in the airport hangers; the malls: that's all we do. I think it would be really valuable since you six orchestra managers (and they were some famous ones there at the time)...you don't know any American conductors: here we are. I think what would be valuable is to have an exchange program and to have one of us come to one of the other orchestras." So they bought it. And I went to the Pittsburgh Symphony and a three-day program, with two of the other conductors, I was in the middle. Hilda Harris was my soloist. I did an all Mozart first half, and I did the Schumann Spring, second half. Got a review the next day that my grandmother could only write, and they sat down and they said, "This is fantastic, but we don't know what to do with you, there's nothing out there. There's no orchestras looking. The only (person) who's looking for anything is David Gockley is looking for a music director for Texas Opera Theater, this new company he formed, on tour.” He said, "If you're interested, we'll set up a meeting with you.” And I knew that David Gockley was promoted from within, and he was an American. And so I said, "Sure, I'll meet with him," 'cause I still had another year left. That was the end of my second year with Dennis. So I still had another year left, but Dennis said, "Look, if you get something, then we can put this grant in for somebody else. We brought you out here to jumpstart your career." So David sat down with me in New York and we talked and he said he wasn't really happy with the situation with his parent company, and that if I showed my stuff, he would promote me, and that's all I needed to hear, like he was promoted from within. And so I moved to Houston and I did the Texas Opera Theater, and I think it was the end of the first (year that) we had a hiatus in the tour in the spring; it was like February. And I came back. Somebody came up to me and whispered, "We just heard that Houston Grand Opera is going to do Porgy and Bess." Well, I had seen that opera with Rudel conducting at the City Center and Ella Gerber, who at the time had exclusive rights to directing that show in the world, had guest-directed a play at Youngstown, and I met her and I was this young kid. And she said, "Maybe one day, you'll grow up to do Porgy and Bess." Of course, I loved the music; what American didn't. So this is classic; it's going in the book that I'm writing. I threw open the door (David will confirm this), and I said, "I hear you're doing Porgy and Bess." "That's right." "You should hire me to conduct it." "Why?" I said, "Well I'm the best musical comedy conductor in the world but I don't want anybody to know it, because I have tried to pursue a career in music theater." "Can you get along with black people?" Well, that's an interesting question because: my growing up, I had very Catholic high school, one person African-American, but at Juilliard from the very first day, you're an international group of artists and I just loved it; I loved that whole environment to be in. And so I said, "Oh yeah." "Can you do jazz?" "Oh sure." Well, I can allow jazz to happen; I'm not really a jazz musician, but I would grapple with all those things in musical theater. And so he took me back, because I think this is one of my core contributions is Porgy and Bess. So he took me back to the coaching room and (Lorin) Maazel had just recorded it: the first Urtext recording; the year before it won the Grammy, and he put on Florence Quivar singing 'My Man's Gone Now'. And he pokes me in the shoulder, like David would do, and he said, "Could you do better than that?" And I said, "Well, David, I don't know whether I could do better than that, but I wouldn't do it that way, because I don't hear any of the jazz influences that are in the Leitmotifs that are in the structure of the piece." He hired me; took a chance. And then we didn't have a stage director. So I was guest conducting at The Juilliard doing the opera, Il Cordovano by Goffredo Petrassi, this atonal work and Jack O'Brien was directing it. And he just was so much fun in rehearsals. We used to call him the subtext king of the world, because he could fill actors with more subtexts than you would ever want to know in your entire life. "David," I said, "He's extraordinary. Take him out and ask him what he could do if he had a chance to direct Porgy and Bess." And I said to David, "I hope we're going to find a new stage director," 'cause the piece needs to escape one person's view, which at that point in time, was not an authentic depiction of the African-American culture. It'd become something else. There was one thing with Sidney Poitier's attitude about Porgy and Bess, but it was another thing about the opera singers, that were in Porgy and Bess, who were disowning it; who didn't feel that they were being represented. And they were not proud to be associated with it, but not for the same reasons. They saw the potential of the piece. You know how Houston Grand Opera came to do Porgy and Bess was that Sherwin Goldman had gone to The Met; it meant that they'd have to create a whole new chorus; so he goes down to Houston. Houston says it wants to do it. So David said, "We're going to be able to get a new director,” and so I took Jack out to dinner and I said, "What would you do if you had a chance to direct Porgy and Bess?" And he said, "I would give it back to the people it was written for," which is exactly the answer I was hoping for. I told that to David. So we hired Jack. We must've auditioned 500 African-American singers, and there were a couple of people of an older generation who came up to the table and said, "Is that person directing?" And we said, "No, we have a new director.” And they went, "All right, I'll sing." They wanted it, you know? It was just the most incredible experience at the time. It was fun because we hired Mabel Robinson who was an African American, modern dance creator, who had her own company. And we had also an African-American production stage manager. Elaine Head: fabulous people and we really set out to do this. And it was interesting, because what I learned was that the piano vocal score of the piece, which you might work from before you have an orchestral store, has virtually minimal stage directions in it. And Sherwin Goldman had