David DiChiera, founder of Michigan Opera Theater, dies. Hear his most recent Stateside interview. | Michigan Radio
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David DiChiera, founder of Michigan Opera Theater, dies. Hear his most recent Stateside interview.

Sep 19, 2018

David DiChiera was an American composer and founding general director of Michigan Opera Theatre.
Credit michiganopera.org

The founder of one of Detroit’s most important cultural institutions has died. Michigan Opera Theatre founder David DiChiera was 83 years old.

Thanks to DiChiera's efforts, Detroit has been home to one of the most vibrant regional opera companies in the nation: The Michigan Opera Theatre.

In 2013 he was named a Kresge Eminent Artist. That prize is the Kresge Foundation’s annual lifetime achievement award in the Arts.

It’s been called the most prestigious local prize in the field of culture. Michigan Radio spoke to DiChiera about winning award, you can hear that interview here:

In the 1980s, in Detroit, there probably weren’t a lot of people who looked around downtown and thought – what this place needs is a world-class opera theater. But David DiChiera had a vision.

"When David proposed buying this building, there was really nothing downtown here. Everything was closed up, and it was little frightening,” said Suzanne Mallare Acton, the assistant music director and chorus master at Michigan Opera Theatre. David DiChiera founded the company in 1971. For more than 20 years it was a sort of gypsy opera company.

They staged shows at the Fischer Theater and Music Hall, but they didn’t have a home of their own. So Acton says finding places to rehearse in those years was “an adventure.”

"One was a car dealership, one was at the Leland hotel, we were in a ballroom … and I distinctly remember Friday nights it was a bar, and we’d come the next morning have to sweep up the beer cans to go into rehearsal," Acton said.

This was before the Fox Theatre was restored. Music Hall nearly got demolished. The Gem Theatre had not yet been moved and renovated. And a lot of the city’s arts patrons lived out in the suburbs.

“There were a number of people who really wanted him to go to, you know, Troy," said Michael Hauser, who has been with MOT since 1989. “A lot of people at that time thought that would be the center of the metro area. But he always felt that culture and the arts really belonged in the central city.”

DiChiera had his eye on an abandoned theater off Grand Circus Park. It had a lot of the opulence of those early 20th century movie palaces. But the building had been stripped. Some of the roof was missing. Bums lived in the building. And Hauser says local banks had zero interest in financing DiChiera’s opera house dream.

DiChiera persisted though. He got the building renovated with the help of foundations, patrons, and the Big Three. And in 1996, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland were on hand for the opening of the Detroit Opera House.

Fred Cohn is longtime opera critic, and edits Opera America magazine. He remembers coming to Detroit for one of the two world premiers the opera house has hosted.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Cohn.

Cohn came to cover the opening of Margaret Garner – the pre-Civil War story of an enslaved mother who killed her own daughter rather than let her return to slavery. He says the audience was jubilant, and fabulously dressed in a way that outshined even New York City audiences.

“And what was also amazing about it to me as a New York opera-goer was how much of the audience was African American. I’m sure it was at least half if not more,” Cohn said.

“I always said that the first opera that this opera house would present as a new work, was going to reflect the African American community. I felt that this city deserved that," DiChiera said.

To call DiChiera ambitious seems like an understatement. At one point in the mid-80s he was running three opera companies – in Detroit, Dayton, and Orange County, California.

And in 2007, Michigan Opera Theatre premiered his own work: Cyrano - an interpretation of the story of a French cadet with a nose so grotesquely large it keeps him from telling Roxane he loves her. DiChiera says he related to Cyrano de Bergerac – who lived his life in a grand manner to cover up a deep sadness.

“And I think we do that, all of us do that in life. I think a lot of us just have parts of our life that are unfulfilled in some way or another,” he said.

But unlike Cyrano, David DiChiera’s great desire – to bring opera to Detroit – was fulfilled.