The History of Michigan Opera Theatre
An Overview of Highlights and Historical Mileposts
By Timothy Paul Lentz Ph.D. – MOT Archivist and
Director of the Allesee Dance and
Opera Resource Library at the Detroit Opera House
1963 For David DiChiera this would be a pivotal year both personally and professionally. It was the year that the young Oakland University Assistant Professor, fresh out of UCLA, would meet Karen VanderKloot, who he has called his most faithful friend, critic and counselor. In 1996 he stated, “Her contribution to shaping the first decade of activities at the Music Hall and her impact on having MOT touch the lives of thousands of children and adults throughout the state is incalculable.” 1963 was also the year that DiChiera was asked to take over the project known as Overture to Opera, which was the precursor to Michigan Opera Theatre. Overture to Opera (OTO) was the educational program of the Detroit Grand Opera Association (DGOA) who sponsored the annual visits of the Metropolitan Opera (Met) to Detroit each spring. It its eleven seasons, OTO laid the groundwork, secured the financial support and gained the respectability which allowed for the founding of what was to become Michigan Opera Theatre. Opera News reported that, "Detroit could be a great operatic center if local effort had time to take root and to grow to a high level."
1964 Dr. DiChiera took the reigns of OTO and immediately began building an opera company. He looked at it as an opportunity, a chance to build something that would last. One of the primary reasons he had come to Oakland University was because he had a sense that the greater Detroit area was indeed fertile ground. In a 1982 article in the Ann Arbor News he reflected: “Detroit was the fifth largest city in the nation and the only major city without a resident opera company. I couldn’t accept that fact, I knew the consistency for it was here”. He was committed to the idea that the future of opera in America was in the continued growth of regional opera, that it would take a grass roots community wide effort and that it would require a large measure of patience as well as a long range perspective.
1965 The DGOA thought of the OTO program as its educational arm, a promotional vehicle from the annual Met Tour visit. DiChiera, on the other hand, saw it as an opportunity to develop something local that belonged to the city. His first two seasons with OTO were, as planned, programs of scenes from the operas to be performed by the Met Tour in its annual Detroit season. Typically DiChiera would introduce the opera to the audiences and fill them in on relevant opera and music history. He greatly expanded the number of performances and assembled what can be considered stellar local casts and production teams. Looking back now one is struck by the assemblage of names during the OTO years. It is a veritable Who’s Who of Detroit area talent.
1966 The 1966 OTO season was the first break from the formula in that it was no longer to be just scenes from the Met Tour program. OTO was evolving as an introduction to opera in general with no relationship to the Met visit. In all, there were nineteen performances, including seven specifically designed matinees for students, in a season that began on February 5 at the Rackham Auditorium and concluded on April 2 at Oak Park High School. This year’s program marked the exciting return of Barbara Gibson to the opera stage after an absence of eight years. She was featured in the “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor. Miss Gibson had made her professional debut on the Bell Telephone Hour and had appeared many times in television and radio with Toscanini. Gibson became Mrs. Sam B. Williams and was a key supporter, serving on the MOT Board for many years.
1967 DiChiera expanded the original format of Overture to Opera (OTO) and included the company's first complete work, the Michigan premiere of Cherubini's one act opera The Portuguese Inn. The Detroit Free Press reported that "there is a place in Detroit for an operatic stock company." The season had a total of twenty-one performances at sixteen different locations. DiChiera was in the process of solidifying two of the company’s key philosophies, the first being that opera should be vital theatre. During the OTO years the productions were sung in English, which gave the audiences a real contact with the drama and a clearer insight into the relationship between words and music. The second philosophy was to nurture local talent and give the artists a chance to develop their skills right here at home. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive.
1968 The progress and growth continued in this OTO season which featured Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, a tragedy, along with a revival of the comic one-act opera The Portuguese Inn. The highlights of the season were two performances where the world famous Muriel Greenspon sang the lead role in The Medium. These were historical mileposts in that they were OTO’s first performances with an orchestra, on March 26 and 27, 1968. The orchestra was made up of members of the DSO and was conducted by longtime OTO colleague William C. Byrd. Overall, there were six evening performances and fifteen student matinees that were seen by over fifteen thousand students.
1969 Adventurous programming marked the 1969 season which featured two short complete works, both Michigan premieres: Kurt Weill’s grimly striking Der Jasager (The Choice) and the wonderfully comic Il Campanello (The Night Bell) by Donizetti. The season was enhanced by the appearance of the internationally recognized operatic star Italo Tajo, as the frustrated bridegroom in Il Campanello. The Detroit Free press sounded what had become a familiar theme: “The real moral of the evening, however, is what it has been for several years. If a night of such operatic professionalism can be achieved by local talent in Detroit, why can’t there be a completely successful opera company here?”
