Jo Reed: That was Denyce Graves and Gregg Baker. They were singing a duet from the opera Margaret Garner, which was given its world premier at the Michigan Opera Theatre. It was produced under the guidance of Opera Theatre’s founder and general director, David DiChiera, who commissioned the opera and who is one of the recipients of the 2010 opera Honors.
Welcome to Artworks that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed.
David DiChiera is a legend within the world of opera; he has founded two opera companies, the Michigan Opera Theatre and opera Pacific, served as artistic Director of the Dayton Opera Association and as President of Opera America. And in 2007, at the age of 62, he composed his first full-length opera, the acclaimed Cyrano. David Dichiera is known for his commitment to the city of Detroit, for encouraging African-American artists in all aspects of opera, for forging collaborations with other opera companies, and for supporting the composition and productions of new operas that reflect the communities in which they are performed. He has brought American Opera into the 21st century and for that he has received many honors and awards….most recently the 2010 Opera Honors from the NEA, the highest award the country gives to the art of opera. I spoke to David DiChiera about his long and storied career. Here’s our conversation. I'd like to begin at the beginning with a question of were always interested in music, when you were a kid, did you love music?
David DiChiera: I did, I did. It's interesting because my parents were immigrants from Italy and had never gone to school, so I had no real kind of orientation to classical music. And I was the youngest of four children and my older siblings simply had no interest at all. But I started listening to The Met broadcast like when I was seven or eight. I would listen-- first of all there was a fairytale program called Let's Pretend and it came on before and then came The Met broadcast and I would continue listening and I was just simply overwhelmed and fascinated by it. So music was always something that just captured me. When we moved to California I was 10 years old and I just wanted badly to have piano lessons, I needed to know music besides just listening to it. So my older sister bought me an old piano. It was out in the garage and I'd go there and I was afraid but I wanted to practice, so they'd come and bring their books and sit while I practiced. It was kind of amusing. And so it was just something that I had to do. So it was something that I seemed absorbed by from the earliest years.
Jo Reed: Now, how did you move from practicing the piano downstairs to getting a career in music? A lot of kids love music and even liked practicing the piano but it's a big step to actualize a career.
David DiChiera: Well ultimately when my older sisters realized that I was serious about this, they pooled their earnings together and bought me a better piano so I could be in the house. And then I kept taking lessons. And at that time and for the next number of years until I went into college, I really wanted to be a concert pianist, that was the thing that thrilled me the most. And then I realized when I was at UCLA as music major, piano major in the undergraduate that there was just a lot of talented pianists and I also found it a very lonely process going into the rehearsal rooms, little cubicles and trying to practice three or four hours a day besides doing all the class work and so forth. And then one day one of my teachers said, "Why don't you join the opera workshop? I think they may need a pianist and coach." And so I did and that was just heaven because it was beautiful music, it was everything. It was everything, it was people, it was collaboration, it really set for me what I thought was especially exciting was to be part of something bigger than myself. Because being in opera in whatever way whether you were singing, whether you were the pianist or whether you were working backstage, you were part of something that was such an exciting adventure of putting a great work together.
Jo Reed: You became a professor of music?
David DiChiera: I did. I taught. I got a Fulbright to go to Italy. I wanted to do a PhD in musicology and determined that I wanted it to be an opera. So I was looking for an area where the history of opera where there was a vacuum and that was the Neapolitan School 18th Century. I did a lot of research on some of these composers that people didn't know a lot about and based on that then I came back to UCLA and finished my doctorate. And then I thought, okay, now I need a job. Now what? You know? And then I got this call from this chancellor of a university called Oakland University and he calls me and he says, "David, I understand you're one of the youngest published musicologists and we're starting a theater or a department here and we'd like for you to consider-- " and I said, "Well, Mr. Varner, where is Oakland University?" And he said, "Oh, it's in Rochester, Michigan." I said, "Yeah." He said, "Yeah, just north of Detroit." So I go out there in April out there in Rochester and they're just two small buildings there and it's freezing, it's just freezing and I'm like this, you know. And he says, "Well, this is where our university is going to be built and it's all up to you to design what you think the arts should be here." And I thought, hmm, first of all it's cold, but I kept thinking about the decisions and I thought I'd rather go somewhere where I could create. So I went there and got very involved in developing what was called the Meadow Brook Theater and the Department of Music and the Meadow Brook Festival which was very exciting at that time. And it was a wonderful, wonderful festival and we commissioned works et cetera. But after about seven or eight years, the university just felt that they could no longer really sustain that festival. And I was chairman of the Music Department at the time and I decided-- there was no opera company in Detroit, all that Detroiters had was a week every May of the Metropolitan Opera on tour and that was considered-- for the most part, most people thought, "Well, what more does somebody want except a week of the Metropolitan Opera, I mean isn't that the height of all?"
