'Cultural giant' DiChiera remembered for leaving Detroit legacy

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — In a glorious opera hall bearing his imprint and his name, Michigan Opera Theatre founder David DiChiera was remembered Friday as "one of the greatest cultural giants in the history of Detroit."

So said Mayor Mike Duggan — who also said he was grateful to DiChiera for being "nuttier than me."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan looks on as his wife, Lori Maher, takes to the microphone, speaking of her relationship with David DiChiera and how he introduced opera to her.

DiChiera, 83, died Tuesday night at his home near Detroit Golf Club after a 17-month duel with pancreatic cancer. He is to be interred in a private ceremony Saturday at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.

With fond remembrances and appropriately stunning music, including a selection from his own opera, "Cyrano," DiChiera was celebrated across two hours at the Detroit Opera House — or more formally, since last year, the Detroit Opera House at the David DiChiera Center for the Performing Arts.

Stagehands served as pallbearers when his burnished casket arrived Friday morning, and they escorted him past a line of ushers and staff members. Bedecked with flowers, it stood in front of a stage holding a podium, a grand piano, and a distinguished history of opera, dance and musical theater. A spotlight shone on DiChiera's favorite box in the balcony, draped in black.

Duggan recalled spending time with DiChiera in 1991, when he was the deputy Wayne County executive trying to build Comerica Park north of Madison Street and DiChiera was south of it, restoring the rotting shell of the former Capitol Theatre.

Detroit Tigers president Bo Schembechler, who had pictured a stadium bunkered by 12,000 fenced-off parking spaces, had dismissed the site as "just Duggan's nutty idea."

Duggan said that after a guided tour of the theater — described by DiChiera later as "Berlin 1945. The orchestra pit was a swimming pool" — he told his host he was grateful for the excursion. As Duggan explained, he now knew he wasn't the most unhinged person on the block.

The theater reopened in 1996, four years ahead of the ballpark.

It was a tribute, speakers said Friday, to both vision and persistence. The MOT was "not just his job," his daughter, Cristina, said. "It was his passion, who he was."

Moving in the opposite direction of the white flight that helped decimate Detroit, DiChiera founded the company in 1971 and based it at the Music Hall.

Throughout his tenure, he emphasized casting minorities in key operatic roles, recognizing ahead of his peers that it was talent and not skin tone that sold a story.

Appropriately, African-American vocalists Mark Rucker ("Deep River") and Roderick Dixon ("Somewhere") were among the performers in a program that combined opera with another of DiChiera's loves, musical theater.

DiChiera "did not think of inclusivity," said longtime friend and past board member Gary Wasserman. "He simply was inclusive."

DiChiera was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and raised largely in Los Angeles, where he earned a doctorate in musicology from UCLA. He turned down jobs at Columbia and the University of California-Berkeley to become a music professor in 1962 at what became Oakland University, where he advanced to chairman of the department.

At OU, he explained, "I could pretty much do what I wanted" — including create the MOT and launch a career that kept him in Michigan, but later saw him direct opera companies in Dayton, Ohio, and Orange County, California.

Along the way, he won the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, a Kresge Foundation designation as an Eminent Artist, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment of the Arts.

He also won the affection of everyone from ushers to renowned performers.

Vince and Mary Rehfeld of Farmington Hills, married for 16 years, joined a gathering of perhaps 1,000 people at the hall where they met as staff ushers.

DiChiera "was a gentleman," she said. "He treated you like family. He made you feel important."

Mary CallaghanLynch, the founder of the Motor City Lyric Opera, sang more than 25 roles for DiChiera, starting with Fanchon in "Naughty Marietta" in 1976.

"There are a lot of great men," said Lynch of Bloomfield Hills, "but not all of them are kind men."

Her daughter, globe-traveling soprano Caitlin Lynch, sang "Vissi D'Arte" from Puccini's "Tosca" shortly after Duggan spoke.

"I lived for my art, I lived for love," it begins. "I never did harm to a living soul."


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn