Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and raised in Los Angeles, California, David DiChiera moved to suburban Detroit in 1962 to become a professor and ultimately Chairman of Music at Oakland University. His work at the university laid the foundation for him to create Michigan’s own professional opera company, Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), in 1971. From 1979 to 1983, while president of Opera America, DiChiera spearheaded a major project to develop innovative methods of funding new American musical theater works, and also began an initiative to support companies in efforts to reach previously underserved segments of the population. In addition to running MOT, DiChiera directed the Dayton Opera Association for more than 10 years. In 1985, he also founded Opera Pacific in Orange County, California, becoming the only general director in the nation to have founded and led two opera companies in a unique collaboration.
In 1996, DiChiera devoted his full efforts to his mission of creating an opera house for Detroit. On MOT’s 25th anniversary in April 1996, Joan Sutherland cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the Detroit Opera House, making MOT one of only a handful of American opera companies to own its home.
Throughout its history, MOT has been at the forefront of nurturing the careers of leading African-American artists. In his desire to present an opera representative of the local community, DiChiera commissioned Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner, an opera based on a fugitive slave story in pre-Civil War America, which became the first world premiere on the Detroit Opera House stage in 2005.
As a composer, DiChiera’s music continues to receive critical acclaim. Among his works, Four Sonnets, with verses by Edna St. Vincent Millay for soprano and piano, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and has since been widely performed. In October 2007, his opera Cyrano received its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House and was later successfully presented by Opera Company of Philadelphia and at Florida Grand Opera in 2011.
In October 2010, DiChiera was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with their Opera Honors Award, our nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in opera. In 2013, he was named the Kresge Eminent Artist by The Kresge Foundation.
At the behest of the President of Italy, in 2016 DiChiera received the ￼￼Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Ordine al merito della Repubblica Italiana) in recognition of his “lifelong commitment to the dissemination of the Italian language and culture and his dynamic promotion of Italian opera through the world renowned Michigan Opera Theatre.” The Order of Merit is the highest honor bestowed by Italy.
In June 2017, DiChiera transitioned to Artistic Director Emeritus, where he continued to be a champion for MOT in the community and a mentor to Michigan Opera Theatre Studio Artists. To mark the occasion, MOT presented Cyrano once more and hosted the DiChiera Grand Salute, a concert featuring world-renowned performers paying tribute to DiChiera and the impact he has had on their careers. The performers included singers Christine Goerke and Denyce Graves, as well as American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Veronika Part. It also featured presentations from arts and civic leaders, including former Senator for Michigan Carl Levin. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer made a special presentation to reveal the theatre’s name would be expanded to become the Detroit Opera House | David DiChiera Center for the Performing Arts.
In retirement, DiChiera focused on composing and writing a memoir about his experience watching Detroit change throughout his career. He died of pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2018 with a grand funeral held at the Detroit Opera House on September 21, 2018.
The fourth and final part of our blog series, “DiChiera DiConstructed,” exploring different aspects David DiChiera’s career.