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David DiChiera, Michigan Opera Theatre, speaks about his upcoming retirement during an interview from his Detroit home.

Michigan Opera Theatre founder is focusing on new production, farewell gala and autobiography instead of illness

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David DiChiera looks great.

The Michigan Opera Theatre founder and artistic director, who retires in June, may be battling pancreatic cancer, but you wouldn’t know that from the cheerful, engaged fellow chatting over his future plans a week ago at the Detroit Opera House.

DiChiera waves off his diagnosis, which was announced last month. The 82-year-old is far more eager to talk “Cyrano,” his opera opening Saturday, and dismisses his illness as more “nonsense” than anything else.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I’m dealing with it and then try to forget it.” He’s started chemotherapy, “but that exhausts you,” DiChiera added, “so I’ve told the hospital I want the month of May off.”

“Cyrano” takes precedence. Small wonder he can’t be bothered to be sick.

A towering cultural figure in Detroit, DiChiera brought opera back to Detroit in 1971.

“It’s been a long journey — 46 years since I founded the company,” DiChiera said. “I was working at Oakland University at the time, but I opened MOT at the Music Hall, which had been closed.”

In 1989, the impresario purchased a wreck of a theater just off Grand Circus Park, with dreams of creating a new opera house in the city. DiChiera cheerfully admits most thought he was off his rocker.

“Oh my god,” he said, “the condition it was in! But you could see the beauty.”

Typically, DiChiera had the last laugh. In 1996, four years before Comerica Park, the elegantly renovated Detroit Opera House opened with appearances by Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland.

The next two weeks are going to be crowded. Not only does “Cyrano” open, but on May 19, his long-planned farewell party, the “DiChiera Grand Salute,” will honor the man with appearances by opera greats Denyce Graves and Christine Goerke.

He can’t resist a joke at his own expense.

“It’s like, ‘We’re getting rid of him — let’s say nice things about him!’ ” DiChiera laughed and added, “No, it’s fine and lovely.”

MOT staged the world premiere of “Cyrano” in 2007. Ten years later, DiChiera’s brought back the same baritone, Marian Pop, to play the heartsick hero with the uncommonly large nose.

DiChiera’s particularly excited at this second MOT production, since he’s had time to make some tweaks, like adding an aria for the tenor.

“I’m interested to see whether those were good changes or not,” he said.

As for retirement itself, to commence in June when he steps into an emeritus role, DiChiera’s bound and determined to finish his autobiography.

“It is an autobiography,” he said, “but I’m focusing mostly on people I’ve worked with — what they were like, whether Luciano Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli. There’s just a whole list. Even people in the film industry like Bette Davis. I did a project with her a number of years ago.”

He laughs again. “She was an experience!”

It may surprise Detroiters to learn how well-known DiChiera is in both the opera and performance worlds, a testament to the notice his achievements in Detroit have won.

Indeed, he said, the famed opera and popular singer Marilyn Horne, who beat pancreatic cancer in 2007, called him recently to boost his spirits.

“Marilyn has had the same thing,” DiChiera said, “and was very anxious to talk to me about it. But you know, I am just not allowing it to cloud my mind. It just doesn’t make sense.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘DiChiera Grand Salute’

May 19

5:30 p.m. Reception

6:30 p.m. Performance (no late seating)

Michigan Opera Theatre

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $59-$150

(313) 237-7464

michiganopera.org

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