Jo Reed: That surprises me because the Detroit Symphony which is one of the world’s great music institutions.
David DiChiera: And it had been founded I think in 1918 or something which is one of the glories of one of the most wonderful concert halls in the country. But any rate, opera just never was there. There were a few kind of aborted attempts, et cetera. So I started very slowly, I said, "Okay, we need to do something really to just get an audience beyond The Met audience. So under the sponsors of The Met, I created a program called Overture to Opera and I would produce scenes in English from the operas that The Met would bring. So it was like an introduction, it was a way to-- we'd go into schools, we'd go into communities, I would do a kind of a Leonard Bernstein act and introduce everything, give a little bit about the music and so forth. And in a few years I began to cheat. I would do several scenes from The Met and then I would do one-act operas to show them that we could actually do more than a scene from an opera …
Jo Reed: And audiences were responding to these.
David DiChiera: They were, they were. And we had a lot of volunteers in each community, they would sell tickets to the events, if they were evening events. If it was a matinee the schools provided the students. So at one point I went to the mayor's wife and said, "Look, there is a need for an opera company in this city." I said, "We have audiences, they are interested." I said, "The Met's one week a year is not about servicing a community." I said, "Because an opera company should be working in the schools year round. It should be giving opportunities to local singers. It should be building audiences, it should be all those things." I said, "When you just have these series of performances, the same people come and they have the money to do it and they'll buy up all the tickets and you're not really reaching out in the community." So that was the beginning, but I did it very slowly because a lot of people thought,"Well, this is a blue collar town, they're never going to sustain an opera company."
Jo Reed: So you began Overture to Opera in '63?
David DiChiera: Yes.
Jo Reed: And when did Michigan Opera Theater…
David DiChiera: Well the first full production was the Barber of Seville in 1970 with Maria Ewing. We did that at the Detroit Institute of Arts, there was a full theater there, a very nice theater. But working in a museum was not very good because the security was unbelievable and you couldn't get in there when you need to and so forth. So one of the members of the committee that I had put together found a beautiful little theater called the Music Hall and I went to the owner and he said, "Well, I'll let you have it for a year or two, but if it doesn't work out, we're going to tear this down for a parking structure." I said, "Oh, no, we'll make it work." So we opened our season there in 1971 and of course that was three years, four years after the riots in Detroit which had begun a tremendous kind of exodus into the suburbs. So a lot of people were really saying, "David, why do you think you're going to open a theater downtown when most, when most people are leaving it?" and so forth. I said, "Because cultural institutions belong in the heart of a city." And I said, "The symphony is still here, the museum is still here it's not going to go anywhere, so the opera should join it, it should be here." And so that was the beginning and we stayed at the Music Hall for 14 years and then outgrew it because productions began to get larger and …
Jo Reed: Let me just interrupt you for a second…
David DiChiera: Yeah, of course.
Jo Reed: …because you said that you were determined to reach beyond the traditional opera audience and reach out to the community. Can you talk about ways you tried to do that and ways you succeeded clearly?
