Encore Michigan

DiChiera steps down from MOT on a definite high note

Feature May 24, 2017

DETROIT, Mich.–Michigan Opera Theatre’s artistic director David DiChiera is stepping down after founding the opera company in the 1970s and serving as artistic director for decades.

Recently, he also disclosed that he has an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. He spent some time with EncoreMichigan’s publisher David Kiley talking about his career and his opera, Cyrano, jus staged wonderfully a The Detroit Opera House, the restoration of which he led.

What in the Cyrano story spoke to you enough to want to write the opera.

What I loved about the character is that he had both an internal and external life. And I think we all have that really. That appealed to me. Cyrano outwardly was a swordsman, a poet, a fighter actually. He was always defending people who were being wronged. He was taking on people of power and people who ere taking advantage of weaker people. And that was interesting to me, because people were impressed with him. He made a lot of friends, but he also made a lot of enemies when he would go into defender role.But then there was that internal life. That life that felt inadequate. The life that was focused on his love for Roxanne that he did not feel worthy of because of his outward appearance, specifically his large nose. That I found really interesting. I tried in my music to give voice to both aspects of his personality. The external, aggressive, and the internal that was much more painful. He feels that he could never be really loved because of his physical attributes.

A scene from DiChiera’s Cyrano, which just had is revival at MOT in his honor.

What do you think is the most significant accomplishment at MOT. When I go to a production at The Opera House, I am always struck by all the work that went Into building the company and the restoration of the building.

I am very proud of building it up from scratch, the company. That is a legacy I am very proud of. I hope it lasts decades to come after my involvement is over. Opera can provide such inspiration for people. And then the other thing I am very proud of is the Opera House itself. I think its one of the finest acoustic houses in the country. The singers who perform love it. Though it is not a small house, it feels intimate to them, and the acoustics are very much appreciated. They feel they can project and hear themselves. And it’s a great house for dancers too.

Cyrano is the only opera that you have written?

Well, I wrote a children’s opera called Rumpelstiltskin with my former wife, Karen. And those get performed quite often, so I am proud of that one as well.

Do you consider the production of Cyrano as the pinnacle of your career. I know that when you see your own work performed, there is nothing quite like it.

I can’t deny that dimension of enormous pride. When we opened Cyrano, it was very moving for me. To see my work and experience it that way.

Taking Cyrano out, are there single works that you have produced that are your favorites or the ones you feel were turning points with MOT?

There are a few. When I presented there world premier of Margaret Garner [The opera is loosely based on actual events in the life of runaway slave Margaret Garner, and it premiered  on 7 May 2005 at the Detroit Opera House.] Not only because of being able to work with Toni Morrison on the libretto, but also because I saw it as a gift to the Opera House and to the Detroit metro community. To present an opera that honors the African-American community. That is one of the things I am most proud of. Other than that were some of the productions where I was able to bring in some of the very best performers. I think of operas I produced with and for Joan Sutherland, such as Norma.

And I love that we did things that people did not expect, like staging an opera with Andrea Bocelli. We did Massenet’s Werther, which was not a popular choice. I always wanted to do it, but I also knew we wouldn’t get any audiences for it. But I realized if we could get Bocelli, we would sell out the house and we did. And it was the first full-length opera he had performed in the U.S. I had to get Bocelli, otherwise I think many people would have thought it was an opera about Werther candy.

The first time I interviewed you was around 2010 or 2011, and there was a serious fund drive on. And I had the nerve t suggest an idea that you might get Chrysler to underwrite an opera that Eminem would be commissioned to write based on his story 9 Mile. And I was surprised that you thought it was a pretty good idea.

I remember that. I still think it’s a great idea and I will pass it on to my successor. But it would be great idea that would fill the house.

Are there some out of the box ideas that you didn’t get to do.

Some operas I would love to do that I didn’t because I knew they would struggle too hard for audience. One like that is Wozzeck, which was the first opera written by the Austrian composer Alban Berg [The plot depicts the everyday life of soldiers and the townspeople of a rural German-speaking town, but explores militarism, callousness, social exploitation and casual sadism that characterized the German military culture of the time.] It’s a Masterwork, but it is not an easy work for traditional audiences. Some of it is not harmonic, and uses vocal lines that are not traditional.

There is a long list of such operas. I’d love to do Tristan and Isolde. Wagner can be tough to do in Detroit. You have to know your audiences. There are so many great operas that should be done, but life is short.

Are you worried about bringing new and younger patrons to the opera. There seems to be an abundance of patrons over 55.

I believe there are more younger people coming to the opera. I believe opera is an art form that is always in transition and is always reinventing itself. This is an art form that that can be performed in many places and many formats. I find we have done some of that. I love it when we have new singers who pop up in a bar and start singing an aria. There are groups who do this to try and bring opera to new audiences. And it is amazing the response you get. They take notice and marvel at the spectacular voices. Opera is not just something that should just be here at The Opera House on a big scale. We need to have people out and about singing arias. And you need to sway people to notice that , “Hey, I never knew opera could be like this.”

I’ll tell you something I thought was funny. I was somewhere the other day. And there was a woman sitting there, and the music that was playing in the room was bothering her, and I heard her say, “Oh I don’t like that opera stuff.” But it wasn’t opera. It was from The Nutcracker. “Oh I hate all this opera,” she said. What that said to me is that many people think of opera or classical music as something that is foreign to them because they have not had the experience in a quality way. I thought it was very amusing. I wanted to tell her that it was not an opera, but I didn’t. It was as if opera is responsible for any classical music they don’t like.

What gave you the drive and belief that you could restore The Opera House when you undertook that?

Well, it was difficult. The riots had happened just a few years before. And people were staying away from the city. It was not easy to raise funds. But I thought…well if you don’t do something then people will surely stay away. I acted against what people were mostly thinking. That this was not the time to try and revive opera in Detroit. Over the years, the city has had a lot of ups and downs–bankruptcy, scandal, but it has really come through and I think the city is at the cusp of a tremendous renaissance. You have a lot if young people coming into the city. Educated people with careers. You talk about opera being for mostly older people, but these are the people that are going to inhabit these art forms. Symphony, theater, opera. I wish I was going to be part of that. The next decade is going to be very exciting. I only take pleasure in the fact that I made that happen.