Wineke: Madison Opera shares grief, pride in weekend performances

The cast of Fellow Travelers
The cast of Fellow Travelers
Photo courtesy of Madison Opera

The most important thing about Madison Opera’s weekend performances of “Fellow Travelers” is that artistic director John DeMain conducted the orchestra a day after his wife, Barbara, died unexpectedly.

It is customary in these situations to say something like “she would have wanted him to do so.”  If you knew Barbara DeMain, you would more likely say that she would have been mortified if he hadn’t done so.

And, if you were in the audience in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, there’s a good chance you did know Barbara DeMain.

Madison Opera has three major performances each year but the midwinter performance features contemporary (“Fellow Travelers” was first performed in 2016) and comparatively unknown operas.  The patrons who attend them tend to be members of the community’s hard core arts scene.

And anyone who has been a regular at music events during the DeMains’ 26 years in Madison has a good chance of considering Barbara a friend.

John may have been at the podium, but Barbara was in the lobby, greeting everyone, finding something to compliment in the appearance of every woman (and many men), scowling occasionally at a reviewer who did not, in her view, give proper credit to the “man with the stick,” sharing her views of politics in the United States and in her native Germany.

Whoever made up the word “irrepressible” had someone like Barbara DeMain in mind.

So, her absence was felt at the performances.

Perhaps all the more so because “Fellow Travelers” was one of the more extraordinary events in Madison Opera history.

“Fellow Travelers” tells the story of two gay government employees during the McCarthy years who meet, fall in love, and try to build their careers while avoiding detection in that homophobic time.

The timing was fortuitous.  Although it was first performed in 2016 and was chosen by Kathryn Smith, the opera’s general manager, some time ago, the Madison production was performed during the same week at President Trump began his reign of retaliation and in which Pete Buttigieg either won or tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses.

Perhaps the more things stay the same, the more they change.

Although the music is beautiful and the cast, led by Andres Acosta, as Timothy Laughlin, and Ben Edquist (who sang at Opera in the Park last summer) as Hawkins Fuller, was more than competent, this opera relies mostly on the story.

It is told in 16 vignettes of just a few minutes each that somehow carry the emotions of the conflicted men and the pain experienced by those who cared about them.

The story takes place over the period from September, 1953, to May. 1957, roughly the period from the peak of the Wisconsin senator’s power until his death from alcoholism.

I think it is one of the best pieces Madison Opera has done and I think Barbara DeMain would have been proud of the effort.