sent the play to Jack and I, and he said, "Read the play." And I read the play. And I realized that the play was interlaced with all these spirituals and George and Ira had just replaced them with their own, but they were done in the style of the sort-of-Busby-Berkeley musicals of the 1930's. And so if you took that music at its face value, you could get very presentational with it and lose why those pieces are there in the story. If you don't lose that, then you have that big arc of storytelling that helped make it an opera because "I got plenty o' nuttin'": you didn't stop and sing "I got plenty o' nuttin'": it was about something. And so when I went out to have my first production meeting with Jack, I arrived in San Diego (that's when he was still with The Old Globe Theater) and I said, "Did you read the play yet?" He said, "No, I haven't." I said, "Well, I'm not talking to you til you read the play; call me back." Four hours later, he calls me back and said, "It's all there. All we have to do is that." I said, "Yes, that's what I'd love to (do)."
Marc A. Scorca: And it's funny because I wanted to ask you: who brought you to opera? Who brought you to conducting? Then I wanted to ask you who brought you to American opera? And of course, what you've already described is that your entry way into American opera was through musical theater. Porgy and Bess became an enormous part of your early career, but the list goes on from there: Nixon in China...?
John DeMain: I just wanted to say that when I went out to the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, there was tremendous commitment by Dennis Russell Davies to do new works. And so I was involved premiering new works all the time, sometimes at the piano; sometimes with the orchestra, but it was a huge commitment on his part. And I learned something too from him. Sometimes these pieces were pretty bizarre - and we did a whole season of John Cage - one on every concert. We only lost one subscriber. But the point is that Dennis never made fun of new music. He took it 1000% seriously, and therefore so did the musicians. At the end, this was what David did. David Gockley had the same kind of commitment. And at City Opera: ?Marzo: I didn't work on that, but I did Hans Werner Henze's Der junge Lord (with Sarah Caldwell directing). I was always working on new pieces. So that went hand in hand. The success of my relationship with David for those 18 years is that he viewed an opera company as a music theater production company, spanning everything from baroque opera to Broadway musicals. And I had that same kind of catholic tastes. And so that's why we hit it off so well, because we enjoyed...
Marc A. Scorca: When you conducted Nixon, did you think at the time, that this is going to become a pillar of the American opera canon?
John DeMain: I have to say, I thought it was great, at the time. I loved the music, right from the beginning. I was lucky that I could do it at all, because that's the one kind of music I had not encountered. And it was the first time I did a piece where the score used digital metronome markings, which means at this point in the accelerando, you should be at 139.5. The old metronome? You didn't quite do it that way. And Adams had never really written opera before. He didn't even know, at the time, what was the potential for singers; what they could do. And he sort of inherited me. (He never really wanted me from the beginning because Edo de Waart is the guy who hired him to be his composer in residence in San Francisco. Edo did that magnificent recording of Nixon later on). But I was shipped out to San Francisco to try to teach the chorus the music. And we did a scene at the Guggenheim, and this was before we did the whole piece at San Francisco. And that's the very first time I ever met John Adams. And he didn't give me the time of day...I'm supposed to be conducting this scene. And he's got Allen Feinstein playing the piano. It was the Chairman Mao scene and the three secretaries were singing, and they had not a clue. They weren't singing right pitches; they weren't singing right rhythms, and these rhythms were hard. And John Adams's just sitting there letting it happen. So then I turned him, and I said, "By the way, would you mind if I worked with everybody for a little while?" "Oh no, no, no; go ahead." So I taught them the scene and really taught them the scene til it was exactly like he wrote it, and he looked at me and he said, "I didn't know, you could get singers to do that." He was that naive at the time: not anymore, that's for sure. And we embarked on a really good relationship. It was a very difficult piece to conduct because when you go into the pit, there's all these meter changes. And there was this joke: about three months later, I was at the Brooklyn Academy, but one of the musicians who had played Nixon in New York came up to me and said, "Maestro, we're all enjoying doing this, but you know, there's 1,859 meter changes in the course of the opera. And we think 1800 of them are unnecessary." I don't subscribe to that because what is necessary is the way the composer heard it in his head. But when you're going (sings) "News, la, la, la and I'm doing 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3; whatever I'm doing," that music doesn't change. So when the actors are singing, no matter how many times they've done the piece, there's nothing to hold onto orchestrally. So they all need you: Henry Kissinger/Thomas Hammons needs you to this day, because the minute you're acting and you go in your own world, you don't get that cue orchestrally, 'cause it's all sounding the same. So they all want you. The orchestra all want you; it's a really difficult orchestra part, and it takes four sensational saxophones. But I remember at the time, that when we opened in Houston, I turned around and looked out at the audience and there were tons and tons of empty seats. And so I went to David and I said, "I'm so sorry that the audience..." "Oh, those were all the subscribers. They didn't come; we're breaking every record in single ticket sales for a new audience." By the time David ended his tenure in Houston, his core audience was first in line to buy tickets for new pieces, because that commitment was unfailing...
