Howes: Trailblazer. Risk taker. Fundraising phenom — MOT's DiChiera did it all

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In a town built on entrepreneurial innovation, David DiChiera stood alone.

He didn’t create an automaker that put the world on wheels or build the nation's No. 1 mortgage lender. The impresario who died late Tuesday at 83 realized a vision to bring opera, arguably today’s least accessible art form, and its own house to work-a-day Detroit long before just about anyone dared to bet on America's poorest major city.

Michigan Opera Theatre founder David DiChiera, inside the Detroit Opera House two years ago, died Tuesday. He was 83.

When DiChiera and his usual assemblage of opera superstars opened the Detroit Opera House in 1996, there was no Comerica Park and no Ford Field. The global financial crisis had yet to push his own Michigan Opera Theatre to the brink of collapse. City Hall corruption and the ignominy of Chapter 9 bankruptcy still loomed for Detroit, precursors to the rush of reinvestment proving just how visionary DiChiera turned out to be.

“In the darkest days, he always had confidence,” said Peter Remington, a prominent fund-raising consultant who first met DiChiera nearly 40 years ago. “He just had a presence that I don’t see in this town. To him, opera was this amazing vehicle of expression. He wanted to use it as a symbol of the importance of culture … to reincarnate the city.”

More:David DiChiera, a cultural visionary who ‘loved opera and loved Detroit’

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In that, he succeeded, confounding the smart money set. Ask around, and you'll find more than a few retired executives who recall chats with DiChiera about his vision. He wanted to transform the dilapidated Capitol Theatre into Detroit's opera house, an undertaking that would make his beloved MOT one of the comparatively few opera companies in the country to own its own house.

Dame Joan Sutherland and legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti headlined the gala opening, reminders of just how respected Detroit's opera guy was in the genre's rarified circles — and just how much he accomplished by draining the orchestra pit, patching the ceiling and shaping a European-style opera house from a theater born amid the Roaring '20s.

Visionary? Pioneer? Trailblazer? Fundraising powerhouse? DiChiera was all those, an amalgam of artistry, equality and financial savvy most often realized in the productions on stage and the singers he cast in them.

Here was a guy born of Italian descent in McKeesport, Pa., by way of Los Angeles, who recognized the unique responsibility — and opportunity — of building an opera company in Detroit, one of the nation's most prominent (and most troubled) minority-majority cities. His penchant for casting rising African-American opera stars became legend, chiefly because it was real and repeatedly prescient.

In the hours after his death, diva Kathleen Battle, a product of gritty Portsmouth, Ohio, e-mailed The Detroit News to call DiChiera "a gift to the artistic world" who has "been in my life from the earliest days," thanks to casting her in 1977 as Pamina in Mozart's "Magic Flute," among other roles.

He hired mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves to star in "Margaret Garner," an opera based on author Toni Morrison's book "Beloved" — casting and repertoire decisions that did not go unnoticed among aspiring singers looking for diversity in thought and deed inside American opera companies.

Margaret Garner "had a predominantly black cast so my perspective of the company was of course hugely positive and that it was a company committed to telling diverse stories," mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, a former member of MOT Studio's Resident Artists Program, said in a Facebook interview from her base in Antwerp, Belgium. 

"MOT felt wonderfully inclusive to me under his leadership," she wrote of DiChiera. "Underneath the warm smile, one always knew there was a shrewd businessman or else the company would not have survived through so many tumultuous times. But I, fortunately, never gave him reason to see anything but his warm, welcoming smile."

He could use the smile to great effect, wresting donations from deep-pocketed patrons at just the right time. To build his opera house that would be theirs, too. To avert a debt crisis that threatened to kill MOT in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

To fund opera seasons balanced between popular old worthies and new works seldom performed. Cases in point: DiChiera cast "The Passenger," an opera by a Polish composer, Mieczysław Weinberg, partly set in the Auschwitz concentration camp. And Kevin Puts' "Silent Night," an opera derived from a French film depicting a Christmas Eve cease-fire on the western front in 1914.

And to draw superstars to the opera house who otherwise probably would no longer grace its stage. In 2015, soprano Deborah Voigt, renowned for her mastery of Wagnerian opera, fulfilled an old promise to DiChiera and made her MOT debut in the lead role of Lehar's "The Merry Widow." The next year prima ballerina Misty Copeland and American Ballet Theater danced "Sleeping Beauty."

"First and foremost, David was an artist," said Matt Simoncini, an MOT board member and former CEO of Southfield-based Lear Corp. "There's a big contingent that wasn't necessarily opera lovers, but lovers of David. The way to honor him is to stay involved ... raise money and to give."

Joanne Danto first met DiChiera when she was 17. He hired her to dance in an MOT production of "La Traviata" and, in the early 1980s, Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," starring Imogene Coca. And he scheduled some of the world's leading dance companies — Russia's Kirov and Bolshoi, Spain's Barcelona Ballet, New York's Joffrey and American Ballet Theater.

"He has been a life-preserver for arts in the city," said Danto, who visited DiChiera frequently as he battled pancreatic cancer. "He kept saying, 'I have so much more to do. I'm not finished. I'm not ready.' He has really connected the dots. The fact that he loved diversity brought so many people together."

At one of those visits a few weeks ago, DiChiera mentioned Renée Fleming, a headlining soprano featured at MOT's opening gala at the end of the month. She wrote him a note years ago asking if she could audition for him. Didn't happen, and Fleming rocketed to a stellar career with New York's Metropolitan Opera and other top-shelf companies.

"I kept it," Danto remembers DiChiera saying. "I want to give it to her when she comes." RIP.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM