Fondly called Dr. D by his colleagues and friends, Dr. David DiChiera is the founder of Michigan Opera Theatre — and the Detroit arts leader who made possible the renovation of the Detroit Opera House.
For decades, The War Memorial has been fortunate to collaborate with Dr. DiChiera on many programs, including Overture to Opera, outdoor SummerFest performances, and the new, highly-acclaimed Valentine’s Day dinner and concerts.
The War Memorial’s collaborations with Dr. DiChiera and MOT have been profoundly inspirational. As Dr. D celebrates his retirement this May, we’re pleased to share an exclusive interview with the man himself, speaking with The War Memorial’s Director of Community Engagement, Brandon Faber.
Even while you were in sunny Orange County, you were looking towards Michigan. How did you come to land in Detroit and start the vision of the Michigan Opera Theatre?
I came to Michigan to develop the school of music at Oakland University. I had finished a PhD at UCLA, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Most of my professors thought I would teach 18th-century opera, but that was about the last thing I wanted to do! That would have meant I’d be teaching classes, mostly about opera and composition, working in a “publish or perish” environment. I thought, Am I going to spend the rest of my life writing articles about 18th-century opera? I couldn’t do that. I was glad to be an expert in that period. I did write wrote some articles, some in encyclopedias, but then what? I wanted to be current. I wanted to bring art to people.
So I took the job at Oakland University, and immediately became interested in Detroit as a cultural center. I asked myself what I could do to enhance Detroit. Of course, my belief was that there should be an opera company in a major city. And I’ll tell you: I got a lot of major pushback from people! They’d look at me and say, “But Detroit is a blue-collar town.”
You can be a blue-collar person and like opera! I grew up in a blue-collar family — and I love opera. You don’t have to be of a certain economic level to decide that opera is valid for you.
So, I started a program called Overture to Opera, in which I would produce scenes from operas. I would cast the wonderful local singers who otherwise had limited opportunities; they were studying at Wayne State University or the University of Michigan, and I wondered where they were going to take their talent. Where could they nurture it? We started taking this program to community centers — every year, I took it to The War Memorial and area schools. This was all throughout the 1960s. Then, in 1970, I thought it was time to do a full-length opera, and to create the beginnings of an opera company.
The first full opera I did in Detroit was at the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was The Barber of Seville. At that time, I also began to put together a committee of interested citizens, and by 1971 we established Michigan Opera Theatre. I also opened Music Hall, which had been closed for years.
Did you get a lot of pushback on that, too?
All the time. At that time — it was following the riots in 1967 — the city was kind of decimated. People had left for the suburbs, and doing something in Detroit was considered crazy.
Twenty-five years later you opened the Detroit Opera House. How can you contrast the pushback you experienced between starting something new in 1971 compared to 1996?
In 1971, the pushback was about the very creation of something that would be an opera company. People asked, “Why are you doing that? Nobody is going to come to Detroit.” I said, “I think they will. It’s where people should come. Unless we try, we won’t know!”
“I can’t think of any better way to promote diversity than to make sure your work reflects all the dimensions of a community.”
Dr. David DiChiera
Do you consider yourself an arts leader?
(Laughing) I guess. What is an arts leader?
Maybe that’s the better question! But did Did you ever have a realization that you were doing the work of arts leadership?
Yes. I always knew that if one has a vision of what could be, and one is committed to and passionate about it, people will follow. Certain friends who were dedicated to Detroit opera would say to some of their corporate connections, “We really want you to support David’s project.” And I would always tell them that it’s not my project: it’s an opera company. A friend once replied, “I know. But people follow people. They don’t follow a concept.” I accepted that, as uncomfortable as it was. Concepts don’t move people; people move people. People respond to people. That has been my career.
The War Memorial is a proud partner of MOT.
And for a long time!
We’ve been working hard to foster and support the arts! Besides being the top opera company in the state, what do you consider to be MOT’s most important role in furthering arts and culture in the Midwest?
I see it on many different levels. First, it’s important to revitalize a community. We talk about Detroit, but Detroit is more than just Detroit-proper. It’s important that a cultural institution goes beyond its borders.
The next thing — and this has been so important for me from the very outset — is to promote diversity. Art is not about one certain group of people. It’s about everybody. It’s an amazing way to bring people together, people of all walks of life and backgrounds. When staging a play or opera, you bring people together for a common project; they unite together to achieve something. I can’t think of any better way to promote diversity than to make sure your work reflects all the dimensions of a community.
What new and exciting things can arts and culture help bring to Detroit?
I think there are some interesting trends happening in the arts. It’s very exciting to observe. There has been a new understanding that large-scale concert productions are only one aspect of the performing arts. The Opera House is here to present wonderful things, but it’s equally important to take the art into the community, in as many ways as possible. Present art where young people hang out. Have a drink with them. And at some point, just get up and sing an aria! People will be drawn-in and excited. Suddenly, they’ll have come face-to-face with an opera singer!
What you have done with the MOT Studio Artists — launching a program to build young opera singers’ careers — is absolutely brilliant.
Thank you – and they come to The War Memorial! It’s so wonderful when we can come to your place.