Marc A. Scorca: For decades. So compare and contrast: you conducted Nixon in China and then not long after that the U S premiere of Akhnaten. You jumped into minimalist compositions with both feet. How is it different? How is it similar?
John DeMain: Well, to me, Philip Glass is the Papa Haydn of minimalism. And John Adams is the Beethoven, because John Adams was not a strict minimalist like Phil was. Sometimes John Adams' minimalism is in the cogs of the wheel, churning inside the piece where there might be a more chain arc on the, on the outside. But with Phil, it's pure. And I remember that we flew over to Stuttgart to see the premier, Dennis Russell Davies was conducting. The production - remember Tom O'Horgan, who directed Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway? - it was that kind of production, when the cross came out over the audience on Broadway. This was the same thing with Achim Freyer's production in Stuttgart. I mean, they must've spent gazillions. Well, we had hired this David Freeman who had his own contemporary opera company in London and Robert Israel to do the set. It was going to be a co-production with City Opera. And I remember that night that Freeman was meeting David Gockley for the first time and me, because we went to see the world premier, and he announced to us that he would like to have seven weeks of rehearsal, and I just thought to myself, I won't survive that. And I just kept my mouth shut. I remember later on that summer, I was in Santa Fe and Kenneth Montgomery was guest conducting. And he said, "What do you have coming up?" And I said, "I'm doing this American premier of Akhnaten. The stage director wants seven weeks of rehearsal; I'll go berserk." He said, "You don't go for seven weeks; you go once a week; you check on how the memorizing is going; you set the tempos and then you leave. And then after five weeks when everybody's absolutely sick of it, you come in full of enthusiasm and pick everybody back up." So that's what we did. In a way his music was simple, but it was not as sophisticated as it became later on in terms of orchestration. So he was having everybody play everything. And that for wind players: the horn players would say, "We can't keep that in our mouth that long." The way he set up the wind parts is (that) the first player would play, and then the second player would play and they trade each other off; it was all keyboard kind of stuff. It wasn't really hard. And we had two orchestras at the time in Houston: we had the freelance orchestra for Nixon in China, which came first, but we had the symphony for Akhnaten and they're not an easy group and I thought "I don't want either." "David, why is the Houston Symphony playing this piece?” They're going to give me such a hard time, but it's just the way it happened. So I thought, "How am I going to get through this?" And so I remember I went to the first reading and I said to the Houston Symphony, "You're going to repeat a lot of notes a lot of times. If you just work this all out, by the time we get to the end of act one, the rehearsal's over." Well, they bear down and they played it. I have to tell you, they played it gorgeously. I mean, I have the highest respect for the Houston Symphony, because when it came time to perform it, they took it 1000% seriously and they played it beautifully. I was really glad about that. And of course I saw the recent revival at The Met, before we all shut down, and it was so magnificent and the music is really quite striking. And I remember falling in love with the prayer of Akhnaten at the time. It was so interesting because Phil had a younger following, but the point is: people who were older, just not because it was a contemporary composer whose music wouldn't be beautiful to listen to. And so they pride themselves of certain pleasures of his music. And so I did Akhnaten. Then we did the world premiere of Doris Lessing's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, and then we produced for spring season The Juniper Tree, which he co-composed with Robert Moran. So we were doing a lot of Philip Glass at the time.