David DiChiera: Well I'll tell you, one of the things I felt to do, we were in the city of Detroit – the majority of the residents are African American. So I thought it was an absolute essential thing for us to do is that we needed to reach out and build bridges into that community as well as any of the other communities that were there. And from the very beginning I began looking for to launch and to nurture African American artists. I did productions, I remember a production of Faust in which all of the principals were African American. I thought that was very exciting because people would come and they would see themselves on that stage, they would realize that this is an art form that can speak to everyone. And it was also about going into the schools, giving them programs that taught about opera, that gave them a sense. You not only play opera for them, but give them the experience of feelings that they can be creative.
Jo Reed: I have two questions and they're related and they're also related to the opening of that beautiful opera house in I think '96. One is ticket prices, that opera costs so much to mount and I think it's often difficult to bring people in especially for the first time because it's often a major financial commitment and people are uncertain about that. How did you grapple with that?
David DiChiera: Well from the very beginning we had ticket prices that were modest. We just had to be sensitive to a community if we wanted an audience beyond an audience that could afford that. It was really about trying to make it a much more democratic kind of a thing and making more people possible to enjoy and to feel as if that this was not something beyond them. I mean, opera has suffered so much from the whole elitist image, well that's something you have to really to counteract because I believe as many do that opera's an art form that speaks to everybody and if it does then you have to find ways that everybody can feel as if they can access it as well.
Jo Reed: Well the other thing that you had to grapple with as your new theater was opening is that Detroit has taken a lot of economic hits and they're certainly taking one now, but they were taking a big hit then too.
David DiChiera: Oh yeah. While I was doing fundraising to build the opera company-- the opera house, that was a very difficult time, the early '90s and it took us a long time to raise the money. We bought this old theater, movie palace in late '89 and we were raising money as we did the work, we weren't trying to just borrow a ton of money and do it. And so we didn't open until '96, it was six years actually. And even then we weren't totally ready, but my friend Luciano …
Jo Reed: Luciano Pavarotti
David DiChiera: Yes, Pavarotti. When I had brought him there to see this derelict building which you could hardly get into and he came in and I said, "Well, Luciano, this is going to be an opera house." I said, "What do you think?" So he kind of opened his mouth, sang a few notes. “Yeah, David, this might be a good house. I tell you, you do it, I will come, I will open it for you." And then as we got closer he gave us a date and we weren't really ready but we made ourselves ready. Another way I just wanted to-- in terms of building audiences and reaching out into the community was also to create works that reflected those audiences. I was determined then that the first opera-- we didn't have the resources to do a world premiere on our first season, we were just desperate to open. But I kind of decided that when we were ready that it would be an opera that would celebrate the African American tradition and history, et cetera. So I was very pleased, I think it was '99 I brought Denyce Graves to come and do Charlotte. And while she was there she came to see me one day in the office, she said, "You know, David, I have been in touch with the composer, Richard Danielpour, he's been wanting to do an opera based on the story of Margaret Garner who was a slave then who escaped and then was captured. And Toni Morrison had agreed to work on the libretto. I said, "That's the perfect story." I said, "What a dream team, Toni Morrison Denyce Graves and Danielpour. " I was really pleased because I also invited Cincinnati and Philadelphia, two other cities that had a large tradition of African Americans and also had challenges in that way. Cincinnati was going through a very tough period and and they came aboard and it was I thought a wonderful consortium of three cities that would bring this work to life.
Jo Reed: Well you're known for that, you're known for making partnerships with other opera companies.
