Detroit — If a thank-you note were written to Michigan Opera Theatre founder David DiChiera for his contributions to the cultural life of Detroit, it would quickly grow into a multi-volume letter worthy of a hefty doorstop.
So MOT wisely turned to the language DiChiera understands best — music — to honor the man who helmed the company he started back in 1971. Famous singers, dancers, and political dignitaries took to the Detroit Opera House stage to bid farewell to the outgoing 82-year-old. The stars were out, but make no mistake: DiChiera himself was the brightest light in the galaxy Friday night.
At a reception preceding the concert, pink champagne flowed as the MOT Children’s Chorus delighted patrons with their celestial voices in the Madison Street lobby with selections by Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart, and Bizet.
Throughout the evening, the performers, as well as attendees in the packed auditorium, didn’t merely shower DiChiera with affection, they bathed him in a torrent of love. Billed as “A Grand Salute to David DiChiera,” the concert acknowledged his contributions as an impresario, civic leader, composer, and champion of diversity.
The salute coincides with performances of DiChiera’s opera Cyrano, which premiered at the Detroit Opera House in 2007. The final performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
When DiChiera started mounting operas in Detroit’s Music Hall for the Performing Arts a few years after the riot that tore the city asunder, many concluded he had gone loco. After all, it was in vogue then to abandon Detroit and set up shop in the suburbs.
But DiChiera had a vision. And though some believed he saw things through rose-colored glasses, DiChiera proved them wrong. He took a fledgling company, whipped it into shape over decades of hard work, and, after leading the company’s nomadic existence in several theaters, painstakingly renovated a dilapidated 1922 vaudeville house on Broadway into what’s known today as the opulent Detroit Opera House, MOT’s permanent home since 1996.
On Friday night, video projection screens showed DiChiera in his box, visibly moved by the proceedings. Sometimes he wiped away tears, but mostly he just let the waterworks flow down his cheeks. Opera may be emotional, but there’s nothing quite so dramatic as real life. When Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan decreed that the Detroit Opera House would also now be known as the David DiChiera Performing Arts Center, the crowd erupted into a chorus of bravos, and the impresario could no longer contain himself.
What made the evening bittersweet was the news last month that DiChiera was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he insisted he didn’t want the night turned into what he called “a memorial.” It wasn’t. Rather, it was a celebration on par with the Fourth of July — and there were plenty of vocal fireworks.
Conductors Stephen Lord and Suzanne Mallare Acton took turns on the podium leading the MOT orchestra, and it was gratifying to see these stellar musicians on stage, rather than being hidden in the pit, as they traditionally are.
Highlights included tenor Russell Thomas’ “Cielo e mar,” in which his gleaming top notes were like the sun parting the clouds. Christine Goerke’s titanic voice shook the rafters in a riveting “Entweihte Gotter!” while Denyce Graves’ dusky mezzo-soprano was employed to moving effect in the spiritual “Deep River.” Graves, who in 2005 played the lead role as a fugitive slave in the world premiere of Margaret Garner at the Detroit Opera House, referred to DiChiera as her “dream-maker.”
Tenor Jonathan Boyd and baritone Stephen Powell turned in a tender “Au fond du temple saint,” and no less sweet was “Roxane, adieu,” from DiChiera’s Cyrano, sung by Sarah Joy Miller and Marian Pop. Russell Thomas was paired with baritone Mark Delavan in a darkly intense “Si, pel ciel,” from Verdi’s Otello. Veronika Part danced a lovely dying swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnivalof the Animals, while the MOT Chorus lifted their voices in a stirring “Hymn to the Sun,” from Mascagni’s Iris.
The evening concluded with Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Candide.
That was a fitting farewell, because for 46 years, DiChiera made Detroit’s cultural life grow like a resplendent garden.
For anyone who cares about the arts in this city, it’s their job to see that the garden DiChiera sowed continues to be lovingly tended.
DiChiera’s “Cyrano” will be performed May 20 at 7:30 p.m. and May 21 at 2:30 p.m. at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit. Tickets are $29-$152; michiganopera.org or 313-237-7464.