Marc A. Scorca: It's fantastic. Now, you were such an important part of the work of Carlisle Floyd, conducting Susannah, Willie Stark, The Passion of Jonathan Wade: just another entire take on American opera.
John DeMain: Yeah, and the big one was the world premier of Willie Stark. And Mice and Men at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, so I did a lot of Carlisle. How would I describe his music? It was more traditional in a way, but it always underscored itself with some dissonant accents. I often thought that his most melodic score was Susannah; his most histrionic score was Of Mice and Men. Willie Stark: Hal Prince directed and it was an interesting, wonderful piece to work on, but it was - I don't mean to criticize Carlisle because I love him very much - but I felt that his being his own librettist, constantly wanting to get out of the way to make sure that his libretto was heard. So I felt that the Willie Stark score lacked the orchestral sumptuousness that grand opera can provide and must have. Wagner: thank you very much. There were too many declamated recitatives and then punctuations afterwards. And so as fascinating as the piece was, you wished there was more score there. I don't know his more recent works, to be perfectly honest. I don't even know Cold Sassy Tree because I was away from that. But working with Carlisle was terrific, and his sense of theater was great. We had a great time working on those pieces. Great time.
Marc A. Scorca: Now you were part of the big multi-company co-production of Dead Man Walking and Jake Heggie just thinks you are the conductor that hangs the moon, and most recently, I'm thinking of Blue at Glimmerglass Festival, Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's piece, and then you're involved with the Washington National Opera and the American Opera Initiative. So you were such a part of this American repertoire from the beginning of the explosion in creative American opera through (over a number of decades) to some of the most recent new operas; operas that are still being worked on. Are you pleased with the arc that you see in American opera?
John DeMain: Sure. I'm pleased for this reason: we have never embraced the atonal language of this country or even dodecaphonic music. We get it in very, very small doses because the audiences simply do not embrace it. And I always believed that what Phil gave us was a chance to return to diatonic tonality that we grew up on, and find a new way to use it. His happened to be repetition and the minimalist movement was born. The hardest thing we've had to overcome - this is a prejudiced comment on my part - is the second half of the 20th century before Philip Glass, which poisoned the audience to experiencing anything in opera or symphony, new. And we know that there's a wealth of music composed by more conservative composers, who from time to time now we actually go back and play them, because these people didn't buy that path that the universities and everybody was pushing. So the reluctance to experience a new piece: the mind preset is unbelievable. And so when we did Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, particularly here in Madison where I live and I'm talking to people all the time, the response that they went to see a new piece, liked the music; cried; were emotionally moved. They didn't know a new piece could do that. Same thing with Orange County. We had a wonderful time. You know how that happened was: we went up to see the premier in San Francisco and loved it, and I met Jake Heggie early on in all of this, and he played through the piece for me, and I just said, "You're a born opera composer." The piece was born and we went up to do it. And so I wanted to bring it to Orange County. Well, I don't know if you know this story, but there were two assistant directors on that show, assisting the Broadway director who had staged the premier. He had never done opera before, and on Broadway, you don't have assistant directors, you have a stage manager who does everything. So he didn't know how to use these people. And the assistant directors are so used in opera making suggestions to the director. Well, that just doesn't happen when you've got an authoritative type director on Broadway. So he treated them really badly and they swore they would never remount this production again, if he were anywhere around. They were available, turns out, and they wouldn't come. So that's what led to us building our own production. And besides, the production was very, very heavy. So I called Jack O'Brien, and he wasn't available, but I just said "Do you have anybody who you might recommend that Terrence McNally would wanna work with?" And that's when he (suggested Leonard Foglia). So we embarked on this production, and then you get all these companies signed on and I did it in Detroit, Opera Pacific and New York City Opera, and that was Joyce DiDonato who was doing Sister Helen. In Madison, we had Daniela Mack (who was) just wonderful, but in Orange County, we had Kristine Jepson: magnificent artist, what a tragedy that she left us. She was a great Sister Helen, vocally and in every way. I'd done a lot with Kristine back then, and I was a big, big fan of hers. There we involved the community. We had a big symposium on the death penalty and we did it at the University of California, Irvine. People really participated in it and they got really into it. That was great. And then I had done a lot of work in Adelaide, in Australia, for that company. And they decided to do the Australian premier with Teddy Tahu Rhodes at the time. And so, (my wife) Barbara and Jenny and my daughter and Jake: we all hauled off to Australia and did it. They did the San Francisco production with one of the assistant directors from San Francisco who was a good colleague and friend of mine because he started out in Houston. And I said to him (and he came to see the production in Orange County and stole a lot of the ideas - openly, cause he liked it), "You wouldn't do this for us in Orange County, but you do this in Adelaide." He said, "There's no way that director is going to fly out here to Adelaide to see this production, so I felt I could do what I wanted." That director is a great director. It's just apples and oranges. That's just what happened.