Beyond bringing it into the broader community, do you feel any other responsibility to foster arts and culture?
We have to give young musicians opportunities in all kinds of environments, not just big stages. Smaller venues provide wonderful occasion for singers to interact with audiences. The audience, in turn, feels totally at home, and gains a tremendous sense of getting to know the singer as an artist. Then, when they attend the opera, they’ve met the performer. It fosters a different dynamic of being there!
You’ve done some remarkable and challenging projects throughout your career — particular of late has been Kevin Puts’s Silent Night and William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge. What is your approach to selecting projects that seem to challenge us as individuals, as a culture, a society?
When putting a season together, you want to appeal to your audience — so I’ll select operas that are very popular, like Carmen and Madam Butterfly. But then, you also want something that people don’t really know; maybe you think of something more contemporary. You have to give people what is well known, then you can carefully feed them both contemporary and unusual operas.
About four years ago, I started Opera of Our Time. Each year, my goal was to present a contemporary work that reflects our time. I started with A View from the Bridge, and afterward, we did Frida.
The exciting thing about being an impresario — or whatever! — is to find a series of works that have diversity. I don’t mean with people, but with the programming itself, so it reflects a kind of overview of the whole world of opera. I often wish we had six operas per season, rather than four. When you have four operas, the challenge is greater. You have to link it from season to season.
A few years ago, I programmed Handel’s Julius Caesar. We had never really done a Baroque opera. It was challenging, because my whole background, musicologically, is Baroque opera, and I never felt I could do it because it’s harder to sell. But we performed Julius Caesar, and anchored it with more mainstream operas. I still have a list, and if I wasn’t retiring, I would continue to program many different operas.
Without a doubt, you have created a legacy in Detroit. As I’ve often noted with people of greatness, they don’t go into retirement; they retire to something. What’s next?
(Laughing) So what am I retiring to?
Well, first of all, I am beginning to write a book. I’ve found that the evolution of my opera company, and ultimately the Detroit Opera House, really mirrors the history of the city.
I was here working in the 1960s — so it’s half a century! Much has evolved, not only in our cultural world, but in the city itself. And I think there’s a marriage between the culture and history of the city that gives perspective to its problems — from the riots of 1967 to the recent bankruptcy, and so on. Throughout all of that, the cultural life of the city has remained strong. A city without culture has some real challenges, because Culture holds things together. It creates a sense of sharing. What else is there that people can feel that way about?
I think that the interesting thing, for me, is to look at the city and its history, and to simultaneously look at the cultural institutions to see how they survived, and what role they had in keeping the city alive. The city is a living organism, and it has gone through a lot. I think it’s in a very good place right now.
They say that history is foretelling. If we look back to when Detroit was a city of unbelievable greatness, and compare that to how things are changing now, despite all the challenges, we gain a very interesting view, both politically and structurally.
Yes, I think so. Because, through it all, cultural institutions survived, and they helped revitalize the city. They also reflect what is out there — they kind of bleed culture around themselves. And we mustn’t lose the history in that.
Take Music Hall, for example. When you enter the lobby that joins the theater, there is a side door that accesses a separate stairway leading up to the mezzanine. And that was for African Americans.
Our scars don’t go away.
No, they’re there. But look where we are now.
Do you have an opera — or even a single aria — that remains your favorite?
Well, that’s always difficult — there are so many beautiful works! But one that I think the public can easily relate to is O Mio Babbino Caro, from Gianni Schicchi by Puccini.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to our readers in Grosse Pointe and the surrounding communities?
I have treasured my opportunities to interact with the community — to meet people and to provide whatever I could in terms of their cultural experiences. I’ve met a lot of people throughout the area, and I’ve had long relationships in Grosse Pointe particularly.
I’ve always known I wanted to achieve, and what I wanted to give to a community. But at the same time, I’ve really loved the personal relationships with people from the community. Because if you don’t have relationships with people, it’s not even fun. That’s why, when I visit The War Memorial, a bunch of people will say to me, “Oh, I remember when you used to bring Overture to Opera here!”
Without the opportunity to connect with people, I think I’d be bored — even with the arts. The arts are a communal thing. When you’re presenting something to a community, it’s very exciting to know that community because it truly is sharing something. It’s the audience that makes what we do come alive.
Michigan Opera Theatre
has launched their new blog series, DiChiera DiConstructed —
a monthly blog featuring different aspects of the career of Dr. DiChiera, as he transitions to Artistic Director Emeritus in May.
Upcoming Events at MOT
The Girl of the Golden West
April 1–9, 2017
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini
Premiered in New York, 1910
Sung in Italian with projected English translations
May 13–21, 2017
Music by David DiChiera
Libretto by Bernard Uzan, after Edmond Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac
Premiered in Detroit, 2007
Sung in French with projected English translations
DiChiera Grand Salute Performance and Bravo Salute After Party
May 19, 2017
The evening will begin with the DiChiera Grand Salute reception and star-studded tribute performance honoring Dr. DiChiera and his legacy, followed by the Bravo Salute After Party featuring food, drinks, music, and dancing, inside our historic Detroit Opera House. Sponsored by MGM Grand Detroit.