Our blog series “DiChiera DiConstructed” concludes, after four months exploring the career and legacy of our founder and artistic director, Dr. David DiChiera. We have examined his work as impresario, composer and a champion of diversity in the art. We end our series highlighting DiChiera's work for and dedication to a city he loves, Detroit, and its everlasting impact.
Part 4: The Civic Leader
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in California, Detroit, Michigan was not a prime destination for Michigan Opera Theatre Founder and Artistic Director David DiChiera. Upon receiving his doctorate from UCLA in 1962, the young academic envisioned a career on the east or west coast and began receiving job offers from prestigious universities to teach.
But after years spent researching 18th-century opera, DiChiera was looking for something different. When Oakland University Chancellor Woody Varner offered him the opportunity to build their School of Music, DiChiera was intrigued. While hesitant to move to an unknown town, Varner gave him a different perspective.
“He said, ‘You know, we’re new here, and there’s everything to be done. If you’re the kind of person that likes to build programs, this might be the place for you,’” DiChiera said. “And I thought, he’s probably right, I don’t want to go to some well-known college and then just teach courses on 18th-century opera or the history of operas. I want to do more.”
With that, DiChiera moved to Southeast Michigan, bringing a building mentality that would set the course for the rest of his life.
He arrived at Oakland University in 1962, becoming chairman of their Department of Music after three years. While there, he became involved in the Detroit Grand Opera Association, the community organization that brought the Metropolitan Opera to Detroit every year. DiChiera became part of their Overture to Opera outreach program, producing opera scenes and eventually one-act operas in schools.
Soon, the drive to build returned.
“Within a short period of time…I thought, ‘This needs to be the beginning of an opera company’,” he said.
After about a decade steadily growing the scale of Overture’s opera performances, DiChiera was ready, but first, he needed a location. David knew it had to be downtown, but in 1971 – four years after the Detroit rebellion – people were leaving the city in droves. His supporters thought he was crazy to build his opera company in the city.
“I just kept saying, ‘We’re doing it because this is a great city, and a great city needs to have all of its cultural institutions,’” he said. “That was the way I simply forged ahead and ignored the naysayers.”
DiChiera found his first home in Music Hall, a vacant theater on Madison Avenue downtown. The area had become desolate, but DiChiera was committed to investing in its redevelopment. When slated for demolition, he partnered with the Kresge Foundation and Detroit Renaissance to form the Musical Hall Center for the Performing Arts, an official non-profit to protect the building.
For the next 20+ years, MOT performed in theaters throughout the city, including Music Hall, the Masonic Temple and the Fisher Theatre. But in the late 80s, with plans to produce more operas on a grand scale, DiChiera decided MOT needed a permanent home with the facilities to support large productions. Enter Grand Circus Theater, a 1922 movie palace on Detroit’s Broadway Street downtown. The area had become forlorn, replete with abandoned buildings and overgrown lots with almost zero foot traffic. The building, originally called Capitol Theater, had been abandoned for four years and in bad shape. Holes in the roof had led to significant water damage, leaving both the lower level men’s room and orchestra pit completely submerged. Paint was cracked, plaster lay everywhere and the old theater’s green upholstered seats were covered in mold.
But the building was sound, and it was huge, once claiming to be the fifth largest theater in the world. Despite the damage, it still had its opera-house-style interior and excellent acoustics. DiChiera knew he had found his home.
MOT purchased the building in 1988, and despite the significant amount of work to be done, momentum for the project grew, with backing from community leaders, corporations and private donors offering their support. At a press conference in 1991, famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti pledged to return to perform for the building’s opening night.
On April 21, 1996 Pavarotti made good on his promise, opening up the house with two pieces: “Lamento di Federico” from L’arlesiana and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. Renowned soprano Joan Sutherland cut the ribbon, declaring the Detroit Opera House “open and ready for music.” MOT produced La bohème, its first full-length opera, that spring.
Since it’s opening, the Detroit Opera House has produced nearly 100 operas, including two world premieres: Margaret Garner in 2005 and Cyrano in 2007. It has presented more than 80 dance productions, including performances from world-renowned dance companies American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Kirov Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet.
Music Hall, though no longer operated by MOT, has thrived to become a leading center of multicultural entertainment in the city.
The once-desolate neighborhood has transformed into Detroit’s thriving entertainment district. The area now includes five restored theaters and two major league stadiums, with a third on the way. The district also includes numerous restaurants, residences and businesses, making it one of the most flourishing neighborhoods in the city.
Detroit as a whole continues to see a rapid revitalization with new development expanding every day.
The once 18th-century opera scholar from Pennsylvania had accomplished what he had set out to do: to build something.
“My whole approach to life is, if I believe that something should be done, that I will be able to convince people to believe with me,” DiChiera said. “Things happen when an individual is committed to it.”
~By Erica Hobbs
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The fourth and final part of our blog series, “DiChiera DiConstructed,” exploring different aspects David DiChiera’s career.