COSTA MESA — Asked to choose a favorite among the opera premieres he has led from the orchestra pit, John DeMain, Opera Pacific's new music director, pulls a long face.
"Not a fair question," he says, but rises to the challenge anyway. "I would have to say 'Nixon in China' is a phenomenal work. I thought there was so much in that."
During a recent interview in Opera Pacific's offices, the maestro ticked off what it was he so admired in the John Adams opera: "The meeting with Chairman Mao, the second act with the aria of Pat Nixon, the Mark Morris ballet, the beautiful quartet in the last act."
DeMain conducted the 1987 world premiere of "Nixon in China" at the internationally respected Houston Grand Opera, where he spent 18 years--four as principal conductor and 12 as music director--and where he led the orchestra in almost all the new operas premiered there between 1976 and 1994.
Among others were Leonard Bernstein's "A Quiet Place," Philip Glass' "The Making of the Representative for Planet 8," Carlisle Floyd's "Willie Stark" and "The Passion of Jonathan Wade," Michael Tippett's "New Year," as well as the American premieres of Glass' "Akhnaten" and Astor Piazzola's "Maria de Buenos Aires."
No stranger to Opera Pacific, DeMain conducted its maiden production, "Porgy and Bess," in 1987 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. He's been back four times since then, leading the orchestra for "Tosca," "Faust" "Aida" and "Die Fledermaus."
But in joining Opera Pacific's general director Patrick L. Veitch, who chose him recently for the new post of music director created after last fall's departure of the company's founding general director, David DiChiera, DeMain does not expect to be commissioning new operas.
"The first thing we're hoping to do is become more adventurous within the standard repertory," he said. "We're going to look at composers and major operas that have not been performed yet here."
Short and compactly built, the Juilliard-trained DeMain, 53, exuded an irrepressible enthusiasm.
"We're going to see if we can't get the audience to come along with us and look at some of these masterworks. So we're going to try to move away from focusing on the top 10 and get into the top 30. That's already going to take some doing."
DeMain, who left Houston to pursue a symphonic conducting career--he now leads the Madison Symphony in Wisconsin and is artistic director of the Madison Opera--will conduct "Cosi Fan Tutti" next season for Opera Pacific and three productions in each of the two following seasons through 2000.
His contract also calls for him to spend 10 weeks in the county next season and 22 weeks a year--almost double Opera Pacific's 10- to 12-week annual performance schedule--beginning with the 1998-99 season.
His symphonic career will continue in Madison, as will his guest appearances as an opera conductor both in the U.S. and abroad.
Recent work has taken him from Tokyo to La Scala in Milan and the Paris Opera. Upcoming engagements include debuts at the Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Queensland Opera in Brisbane, Australia, and returns to the Seattle Opera and the Houston Grand Opera.
"I think the audience here is not unlike the audience in Houston," he contended. "You have to do what you believe in and bring your audience with you. You have to live sometimes through some pretty scary moments. To think that it was all a bed of roses for the Houston Grand Opera is dreaming.
"Houston had a big commitment to new work. The board figured out that, maybe, while they didn't like new work, it was what gave the company its identity in the world. So they put up with new work. It wasn't out of a big conviction that they let it happen."
DeMain seems to have been to the podium born. He led his school band as a fourth-grader and by 14 was music director of a community orchestra in Youngstown, Ohio, his hometown. He recalls conducting a production of "Brigadoon" in which "everybody on stage was old enough to be my grandparent."
By the time he got to the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied piano with Adele Marcus and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees in piano performance, DeMain was earning enough money conducting professional summer stock from the pit to pay for his tuition. "I loved theater, opera, choral music and playing piano," he said. "I liked singing a lot. I started playing for every voice teacher around. I was coaching kids for their Broadway auditions. I was teaching piano. That's how I paid for my living expenses."
In the summer of 1971, after he'd been an assistant conductor for two years at the National Education Television Opera Project, DeMain was invited to the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts as a conducting fellow. Michael Tilson Thomas, a protege of Leonard Bernstein, was teaching there.
"Lenny came in the middle of the summer," DeMain remembers. "Like Moses, he did part the Red Sea. I'll never forget. He arrives and says, 'I would like to see all the conductors.'