Marc A. Scorca: So the American Opera Initiative at Washington National Opera: are you pleased with the way these younger composers are approaching opera? Do you feel optimistic about the future of the American opera repertoire?
John DeMain: Just so you know, that while I was in Houston, and Jane Weaver was running the Texas Opera Theater, we started something called the One Aria Opera Project and Daron Hagen, Stewart Wallace: there were all these people participating. We had 18 one acts to 15 minute operas. We didn't get our grant renewal for some reason, but I thought it was really great and it was luck to be able to speculate on talent. So when I came into this thing in Washington, when Francesca (Zambello) asked me to do that, it was not an unfamiliar kind of situation for me. I thought some composers were better than others and they were still learning how to do things, which was the point of all of that. I liked the vernacular. I have a prejudice that I just like to put on tape: what I would like to see happen with new opera (and a couple of composers are doing it), but we write the most contemporary of stories and we use the 19th century style of singing to sing, and I think we lose the next generation because of that. And we need to allow, maybe where women are concerned, if a character could be a chest voice singer, a belter, but you know, basically sings like a man just with her chest voice: I think we should do that. I think we should expand...it doesn't take away from opera because I don't want any of those people near Bellini and Rossini. But as we come into our time, I think it would be great - like Jake Heggie wrote a piece for Patti LuPone and a soprano: it was a duet. He wrote something for them, and I thought "Right on." I said to Jake - this is terrible thing to say, probably: you can erase this, but I said to Jake that the lead in Three Decembers should be a Broadway belter, because they're hard edge; they're tough. And they're singing these numbers (demonstrates mezzo voice) doing that, and that's where I think it needs to go. I don't question the other two roles. But I just think we need it. And the person who knows that is (Stephen) Sondheim. He writes for the voice that he thinks is right for that character. So you've got opera singers; you've got Broadway-type singers. If you can't belt up to an A or a B or a C, you really can't do justice to Mrs. Lovett because you can't deliver the punchlines. So that's something I would like to see happen. Jake: zydeco; the blues: he has all kinds of ideas in Dead Man Walking and in subsequent pieces, and there are other composers who do that. Now, I loved doing Fellow Travelers. I just loved it. I thought the score was beautiful and that's what I'm pleased about is that we live in a time now where you're not afraid to be beautiful. I think in the 20th century, we evolved in the early 20th century, the expansion of the orchestra to be able to do all kinds of things. You know, we have a battery of percussion, Jeanine Tesori's Blue has more percussion than you know what to do with: they use bows; they use everything. And so composers became fascinated writing for the orchestra. And then they started writing these obbligato noises for the singers. And suddenly the singing was the worst thing you had to listen to in a new opera which is just the opposite to when opera was born: it was all about what the voice could do with great beauty and sensibility and line. So you go back to the early composers. The early composers wanted you to like their music. And what happened in the last half of that 20th century is: it was screw the audience...I don't care whether you like my music or not...this is what I want to write. And no. And so now we finally returned to a time where the composer actually wants to have a relationship with his listeners. And that's what I think bodes so well for the future. I also think chamber opera...I always like to call myself the Cecil B. DeMille of opera, because...give me Turandot or Aida and I'm the happiest man in the world. But I've developed a different attitude about smaller works because, and again, I hate to say this because I don't want to damage opera in any way, but our theaters are too big, given the society we live in right now. And you know, you go to a hotel for a luncheon. There are screens. There's that person sitting down there, making a speech. Everybody has a screen so you can see them up close. You go to The Met; you go to Chicago Lyric, and you're up on that balcony and you can't see the acting. And surtitles have made you want to see the acting: that's the difference. Before, when you listened to the music and she goes like this, and you know, Butterfly killed herself and you sort of follow the general outlines of the story and listen to the music: fine. But once you started translating every sentence, and then you've got giant screens in your living room where you can see, or you go to a sports event and you can see up close, or a rock event, you can see them pickin the guitars, whatever it may be, and then you go to opera: you want to see them at those lines and you can't. So I remember reading the scathing review that Tommasini did for Hansel and Gretel many years ago, when The Met was starting to do their HD productions. A couple of days later, they did it HD and I'd never seen it. I was in Orange County at Opera Pacific. I went to see it. Tommasini reviewed that. And he said, "Oh my God. I have a good seat at The Met. I couldn't see what Rosalind