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Straight from The Source, a regular interview series taking you behind-the-scenes to Southeast Michigan’s cultural destinations to hear from the curators, programmers, leaders, doers and makers.

Robert Dewar DrDiChiera Kim Johnson MOT Renovation Project Mgr in theatre with safety hats 3x5 pict Mark Mancinelli 1During the construction of the Detroit Opera House.What are you best known for?

For creating an opera company. [DiChiera created Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971, and led the extensive renovation of the Detroit Opera House, its permanent home, which reopened in 1996.]

What would you like to be known for? 

I would like to be known for being somebody that likes people of all makes and colors and whatever. I just like to communicate with people—that’s what I enjoy.

How did you end up founding Michigan Opera Theatre? 

I had a call many, many years ago from the chancellor of Oakland University, saying, ‘You’re one of the youngest scholars in music, and we really want to build music here.’ This was in the early 1960s. Once I understood where Rochester, Michigan was, I said maybe. I came out to see the grounds from California. It was April, and I thought, 'well, April would be a nice month,' and it wasn’t. It was freezing. I was looking at the beautiful grounds at Meadow Brook, and I said, ‘when does the nice weather come?’ But I came because I knew that this a place where I could build some institutions, and I found that much more challenging. 

Other places were offering for me to come and teach courses on the subject of my dissertation of 18th century opera, and I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I wanted to build programs and expose people to the arts. That’s what made me decide that maybe this was a good place to plant my flag and reach out and expose them to the glory of arts.

What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?

"I’ve been very focused on making sure that people of all nationalities, all races, are recognized for their talent and that they’re given opportunities." 

Aside from the reopening of the opera house, my commitment to diversity. I’ve been very focused on making sure that people of all nationalities, all races, are recognized for their talent and that they’re given opportunities. That is something that I am most proud of because I am most committed and devoted to that. 

What does a vibrant arts and cultural community mean to you?

I think it means that a community can have the opportunity to relate to the arts because the arts can enrich people's lives. It gives people an opportunity to experience things that they truly often feel, but when they see it expressed on the stage or in a poem, it becomes even more meaningful. So for me, the arts are such an important way of letting people feel empowered within themselves and to express themselves as well. 

What are the biggest changes you have witnessed in Southeast Michigan’s cultural landscape throughout your career?

I think of course the evolution of the arts has been significant. Some cultural institutions have been there longer than others. For example, now we have an opera company, and we have significant opportunities to see performances in dance and opera and all the performing arts. There’s many more opportunities to be exposed to experiences that enrich lives. I think that Detroit has a tremendous amount of that now that has evolved over the years.

I think it was a slow process because the arts need something to grow in—they need to be nurtured. The more you nurture the arts, the more people are drawn into it. We still have a long way to go. There still are a lot of people in our community who just haven’t experienced the arts. It’s our constant challenge and commitment to reach out to people in every segment of the population, every age group, and give them an opportunity to experience how art can affect their lives. 

DiChiera jtg 01What will you miss as you look towards your retirement?

The memories are all about some of the incredible people that I had the honor of bringing to the city, people like [Luciano] Pavarotti and [Andrea] Bocelli—great artists and many young artists, and the ability to nurture people like Kathleen Battle. Those are wonderful memories and those are all going to continue on. There will be up-and-coming stars that will enhance our stage, and that’s what’s so exciting. You have stars of the past and the current, and then the ones of the future, so it’s an ongoing kind of presentation of artists, both young and maturing into significant careers. 

What local cultural destination have you visited recently?

I’ve seen things at the Fisher Theater and at the Bonstelle. I’m very interested in the theater work that happens at Wayne State as well as the University of Michigan. I enjoy seeing things that are both professional and that are being done by young people who are studying and wanting to achieve. 

When you have visitors in from out of town, what is the one cultural destination you make sure they see during their visit? 

I certainly would like for them to see the Detroit Institute of Arts, the African American Museum [The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History], and of course the [Detroit] Symphony [Orchestra] when they’re performing. And then there’s a lot of smaller organizations that do a lot of chamber music. All of these add up to a mixture—a mélange—of cultural entertainment. And hopefully some of them will come to the Opera House to see dance or opera.

What excites you most about the future of SE MI’s arts and culture scene?

What excites me about looking in the future is to see how many young people—young professionals—are moving into Detroit. And by being in the city, they are going to have a much better opportunity to experience and attend the various things that are happening, not only at the DIA or the Symphony or the Opera House, but more grassroots things that a lot of groups are doing. I just think the group of people, so many young people, many of whom are very educated, they simply are going to take advantage and enhance the programs that are available to them. And it’s going to be part of their downtown experience, and I think that’s very exciting.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Opera Theatre.

The DiChiera Grand Salute, a star-studded tribute performance honoring Dr. DiChiera and his legacy, will take place on May 19th at the Detroit Opera House.