David DiChiera: Yeah. I think everything is about collaboration, you know. I was honored and privileged to have the opportunity to work with opera companies when I was elected President of Opera America, in 1979 actually. Because it gave me an opportunity to put some of the things that I thought were really missing and concerned about looking at operas as a viable art form and that opera companies as being viable. In '79, first year I became president, there was only one company and it was a very small company in Toronto that created a new work. And we began challenging ourselves to come up with some answers. What do we do to further the art form so that opera companies are not going to spend the rest of this century just doing old operas, being a museum? And ultimately we came up with a concept to get grants, bring some money together to use as a carrot to our colleagues and say, "Here, take this is a grant just to explore an idea with maybe a stage director and a composer. Maybe it won't work, maybe nothing will happen, but here's some money to do that. And then if that works here's some money to commission the opera." So that's the second part of the program. And now if you’ve done that then here’s some money to produce it. And we began the program and, you know, within a decade there was so many works that came und that program, Nixon in China, and so at the end of that decade we began to realize, now there's a bigger problem, it's not so much about creating new works. What was happening with cities throughout this country is the demographics were changing so dramatically, remembering that the 19th Century and symphonies were founded in some opera companies, et cetera, primarily these were audiences that were European descendents. So the whole idea of opera was for the most part part of their tradition. And so the idea of now taking the same thing of carrot, giving a carrot of support to an opera company to look into their community whether it was a huge Latino community or large Asian community, but look into that community and say, "Find talent, whether it's a librettist or a composer or what, or a story or whatever and find somebody to create a work that reflects that culture, reflects those people and then make that a center piece of your season." One of the things that happened was that the whole fluidity of musical styles became even greater. You began to see operas in which the style was not only very classical but could be influenced by the popular musics of various cultures, et cetera. So it gave a huge panoply of musical styles as well. I think it enriched a lot of the repertoire but at the same time, enriched the audiences of these various cities. And so I think this is a beginning of really demystifying and making opera not feel so much always that it is very special exotic work, but that it can reflect so many cultures, so many peoples in so many ways.
Jo Reed: In the meantime, you became the founding director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, California. So you were running two opera companies at the same time.
David DiChiera: I did, yeah. There was a time when I was actually running three, there was Dayton as well. I don't know how I did that.
Jo Reed: I was going to say, did you sleep?
David DiChiera: Well I think I did, I think the key was that I was younger. <laughs> I think you can do a lot when you're young. I had no intention of going out and taking on more responsibilities, but after I had been President of Opera America I was doing a lot of consulting and visiting companies and so forth. And here was Orange County beginning to expand and it was becoming a very important area and they did not have much of a cultural life. So they built this wonderful performing arts center in Costa Mesa and now the people who liked opera thought, well now we should have an opera company. So they call me and say, "Would you come and talk to us and give us some advice?" et cetera, et cetera. You know? Well that interested me because I was a Californian And I said, "Well, you know, it would be an interesting challenge to start an opera company here." I said, "On the other hand, I can't leave Detroit, I could never do that." I said, "But we can work this out. I think a great time for a season here would be like January, February, March," which was a great time for me to be out of Michigan winters <laughs>. And so started that company from scratch and it became very successful. Actually it and Michigan Opera Theater became 2 out of the 10 largest companies in the States. And it got to a point where I needed to make a decision because now all these companies were too large with too much potential and I just couldn't do both. And I had begun warning people that ultimately I would leave one of them. And everybody in California thought I would of course leave Michigan because Californians tend to think that nobody wants to be anywhere except California. <laughs>. But then the decision I made was based not so much about the company, the decision I made as about the city. Because I felt as I was poised to create an opera house that I needed to do something that helped revitalize a city and that Orange County didn't need revitalizing, it was fairly new, it was wealthy, it had-- yet they needed more culture and I thought we were on the way, we had started this company, there was a symphony, there was a theater and so forth. But Detroit-- and then I kind of felt the rest of my life was not about just producing opera but what can opera do to be a force in revitalizing a community. I thought that was more interesting than the other. We all can do opera somewhere or another. So I made that decision, it was very hard because I loved the company, I loved the people that had worked so hard with me, but decided that I needed to retrench, go back into a city where there was a lot of potential but also a lot of challenges. And that an opera house in the middle of that city would be a signal that there is something that the community could be very proud of and it could help develop everything around it. And so when we did open it in '96, within five years there were restaurants and some galleries, ultimately two stadiums. I live next to the zoo, I have the Tigers in one block and I have the Lions in the other. If you're a sports a fan.
Jo Reed: Tigers all the way.
David DiChiera: Yeah, all the way. And I'm very pleased, the opera house has become a very important kind of catalyst in that whole area. And that's what I felt had to be done ….
