Michigan Opera Theatre gets $5M grant, its biggest ever

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

A $5 million grant from the William Davidson Foundation to the Michigan Opera Theatre, the biggest single gift in its history, will go toward "critical" infrastructure upgrades to make the aging Detroit Opera House more accessible along with artistic programming.

The gift, unveiled Thursday at the MOT's annual board of directors meeting, comes as the opera theater prepares to return to performances inside the Opera House next spring. Those performances will mark the first ones indoors in nearly two years.

"It's a pivotal moment," said Wayne Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre. "And so we just want to express our appreciation (to the William Davidson Foundation) for allowing your support (and) by investing in the work that we do."

A $5 million grant from the William Davidson Foundation to the Michigan Opera Theatre will go toward several infrastructure upgrades at the Detroit Opera House, including an elevator tour to make the building more accessible.

Darin McKeever, president and CEO of the William Davidson Foundation, said the $5 million grant is a way to continue the MOT's story. McKeever said decades ago, David DiChiera, the opera theater's founder, bet on Detroit "when few others were betting on it."

"Now under MOT's leadership, Wayne and (artistic director) Yuval (Sharon), they're setting a new bar for artistic excellence, and creativity for performing arts organizations around the world," said McKeever. "And we think betting on Detroit, as David DiChiera did, and betting on artistic excellence, as we're doing so today, and others are doing today, it requires investment."

A new elevator tower at the Detroit Opera House -- a topping out ceremony for which was held in September -- will provide direct access to all six levels of the building.

The gift is part of a $15 million capital campaign for the MOT that's still in the quiet phase. Approximately $3 million will be put toward significant infrastructure updates to the Opera House, built in 1922, including a new elevator tower that will provide access to all six levels of the building, an upgraded HVAC system, additional ADA-compliant restroom facilities and auditorium upgrades.

Ethan Davidson, William Davidson's son who also chairs the MOT's board, said as fantastic as the Opera House is, the 100-year-old building isn't where it needs to be in terms accessibility. 

"If we're going to talk about community and talk about audience and including everybody, we need to have a more accessible building," said Davidson.

The remaining $2 million, meanwhile, will go toward the MOT's programming and new productions over the next two seasons. Sharon — known for his innovative approach to opera since he arrived roughly a year ago, staging productions in Detroit parking structures and outdoor amphitheaters — will direct "La bohème" in April.

Yuval Sharon, the Michigan Opera Theatre's artistic director, will direct "La Bohème" in April at the Detroit Opera House.

Even in a more traditional setting, "we can still bring with it a spirit of adventure, of inquiry, of thinking about the future of the art form while preserving what we all love about the art form," said Sharon.

After "La bohème," the MOT in May will present a contemporary piece, "The Life and Times of Malcolm X." After the Detroit performances, the same production will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, the Seattle Opera and Opera Omaha.

"It is a pivotal moment for the company, not just because of what what we are going to be presenting to our audiences but we are now also exporting Detroit and the brand of what Detroit opera means across the country in a way that's going to be really significant and seen on a large scale," said Sharon.

The MOT staged "Twilight: Gods" in the opera house's parking structure last year amid COVID-19. In a fitting Detroit touch, Brünnhilde, played by Christine Goerke, made her final exit in a Ford Mustang.

Brown, who noted that the MOT ended the fiscal year on June 30 with a balanced budget, said the Davidson Foundation's grant serves as "an acknowledgment" of Sharon's artistic leadership and "a sense of confidence of the direction that's underway."

"And that's affirming," he said.

Construction has already started some of the infrastructure improvements at the Opera House, including the new elevator tower which should be completed next year along with the bathrooms.