Greek-inspired ‘Elektra’ opens Michigan Opera Theatre season; ‘Madame Butterfly’ follows. Three more operas in store, including ‘Frida,’ never performed in Detroit before.


It’s a drab, showery September morning in downtown Detroit, but David DiChiera is exuding nothing but sunshine from his office in the Detroit Opera House.

And why not? DiChiera, founder and artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), has a right to feel cheery about a season with two company premieres and the return to a five-opera season.

Plus, the administrative and financial burdens of running an opera house are off his shoulders. Earlier this year, DiChiera, who founded MOT in 1971 and served as general director for 43 years, handed over those reins to Wayne S. Brown. DiChiera became artistic director, a position in which he can concentrate on choosing and casting operas.

“The transition has allowed me to travel a lot more this summer, hear more operas, hold more auditions and just keep up with the world of opera,” he says.

In 2007-2008, MOT reduced its offerings from five to four operas, but a rosier financial picture has inspired the company to return to five for 2014-15.

The season kicks off with the dramatically searing “Elektra” (Oct. 18-26) by Richard Strauss. The 1909 opera is a first for MOT. Based on the Greek myth of Elektra’s obsessive vengeance for the death of her father, Agamemnon, “Elektra” calls for a soprano with a titanic voice and Olympic endurance.

“There’s hardly any time when she isn’t on the stage, and most of that time, she’s singing,” DiChiera says. Tackling the role is American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, whose voice can shake the heavens.

But “Elektra” also places big demands on the orchestra. The thorny score, which flirts with atonality, is complex and filled with chromaticism. DiChiera says he’ll beef up the orchestra with additional players. They’ll be led by MOT’s most consistent guest conductor, Steven Mercurio. Another operatic heavyweight in the production is Canadian tenor Richard Margison, singing Aegisth. Goerke will appear in all four performances.

Antithetical in mood is a tender chestnut that never grows stale: Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” (Nov. 15-23), teeming with gorgeous melodies such as “Un bel dì” and the Humming Chorus. Two sopranos will alternate in the title role: Inna Los, who hails from Moldavia, and Italy’s Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi. If the second name has a familiar ring, it’s because she sang a triumphant Liù in last season’s MOT closer, “Turandot.”

‘Frida’ gets local premiere

Next up is a work that blurs the boundaries between musical theater and opera: Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s “Frida” (March 7-28), based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She was married to artist Diego Rivera, famous here for executing the “Detroit Industry” frescoes in the early 1930s at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The 1991 opera, which has never been performed here, will coincide with the DIA exhibit “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” which opens March 15.

“Frida,” however, won’t be performed at the Detroit Opera House. Instead, MOT is taking its show on the road — in the spirit of artistic regionalism. It will travel to a trio of locations in three counties: the Macomb Center for Performing Arts in Clinton Township, the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield Township and the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA. The idea, DiChiera says, is to expose opera to audiences that might not normally attend a performance — and to possibly draw them to the Detroit Opera House in the future.

Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo takes on the title role, and if the fiery excerpt she performed at a late-August press conference at the Macomb Center is any indication, she’ll turn in a commanding interpretation. Mexican-born bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera will sing the part of Diego Rivera.

Finding the pair wasn’t a piece of cake for DiChiera, who auditioned several singers.

“This is an opera that needed Latino singers — that kind of authenticity,” he says. But DiChiera says the two performers he finally settled on are “just right.” The colorful score, he says, is infused with Mexican music and contains a fair amount of spoken dialogue.

Well-known closers

Changing musical and dramatic gears, MOT will present Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” (April 11-19) to open the spring season. In the title role is a soprano with worldwide recognition: Deborah Voigt.

“I’ve known Debbie since my days at Opera Pacific in Orange County, Calif.,” DiChiera says. “Back then, I auditioned her before her career exploded. Years later when we met in Washington, D.C., I said, ‘Debbie, you’ve never sung for us in Detroit; what would you like to sing?’ ”

Voigt’s choice was a bit unexpected, considering she’s known for taking on the big-gun roles in Wagner and Strauss operas. The American dramatic soprano opted for the Viennese bon-bon “The Merry Widow.”

“We’ll see if I can make that happen,” DiChiera recalls saying. He did — and Voigt will sing in all performances.

The season closes with Gounod’s evergreen “Faust” (May 9-17). The part of Marguerite will be sung by someone well-known in these parts: Bloomfield Hills native and U-M grad Caitlin Lynch, whose star has been on the rise. But DiChiera says he didn’t cast her in the role for sentimental reasons.

“She’s part of our environment, but that’s not why I hired her; she’s also very good,” he says. “She’s right for Marguerite because she’s got the flexibility in her voice, but she also has the power, particularly for the final scene.”

Russell Thomas, whom DiChiera calls “a wonderful tenor,” will sing Faust.

DiChiera pulled a rabbit out from his hat for the Sunday matinee performance of “Faust.” That single performance will feature David Miller, of Il Divo fame, in the title role. His wife, soprano Sarah Joy Miller (part of the Three Graces singing group), who also made a splash in the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera “Anna Nicole,” will sing opposite him as Marguerite.

In a season as fresh and varied as this, no one can accuse MOT of singing the same old tune.

George Bulanda is a freelance writer.

Michigan Opera Theatre

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets $25-$128

(313) 237-SING

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