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about the opera you composed, Cyrano, which of course is based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac.
David DiChiera: Oh, well I'd love to talk about Cyrano. I've always wanted to write an opera.
Jo Reed: Okay. And how many years in the making was it?
David DiChiera: Seven.
Jo Reed: Seven years.
David DiChiera: Seven years, right, right. And it got to the point after, I said to myself, "I spent so many years convincing other people they should write any opera they want whether it's got Latino influence or Asian or African American and so forth, maybe that means I can write an romantic opera and not feel totally out of it." But then I never knew about what opera, what should it be. Bernard Uzan who is a very talented stage director and author and so forth, was directing for me. And he said, "And your music," he said, "I think would be just right for the play that I love the most." And I said, "Well, what's that?" And he said, "Well, it's Cyrano." I said, "Well, I know Cyrano, but I never thought of it in that way." And he said, "Oh, let me take you through it." And so Bernard being French and being an actor and so forth came to my house one afternoon <laughs> and walked through the opera being Roxanne, being Christian, being Cyrano. And I have to tell you, by the final scene I was in tears. I said, "Well, Bernard, look, it's beautiful and it deserves to be set to music, but I'm not sure I'm up to it." I said, "But I tell you what, I'll write one scene and then we'll get together, you listen to it, if you like it fine, if not, it's fine too.” So I did that. I've always felt that if you don't write a good final scene for an opera that you've missed some of the most important part of it. And so I thought, let me see if I can make this work. So I did the letter scene and so forth. And so I played it for him and he was very thrilled with it. And I said, "Okay, I'll start working on it."
Jo Reed: Well, Cyrano opened in Detroit in 2007 and you co-produced it with The Grand Opera of Philadelphia and Florida Grand Opera. And it was a major success in all three cities.
David DiChiera: It was a very good success and I got mostly good, actually great reviews except for one of my own local critics which I had expected and it was fine. I said, "Well, it's probably good for me to keep me grounded." It was a dream come true for me because I felt as if I had spent my whole life working with the community doing things, but I didn't do anything that really answered my own inner emotional need. And so writing the opera was-- and I tell you, it was scary because the night of the opening, it felt you were walking on stage with no clothes on. It's so exposed when you do that. When you produce Puccini's opera, it might not be the greatest production, but my God, you know it's a master work. <laughs> And you have no worry at all. But here, it's you and so it's a rather frightening thing but also rather exhilarating, but I'm just as excited to present other composers' works and in many ways I feel that there's so much still to do, you know?
Jo Reed: Well I think certainly one thing on your docket has to be coming to Washington in October.
David DiChiera: I'm really excited about that.
Jo Reed: How did you out you that were a recipient of the 2010 Opera Honors?
David DiChiera: Well I got a call from Wayne Brown and I just thought Wayne was calling me about whatever, I don't know. And I've known Wayne for years and was always certainly pleased to hear from him. And he told me this and I said, "Are you sure, are you really sure?" I said, "God the people that have come before me in those first two years are all people that I'm absolutely in awe of." But I said to him, you know, "As much as it is personally fulfilling to me and it certainly is, it makes me feel very honored and very humbled by it," I said, "What excites me most about it is that perhaps it means that some of the things we've done in a city which is a beleaguered city has been recognized." And I said, "That makes me happy for those who have worked beside me making an opera company happen and an opera house happen. And with our mission, it means that it has some resonance outside of our community." And that for me it still remains the special part.
Jo Reed: That was David DiChiera, founder and general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from Margaret Garner, written by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, performed by Denyce Graves (as Margaret) and Gregg Baker (as Robert ), used courtesy of the Michigan Opera Theatre.
Excerpt from Cyrano: Music by David DiChiera, libretto by Bernard Uzan. The singers are Leah Partridge (as Roxane) and Marion Pop (Cyrano), used courtesy of used courtesy of the Michigan Opera Theatre.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, the father of go-go, the one and only, Chuck Brown.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.