Karen VanderKloot DiChiera, co-founder of Michigan Opera Theatre, has died at age 80

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Karen VanderKloot DiChiera, who co-founded the Michigan Opera Theatre in the early 1970s with her former husband and went on to lead its educational programming for decades, has died after years of complications with Alzheimer's disease. She was 80.

DiChiera played a pivotal role in building the MOT, founding its Department of Education and Community Programs in 1977 which brought opera, improvisation and composition into schools and community centers throughout the state. She also worked with other opera companies across the country to create their own educational programming, such as Opera Pacific and Dayton Opera.

“Ms. DiChiera’s leadership and commitment to Michigan Opera Theatre has been unwavering from the earliest days of our organization,” said Wayne S. Brown, MOT's president and CEO in a statement Tuesday. “She has been instrumental in shaping not only the opera company as an institution, but also the lives of thousands of aspiring young musicians and performers through her work as an arts educator and the founder of MOT’s Department of Community Programs."

Karen Vanderkloot DiChiera was a co-founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971 and led its educational programming for decades.

DiChiera studied composition in the early 1960s with Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan and with David DiChiera, her former husband, who at the time was professor of music and composition at Oakland University. She graduated from Oakland University before she helped to lay the groundwork that led to the founding of MOT in 1971, according to a June blog post from the MOT.

DiChiera also composed several children’s operas and revues with librettist partner Joan Hill. She held composer-in-residence posts with the Birmingham Public Schools and Ludington Middle School in Detroit.

After the MOT moved to the Detroit Opera House in 1996, DiChiera established “Learning at the Opera House” a year later, a program series that provided learning in the arts to more than 1,700 young people and adults.

DiChiera, who was injured in a car accident at 22 that left her with lifelong pain, also was a devoted disability rights activist. In 1979, she formed the Detroit Committee on Disabilities, which led to the installation of ramps, railings and accessible restrooms at the Music Hall, as well as American Sign Language interpretation of MOT’s mainstage and community performances, according to the opera theater.

"Karen not only pioneered important, deeply impactful education programming, but she also established an ethic of inclusion to guide this work,” said Andrea Scobie, MOT’s Director of Education. “Karen recognized that all learners, both children and adults, should be able to access and explore the arts in a personal, meaningful way."

DiChiera is survived by her two daughters and three grandchildren. A public memorial will be held in her honor at a future date. Donations in DiChiera's name can be made to the Michigan Opera Theatre’s Department of Education and Community Programs.