1970 The next step for OTO was the crowning achievement of the first decade. For the 1970 season, OTO produced its first full-length opera, Rossini’s comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville, starring then 19 year old Detroiter Maria Ewing in her professional debut. Italo Tajo, the star of the Met and La Scala was back, this time as stage director and the critical response was completely positive. The Detroit News stated: “Musically, it was a buoyant, graceful, attractive production with fresh, young attractive voices, neatly dovetailed ensemble work and close coordination between the pit and stage”. Overture to Opera was becoming a full-fledged opera company, one in search of a home.
1971 Overture to Opera ended its ten nomadic years with its first of fifteen seasons in the Music Hall. That first season featured two Michigan premieres: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Puccini's La Rondine. The opera company as we know it today had its inception in the fall of 1971 with the company's move into the Music Hall Theatre. Overture to Opera had laid the groundwork, a committee that would become MOT's first Board of Trustees had been formed and with the move into the Music Hall there was now a home base from which to work. In addition, as a major contribution to the quality of life in southeast Michigan, let history show that the company’s move into the Music Hall, saving it from the wrecking ball, was the spark that ignited the rebirth of Detroit’s now magnificent theatre and entertainment district.
1972 DiChiera's company, still formally known as the Detroit Grand Opera Association's Overture to Opera Company was officially accepted as a member of OPERA America, the national association of professional opera companies. DiChiera's dedicated involvement in OPERA America over the years has put Michigan Opera Theatre in the mainstream of the opera world. During his two terms as President in the 1980’s the organization more then doubled in size. DiChiera was in the middle of the action as the organization galvanized the philosophies and practices that have defined its existence. His association with OPERA America over the years clearly shows David DiChiera as a major presence and key leader in the regional opera company movement in the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century.
1973 In March the company officially changed its name to Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT). The time had come for the company to formally establish its own identity and begin the process of separating from the Detroit Grand Opera Association. Michigan Opera Theatre: the name was a natural. It evolved out of DiChiera's philosophies of serving the entire state and of presenting a full range of opera and music theatre that was not just a musical experience but a vital theatre experience as well. In addition, in May, DiChiera was selected as the first Executive Director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. As such he would be wearing two hats, general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre and executive director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.
1974 MOT marked its third season of bringing a major production to Kalamazoo and Flint. These performances, along with MOT’s expanding Opera in Residence Program, which visited nine different communities, showed MOT expanding its base, building its audience and tending to its mission to serve as the operatic resource for the entire state. This is also the year of MOT’s first venture into the realm of light opera at the Music Hall with Lehar’s The Merry Widow and its most mammoth production to date, Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Boris Godunov in its seldom heard original version, starring world famous bass Jerome Hines in the title role. The incredible and varied programming at the Music Hall Center also continued and was filling a major void in the cultural life of the Detroit metropolitan area and beyond.
1975 The company’s continuing outstate tour of communities, from Livonia to Traverse City, established MOT as one of Michigan’s major cultural resources. Thousands of Michigan residents had the opportunity to enjoy opera as the touring company presented workshops, seminars, and productions in classrooms, gymnasiums and theatres throughout the state. At the Music Hall the mainstage season was highlighted by MOT’s first production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love as well as MOT’s first production of Gershwin’s beloved Porgy and Bess, directed by Ella Gerber, known the world over for her association with the powerful folk opera. The production featured a 24 year old Leona Mitchell, as Bess, in the midst of a meteoric rise to international stardom.
1976 “Nothing testifies to the growing up of a regional opera company quite like a world premiere,” proclaimed Time Magazine in the fall of 1976. It was called a “rite of maturation” and MOT’s first world premiere, American composer Thomas Pasatiere’s Washington Square, brought forth tremendous national recognition and incredible press and media coverage. The Christian Science Monitor stated in reference to Dr. DiChiera; “He has overcome Detroit’s inferiority complex about the arts by mounting events of national interest.” The production, starring Catherine Malfitano, was clearly one of the most important historical mileposts in the company’s formative years. The diverse programming continued at the Music Hall Center and the foremost entertainment journal Variety stated, "The flourishing of Michigan Opera Theatre and Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts are due to the efforts of a great many interested people but no one doubts that the prime mover in what is happening in Detroit is 39-year old David DiChiera."
1977 David DiChiera’s emergence into national prominence as one of the country’s foremost creative producers and operatic impresarios was an exciting success story in the American contemporary cultural scene and was highlighted by his election as Vice President of OPERA America, Inc. His contribution to Detroit and Michigan were cited in a resolution of the state Senate which hailed him as “a man of creative talent, a man of artistic conviction, and a man of impeccable aesthetic taste.” Mainstage programming at the Music Hall included Naughty Marietta, The Magic Flute and Carmen. Also, MOT continued to make good on its pledge to feature a full range of music theatre works with its production of the American composer Marc Blitzstein’s rarely heard Regina.