Plowright was doing. She was amazing." And it was like a revelation for him at how much is lost. I don't know what we do about that. I'm all for the installing of closed circuit television. It's better if you have theaters that have that, because to rent all this equipment is costly for an opera company, and then you're doing it for the people who sit in the balconies who pay less money (because David tried that in Houston for a while). But it's unfortunate because I think immediacy is really, really, really important. So the one thing that chamber opera is giving us is those actors up close? Now we do the run-throughs of operas in the room and we invite our major donors and they're all blown away at seeing how competent our singers are; how fabulous they are as actors and how moving they are, and we had the Playhouse at Overture Center, but we lost it because we're not a primary resident with the Playhouse and the primary residents need all that time. But those years that we were doing Galileo, Galilei and Acis and Galatea and Threepenny Opera, and the audience was blown away by the connection between the singers and music and all of that. I'm a big fan of that, but I don't want to lose the repertoire. The last thing is: I know that we have to address in a major way EDI, and I'm very involved in that. I think we're pushing this maybe a little bit to the far end of the pendulum, which usually happens when there's a movement, because I'd hate to see us throw out our core pieces, just because the story today...nobody minded, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Kathryn (Smith) is terrific with the programming she's doing with Madison Opera within our ability to do so. I'm overhauling in a major way...I'm relookin in proper percentage: how much new music do I do; how much d persons of color...and ha no problem doing that because we have neglected some really good people out there. And there's some new people writin who are really good, so there's a big spectrum out there to choose from. And I'm really excited about that. And I'm very dedicated to it. What's interesting to me a my hundreds of black singers that I've worked with all my life with all these production of Porgy and Bess: the problem is not African-American opera singers or opera singers of Hispanic or Latinx: because we've had great stars in all of those ethnicities for years. I mean, major stars, best singers in the world, gorgeous voices. The problem is instrumentalists. And the problem is because if you're going to be a virtuoso violinist or pianist or cellist, you have to have it all together by the time you're 14 years old; you don't start when you're 18, 19, 20, 21, like at singer camp or college. And so my big thrust right now is what can we do more? 'Cause the Ford Foundation started doing it a long time ago, but it wasn't vigorous enough. Like David was vigorous with new works. We need to get instruments and private lessons into the hands of young kids who are economically disadvantaged, if we want to see a makeover in our symphony orchestras and in our involvement in the arts.
Marc A. Scorca: That's an interesting point about the chronology of talent: instrumentalists versus vocalists.
John DeMain: How many opera singers told me: "I went to college. I was singing in a chorus and the chorusmaster said you're drowning out the bass section, you should study opera." And this is an aside, but I was talking to our librarian, Kathy, who was a violinist and she teaches the Suzuki method and I asked her, "How is that?" She said, "It's fantastic. Virtually all the major star violinists on the circuit today - American - started with Suzuki method." But she said, "It's expensive." The parent has to go twice a week: one to a private lesson; one to a group lesson, and has to practice with their kid every night. First of all, that takes a tremendous commitment on the parent and the parent may not be interested in classical music in some of these situations, and secondly it costs money, and so it's a social economic problem; it's not just a racial problem. This is what I'm trying to address because Sphinx can set all the quotas they want, but there's only so many people out there. What I will do, for example: I will open up the auditioning process. I will make sure that Sphinx knows that we have an opening for violin. So we're not a full-time orchestra, we're per service, but we have all kinds of people flying in now from all over the country to audition, to be in the Madison Symphony. So if I just want Sphinx to publicize, because we don't screen the auditions, the resume that if you didn't play, you know, if you don't have a fabulous resume, anybody who wants to audition for us can, because when we send them the audition requirements, it filters everybody out. So with a few naive students who come in and think they're better than they are, you really get people who can play. So this way, I'm hoping we can get (somewhere). But I think you've got to go underneath it all, because we're so committed to it: the players want it; we want it. And so how can we get it?
Marc A. Scorca: Well, John DeMain, thank you for this incredible hour of your time. It is an honor and a pleasure to speak with you, but I'm so inspired that after decades of service to our field, you still have a vision for the future and about how to get there and our commitment to it. Your energy is undiminished, even as your wisdom grows. And I am so pleased to spend this time with you and I can't wait until we can do it in person.