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November 2014
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Midwestern Composer, Impressario, World-Class Opera

Composer and Michigan Opera Theatre founder, David DiChiera

Composer and Michigan Opera Theatre founder, David DiChiera

Saturday at 12:00 pm


David DiChiera did not work his way up through the ranks; he created the ranks. He is a composer and visionary who founded two opera companies; bought a derelict theater (and hosted a formal dinner in it), and is helping to rejuvenate the city of Detroit.

This week’s opera broadcast features his debut as an opera composer, Cyrano, and a broadcast of the company he founded in 1971, the Michigan Opera Theatre.

Mr. DiChiera seems to have a gift for breathing life into big ideas. Cyrano not only had its MOT debut, but has since been produced by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Florida Grand Opera. Mr. DiChiera’s MOT is now one of only a handful of American opera companies to own its own theater; a story that is as colorful as the history of Detroit itself.

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Detroit Opera House’s Great Hall, c. Albert Kahn Associates

Long before the arrival of David DiChiera, the Capitol Theatre was a glamorous downtown movie palace. Built in 1922, the theater preceded the advent of the “talkies,” films with soundtracks. Over the years, it went through many owners, upgrades, and name changes. During the 40s, it was home to a popular, weekly radio series. Later, jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington performed there; and Bill Haley & the Comets introduced Detroit to rock-n-roll.

With technical innovations in cinema, the old movie house stumbled. Detroit’s population flocked to the suburbs, and the palace, like many downtown buildings, fell into disrepair. By the 1970s, the theater was showing second-run feature films, a subgenre called “Blaxploitation” films, and soft-core porn. After a small fire, the theater was shuttered – Detroit was a city in decline; demolition was too costly, and abandonment of buildings became the norm.

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Detroit Opera House

Vandals, harsh winters, and neglect battered the old theater until 1988, when David DiChiera went searching for a permanent home for the MOT. According to historicdetroit.org, Mr. DiChiera looked beyond the house’s “cracking plaster, the large holes in the ceiling leaking water into the building, the debris-covered stairways, the flooded orchestra pit with a piano floating in it, and the rank moldy smell.”

David DiChiera made the gutsy move of hosting an elegant soirée for his capital campaign, right inside the decaying theater. For the event, lighting and temporary flooring had to be installed. According to historian Michael Hauser, “plaster was falling from the ceiling onto people’s plates and in their drinks.” The theater’s plumbing was not functional, and “Mayor (Dennis) Archer and everyone else had to go outside and use Porta-Johns.” But David DiChiera got his wish. The community rallied around the theater’s restoration, and the newly christened Detroit Opera House opened in 1996 with special guests Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland.

This season, general director David DiChiera and Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre offer Elektra with Christine Goerke and Jill Grove (two of the principals of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production), and The Merry Widow starring Deborah Voigt.

Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of David DiChiera’s Cyrano airs on Saturday, November 15 at noon. Cyrano is based upon Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and uses a libretto by veteran director Bernard Uzan.

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Detroit Opera House’s domed ceiling (click to enlarge)

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The Broadway entrance, c. Anthony Barchock (click to enlarge)

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