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Community Organizer

David DiChiera, the pioneering spirit behind Michigan Opera Theatre, has changed Detroit’s cultural landscape.
by Matthew Sigman.

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DiChiera with Wayne Brown, Michigan Opera Theatre’s CEO
© John Grigaitis
“Young people and old people should understand they are represented.” 
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With Cyrano set and costume designer John Pascoe in 2007
© John Grigaitis

DAVID DICHIERA HAS BUILT MANY THINGS in his five decades in opera—companies, careers, repertoire, an opera house, even a parking garage. But on the eve of his retirement as artistic director of Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, the company he founded in 1971, the debonair eighty-two-year-old impresario’s most cherished achievement is having built communities.

“I loved the idea of immersing myself in a community—getting to know not only the people in the arts but in the community itself. That’s what really drove me,” he says. In the 1980s, he simultaneously led Michigan Opera Theatre, Dayton Opera and Pacific Opera. “It took a lot of energy,” he says, wryly acknowledging that there were certain efficiencies that appealed to his artistic ambitions. “I was collaborating with myself, so if I was doing a new production, I didn’t have to worry about dealing with another director who wasn’t going to be pleased. What I liked, we did. It was a nice collaboration.” 

Born in Pennsylvania to Italian immigrants who later relocated to California, DiChiera studied composition and musicology at UCLA, then joined Detroit’s Oakland University as a professor of composition in the early 1960s, later becoming chairman of the music department. He soon took the helm of Overture to Opera, a local education program that performed excerpts in schools under the auspices of the Detroit Grand Opera Association. In 1971, he transformed his troupe into Michigan Opera Theatre. Today the company has a $14-million budget and presents four annual opera productions. 

In the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots, and the social unrest that followed, DiChiera made welcoming the African–American community central to MOT’s mission. “From the outset, when I was going into schools, I wanted students—eighty percent of them African–American—to see themselves in an art form that they knew little about, and which, they thought, had nothing to do with them,” he says. “I’ve never hidden the fact that when I was casting an opera and there were two sopranos available of equal talent—and they had to be equal—and one was African–American and one was Caucasian, I would choose the African–American. I wanted young people and old people to understand that not only should they enjoy what’s onstage but they should understand they are represented.” Among the artists whose careers he launched was Kathleen Battle, who made her opera debut as Rosina in a 1975 MOT production of Barber of Seville

DiChiera’s embrace of diversity extended to repertoire as well. He presented landmark productions of Porgy and Bess and Treemonisha and, as president of OPERA America, launched national initiatives to fund new works and cultivate new audiences. In 2005, Michigan Opera Theatre gave the premiere of Margaret Garner, composed by Richard Danielpour to a libretto by Toni Morrison. Denyce Graves starred, with Kenny Leon directing his first opera. “To give a Broadway theater director the opportunity to work on that took courage and insight,” says Leon. “He gave me all the resources necessary to succeed. He gave me room and wisdom.”

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With the cast of Porgy and Bess at the Michigan Opera Theatre Ball in 2006
© John Grigaitis

Despite the chronic economic challenges facing inner-city Detroit, DiChiera continually invested in infrastructure. In 1996, he converted a dilapidated movie palace into a state-of-the-art 2,700-seat opera house; Joan Sutherland cut the ribbon, and Luciano Pavarotti sang. The Detroit Opera House so catalyzed the revival of its neighborhood that, with cultural and sports venues sprouting all about, MOT later acquired a parking garage to serve its patrons. So extensive was his executive and artistic leadership that with his retirement the company chose to divide leadership into separate executive and artistic jobs. Wayne Brown assumed the role of president and CEO in 2014. Stephen Lord, music director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, has taken on the role of principal guest conductor while the search for a new artistic director is under way. 

Yet another DiChiera legacy is a solid balance sheet, despite the ups and downs of the auto industry, the traditional source of corporate and individual support for the arts in Detroit.“David grew the organization in very deliberate and incremental steps to ensure its ability to have a sustainable presence,” says Brown. As a result, the company has enjoyed surpluses in each of the past two years, even as it has continued its mission to advance diversity. In 2015, MOT presented Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s opera Frida at multiple venues through the metropolitan area as part of an initiative to grow Latino audiences.

DiChiera has been much decorated in recent years, and in this respect, too, he is a model of diversity, with honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Association of Negro Musicians and the Republic of Italy, which bestowed the Commander in the Order of Merit. But perhaps the greatest tribute will be in May, when, as part of a DiChiera salute, MOT will present an encore production of Cyrano, the opera DiChiera composed to a libretto by director Bernard Uzan. Given its premiere by MOT in 2007, Cyrano has had subsequent performances at Opera Philadelphia and Florida Grand Opera.

DiChiera is eager to write a book on the evolution of the city and its opera company, and he looks forward to coaching young artists. But, he says, “I also want to continue to have a role in helping the community integrate the arts into its life. It is our responsibility to find ways to bring this art form to them, to reach out and touch them. Building those bridges I find most exciting.” spacer 

Matthew Sigman writes for Opera America, Chorus America and American Theater and is a three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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