Detroit lost a giant this week: the diminutive David DiChiera died at 83. He founded Michigan Opera Theatre just a few short years after the ’67 riots, prompting friends to question his sanity.
He envisioned transforming a decrepit Roaring Twenties movie theater into a European-style opera house long before Comerica Park or Ford Field became reality near Madison Avenue.
He cajoled and twisted arms for MOT, seldom shying from the donor “asks” that make, quote, “tougher men” tremble at the thought of asking friends for money. Not DiChiera, who opened his beloved opera house in 1996 with the help of superstars Joan Southerland and Luciano Pavarotti. Yes, he seemed to know all of them.
DiChiera spearheaded a crash fund-raising campaign to save his beloved MOT, on the brink of collapse in the wake of the global financial crisis. He not only founded MOT … he was MOT, a challenge he leaves behind.
Visionary? Pioneer? Trailblazer? Fundraising powerhouse? DiChiera was all those: an amalgam of artistry, equality, and financial savvy mostly realized in the productions on stage and the singers he cast in them.
This son of McKeesport, Pennsylvania by way of Los Angeles realized the unique responsibility and opportunity of building an opera company in Detroit. His choice to cast rising African-American singers became legend mostly because it was real and because he got it right, repeatedly.
Soprano Kathleen Battle sang Mozart’s Pamina on the MOT stage long before she was, well, diva Kathleen Battle. He cast mezzo Denyce Graves in “Margaret Garner,” an opera based on a book by author Toni Morrison.
His casting decisions didn’t now go unnoticed by aspiring singers looking for diversity in thought and deed inside American opera companies. Nor were his calls lost on Detroit patrons, many of whom embraced DiChiera’s choices because they were artistically smart and good business.
Tying it all together was an unwavering confidence in the future of Detroit for culture and opera in a work-a-day town for the belief that great music can soar above differences to unite the community and its human spirit.
In the cultural trio of the Detroit Symphony, the DIA and MOT, DiChiera headed the youngest and smallest of the three organizations. But he was the only one to lead his own creation from the start, to bend its reality to his vision for what an opera company should be in its hometown.
In a town built on entrepreneurial innovation, DiChiera stood alone. He didn’t create an automaker that put the world on wheels or build the nation's No. 1 mortgage lender. The maestro who died after a battle with cancer realized a vision to bring opera and its own house to Detroit long before just about anyone dared to bet on America's poorest major city.
“In the darkest days,” Peter Remington, a prominent fund-raising consultant, says of DiChiera, “he always had confidence. He just had a presence that I don’t see in this town.”
That’s right. He’ll be sorely missed.
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.