DiChiera DiConstructed: The Composer

DrD_ComposingOur blog series “DiChiera DiConstructed” explores different aspects of our founder and artistic director Dr. David DiChiera as he retires to Artistic Director Emeritus in May. Every month will look back at a different aspect of the “DiChiera Legacy” and a man who dedicated his life to his art and his city.

The Composer

When people think of David DiChiera, they think of the man that brought opera to Detroit. But before Michigan Opera Theatre, before the Detroit Opera House, there was David DiChiera, the musician, with a deep-rooted artistic passion of his own.

DiChiera’s journey to music started early as a child learning to play piano in McKeesport, PA. As a young adult, DiChiera studied piano, musicology and composition at UCLA, eventually earning his PhD in 18th-century opera. His philosophy was opera as a living, breathing art form, one reflective of the times in which they exist and also of the communities in which they serve.

As a young academic with a desire to make his own music, DiChiera struggled with the opera environment of his time. Despite his passion for the creation of new works, DiChiera felt his traditional style, which contrasted with the atonal and electronic themes of the 1950s and 60s, would not be welcomed in operatic circles.

“I dreamed of being a concert pianist and expressing my emotions through my own music,” he said. “But it was the 1960s, a time when writing music in any style other than atonal, serial or even electronic was considered irrelevant and redundant in academic circles, so I felt compelled to abandon my muse. There I was, a neo-romantic totally out of step with what was ‘in.’”

Instead, DiChiera pursued other artistic passions that brought opera to the people. From 1962 – 73, he served on the faculty at Oakland University while producing short opera works in Detroit. In 1971, he founded Michigan Opera Theatre, which would become the crux of his life’s work. His impresario career also included establishing Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts; founding Opera Pacific in Orange County, CA; serving as General Director of Dayton Opera; serving as President of OPERA America and the restoration and creation of the Detroit Opera House.

Throughout all these endeavors, DiChiera fought for his artistic vision of opera as a reflective, evolving art form that changed with the times. He championed diversity in opera, presenting new works from different cultures that represented experiences often untold. He nurtured the careers of minority artists and, through OPERA America, created “Opera for a New America” which supported companies’ outreach to underserved communities. In his effort to encourage the development of new works, he created “Opera for the 80s and Beyond,” another initiative through OPERA America that encouraged the development of new opera and musical theater.

But through it all, DiChiera maintained passion for his own music. His work included “Four Sonnets,” music composed to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It included children’s opera, composed with his then-wife Karen DiChiera, as well as numerous smaller compositions. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that the world was ready for DiChiera’s own full-length opera.

“During these decades of intense operatic activity on my part, the secret composer in me observed, with growing interest, a musical environment that now allows composers to draw from all styles and past periods as well as current trends (including popular and ethnic music),” DiChiera said. “With this, I felt that perhaps I could find the courage to return to my own muse without fear of rejection. At last, I felt liberated to write my own opera.”

DiChiera knew his opera would tell a great love story and when director Bernard Uzan suggested Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, he knew he had found it. The play tells the story of Cyrano, a nobleman and poet whose insecurities over his large nose prevent him from pursuing his true love. Instead, he assists his handsome, though less intellectually-inclined rival, Christian, pursue the heart of his beloved Roxanne in a long, frustrating story of delayed passion. For DiChiera, the character of Cyrano reflected his own journey as a musician.

“I was drawn to the character of Cyrano whose exterior life was fearless and outgoing with exciting esprit and panache, but who inside suffered a sense of overwhelming inadequacy which denied him from achieving personal fulfillment,” he said.

After more than eight years of work, Cyrano premiered at the Detroit Opera House on Oct. 13, 2007. With a style reminiscent of the great operas of the past, Cyrano opened to a warm reception – the opposite of his initial fears a half-century before. The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette described Cyrano as “utterly sincere, and affecting: a love story that comes from the heart.” David Fleschler, with South Florida Classical Review, said “DiChiera’s music is melodic and passionate, a fresh, energetic modern expression of rich 19th-century harmonies, with a couple of melodies that will stay with you as you leave the opera house.” And Tom Purdom from Broad Street Review said “DiChiera creates an emotional climax with music in the same way playwrights achieve their effects with language and film directors work with images.”

After 46 years building and leading Michigan Opera Theatre, DiChiera retires at the end of this season to Artistic Director Emeritus, winding down a successful career as opera impresario. As he looks to the future, he is ready to dedicate himself to his earliest passion as a musician and composer.

DiChiera DiConstructed four-part blog series

Part 1: The Impresario

Part 2: The Composer

Part 3: Champion of Diversity

Part 4: The Civic Leader