David DiChiera, 83, Michigan Opera Theatre Founder and General Director, has Died
From Development server
19 September 2018

David DiChiera, 83, Michigan Opera Theatre Founder and General Director, has Died

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“AN OPERA COMPANY should not just do opera—it should be part of a community,” David DiChiera said in 2010, upon receiving a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The statement articulates the guiding principle behind Michigan Opera Theatre, the company “Dr. D” founded in 1971 and ran for more than four decades. Under DiChiera’s aegis, MOT built a reputation not only for mounting top-level productions but for forging lasting bonds to the city of Detroit and its diverse inhabitants.  

A composer and musicologist as well as an impresario, DiChiera was born to Italian-immigrant parents on April 8, 1935, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh; when he was ten, the family moved to Los Angeles. He attended UCLA with the aim of becoming a concert pianist but soon switched over to composition, studying with Lukas Foss. After college, he received a Fulbright scholarship to Italy, then returned to UCLA to earn a PhD in musicology.  

In 1962, DiChiera moved to the Detroit area to join the faculty of Oakland University, and he soon took the helm of Overture to Opera, a group that toured city schools performing opera scenes linked to the Metropolitan Opera’s annual weeklong Detroit stint. Overture to Opera soon outgrew its Met-centric origins and started staging an unusual array of one-act operas. In 1970, it mounted its first full-length opera (The Barber of Seville, with nineteen-year-old Maria Ewing in her opera debut); the following year, it established a board of directors, moved into the Music Hall Theatre and changed its name to Michigan Opera Theatre, with DiChiera as general director.

As president of Opera America from 1979 to 1983, DiChiera was part of the team that launched “Opera for the 80s and Beyond”—a grant initiative that, at a time when American opera companies generally presented only European works of the past, supported the premieres of new American operas. In 1981, he was appointed artistic director of Dayton Opera, and in 1986, he became general director of Opera Pacific, leading to a period when he was dividing his time between MOT and his two other companies. The arrangement generated a number of coproductions, including a 1989 Opera Pacific–MOT Norma that marked Joan Sutherland’s farewell to the title role. 

DiChiera resigned from his other posts in the mid ’90s to concentrate on MOT and devote his attention to his most ambitious venture yet: the transformation of a derelict downtown movie palace into a permanent home for the company. The project restored the early-twentieth-century opulence of the theater’s public areas while creating state-of-the-art stage and backstage facilities. When the Detroit Opera House opened in 1996, with a gala program headlined by Luciano Pavarotti, it made MOT one of the few American companies to own its own performing venue, allowing it to become the city’s most prominent presenter of ballet and modern dance as well as opera. The openings of two nearby major-league sports stadiums have turned the company’s Parking Center, originally developed with opera patrons in mind, into a major revenue source, serving operagoers and sports fans alike, and generating $1 million in annual revenue. 

One of the great moments in DiChiera’s career came in 2007, when MOT mounted the world premiere of his own opera, Cyrano. He remained general director until 2014, when Wayne Brown was named CEO, charged with the company’s business responsibilities, with DiChiera staying on as artistic director. When he retired from that post in spring 2017, the company marked the occasion in grand style with a revival of Cyrano.

Throughout his nearly half-century tenure, DiChiera made community engagement a top priority. MOT’s productions of Moniuszko’s Haunted Castle and Szymanowski’s King Roger addressed the city’s large Polish population; its mounting of Tigranian’s Anoush engaged the Armenian community; and its production of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida toured Latino neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area. 

Most notably, DiChiera established strong, enduring ties to the city’s African–American community. Not only did he regularly program repertoire such as Porgy and Bess and Treemonisha; his color-blind casting policy gave performance opportunities to generations of African–American artists. The high-water mark of his efforts came with the 2005 world premiere of Margaret Garner, with music by Richard Danielpour and libretto by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. I had the good fortune to be present for the occasion, when the glittering multiracial audience, attending an internationally celebrated event in their own splendid theater, radiated a civic pride such as I have encountered at no other operatic event. “Dr. D” was not just an impresario but a community leader, and the Garner premiere demonstrated his stunning achievement in both roles.  —Fred Cohn 

More information can be found at Michigan Opera Theatre.

Photo credit: John T. Greilick, The Detroit News

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