We are pleased to announce the opening of our new blog series “DiChiera DiConstructed,” a monthly blog featuring different aspects of the career of our founder and artistic director Dr. David DiChiera as he transitions to Artistic Director Emeritus in May. Every month will look back at a different aspect of the “DiChiera Legacy” and a man who dedicated his life to his art and his city.
Part 1: The Impresario
For Michigan Opera Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Dr. David DiChiera, opera is a living, breathing art. In a tradition known for reprising and celebrating great works of the past, DiChiera saw opera as a continual exploration of the human experience, one that should continue to evolve to reflect the present age as well as the diverse cultures in which it resides. He also identified the need to encourage young talent and to support and grow performance spaces to preserve the art form.
Throughout his career, DiChiera has been Founder, General Director and Artistic Director of Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT). He has also been Founder and General Director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, California and Artistic Director of Ohio’s Dayton Opera Association, the only general director to run three opera companies at the same time. He also served as president of OPERA America from 1979-1983.
Throughout all of these positions, DiChiera held true to a vision of opera that serves the people and moves forward with the times.
Championing artists of color, mentoring the next generation of singers and supporting Detroit’s revitalization were priorities for establishing MOT.
“One of the important things is that I wanted an opera company that reflected our city,” he said. “And so, from the very beginning for me, [the operas] were all based on diversity.”
Throughout his time at Michigan Opera Theatre, DiChiera produced a range of diverse operas including Treemonisha, (African-American), Anoush (Armenian), King Roger (Polish), The Passenger (Jewish) and Frida (Mexican), among others. He commissioned and produced the world premiere of Margaret Garner, a pre-Civil War opera based on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” with Morrison herself writing the libretto. Additionally, DiChiera personally nurtured the careers of numerous African-American artists such as Kathleen Battle, native Detroiter Maria Ewing, Leona Mitchell and Vinson Cole.
Throughout the past four decades, DiChiera has dedicated himself to the mentoring and development of young artists, culminating in the establishment of the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio residency program, which provides advanced training and performance opportunities for emerging talent. The program provides five up-and-coming singers opportunities to perform at a range of venues from board meetings to community events to their own full-length opera while receiving master-level industry training and networking. Now in its second year, MOT Studio Artists can be found in Opera Antwerpan, Toledo Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Eugene Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival, among others.
Feeling a great sense of civic duty, DiChiera was determined that Detroit as a major metropolitan city – even one suffering tremendous population loss in the early 70s – had an opera company and one that resided in the city proper as part of its cultural center. His work did more than build an opera company, it created a community that encouraged the development of its surroundings and the establishment of Detroit as a destination. DiChiera saved two theaters: Music Hall in 1971 and Grand Circus Theater, transformed into the modern day Detroit Opera House in 1996. The theaters sparked the growth of the development around them, including the stadiums, businesses, restaurants and residences that make up Detroit’s entertainment district.
“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,’” DiChiera said. “That was the way I simply forged ahead and ignored the naysayers.”
DiChiera’s vision to promote the growth of opera spread beyond his leadership at MOT. When DiChiera started as president of OPERA America in the late 1970s, few new operas were being presented in the United States. Under his leadership, the organization established two programs to encourage the development of new works. “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” encouraged the development of new opera and musical theater. “Opera for a New America” supported companies’ outreach to underserved communities. By the mid-90s, 20-25 new works were consistently being produced by American opera companies.
In 2010, DiChiera received the Opera Honors Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor in the country for achievement in opera. In 2013, he was named a Kresge Eminent Artist by the Kresge Foundation, an honor that recognizes personal achievement and community impact through the arts in Southeast Michigan.
In a career spanning more than nearly five decades, DiChiera has run three opera companies, saved two theaters and created numerous programs that encouraged the growth of the art form to new frontiers and new audiences. As he winds down his tenure, he leaves the next generation of opera leadership a solid foundation on which to continue to build upon.
~By Erica Hobbs
The fourth and final part of our blog series, “DiChiera DiConstructed,” exploring different aspects David DiChiera’s career.