1978 Michigan Opera Theatre's Community Programs Department was founded by nationally prominent composer and arts educator Karen VanderKloot DiChiera. The department’s myriad activities included the highly successful Opera in Residence program and all of the company's touring and educational/outreach activities. This was the year of another truly momentous development as 1978 also marked the debut of the MOT Orchestra. Longtime company colleague and friend Mark Flint was on the podium to conduct the orchestra’s first two productions, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and the company’s first mainstage production of an American musical, Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. Another highlight was a production of Gounod’s Faust, featuring Leona Mitchell, that the Detroit Free Press called “Heavenly” and the Eccentric called “Brilliant”.
1978 Additional Note June 1978 was the inaugural season for a major summer festival in Midland, sponsored by the Dow Foundation. Matrix: Midland, as it was called, featured a major contribution from MOT which included a stunning, major revival of Aaron Copland’s wonderful American opera The Tender Land, with the composer on the podium, along with outdoor performances of Madame Butterfly and the world premiere of Singers, a new work by Charles Stouse commissioned by MOT for this festival.
1979 The year started off with La Traviata starring Catherine Malfitano and a startling double bill of I Pagliacci and the rarely seen American opera, The Emperor Jones, featuring the notable baritone Andrew Smith in the title role and legendary Clifford Fears as choreographer and in the role of Congo Witch Doctor. In the fall MOT co-sponsored a pre-Broadway tryout of a major revival of The Most Happy Fella starring Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Giorgio Tozzi. When it hit Broadway, it was extremely important exposure for MOT in the center of the performing arts world, New York City. Also on tap were La Boheme and an ambitious staging of Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc starring Mignon Dunn as Joan. Other noteworthy developments included David DiChiera being elected President of OPERA America, a position he would hold for four years, and being named a “Michiganian of the Year” by the Detroit News.
1980 MOT continued to address the goals of eclectic programming and casting which featured a unique blend of established performers and up and coming new talent. Productions included Die Fledermaus, Carlisle Floyd’s powerful American opera Of Mice and Men and MOT’s first stagings of Don Giovanni and Rigoletto. Also on tap was a full staging of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in Midland. Stage Directors included Italo Tajo, Rhonda Levine and Carlisle Floyd. Conductors included Mark Flint, John DeMain and W. Anthony Waters. Also, Dr. DiChiera was named Artistic Director of Dayton Opera, in Ohio, a post he would hold for ten years in conjunction with his duties at MOT.
1981 MOT expanded its season to five productions in the Music Hall and began to offer some performances in the original language. The season included Tosca featuring Nancy Shade, Carmen featuring Victoria Vergara and the American premiere of Armen Tigranian’s Anoush. The production of this Armenian opera launched an exciting new exploration of the opera repertoire beyond the Italian, French and German mainstreams. The Detroit area Armenian community stepped up with an outstanding show of support for this unique cultural gem. 1981 also featured Beethoven’s Fidelio in an unprecedented collaboration with Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
1982 MOT was evolving as one of America’s important cultural forces, reaching an audience of over 100,000 annually. The goal of presenting a broad range of repertory was achieved with a wonderfully diverse slate which included Porgy and Bess featuring Wilhelmenia Fernandez and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado featuring MOT favorite Mary Callaghan Lynch. Continuing the exploration of unique nationalistic operas, MOT presented the American premiere of the Polish opera The Haunted Castle by Stanislaw Moniuszko which created an outpouring of support from the area’s Polish community. Also in 1982 are productions of Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor and the Detroit premiere of the legendary but rarely seen Scott Joplin opera, Treemonisha which featured Carmen Balthrop in the title role.
1983 MOT completed its long range plan and established its mission to be one of the outstanding opera companies in the United States serving as a major cultural resource. To achieve this five goals were established. The first goal was to present the broadest possible range of music theatre repertoire with the highest artistic standards and the second was to assure that MOT made its work accessible to all segments of the population in a variety of ways. Goal three was to provide opportunities for emerging talent, both local and national. Goal four was a commitment to American works and the fifth goal was to develop broad based financial stability. On the mainstage were productions of The Marriage of Figaro, The Sound of Music, La Traviata, a production of Faust featuring Wilhelmena Fernandez and Vinson Cole, and A Little Night Music starring Cleo Laine and Ron Raines.
1984 After extensive strategic planning, and in anticipation of the imminent demise of the Metropolitan Opera Tour, Michigan Opera Theatre announced its decision to broaden the scope of the company by producing large-scale grand opera at the Masonic Temple Theatre. To begin this era, in the spring of 1984, DiChiera put together a stunning production of Anna Bolena, featuring a cast of international stars including Dame Joan Sutherland and Ben Heppner, conducted by Maestro Richard Bonynge. This production featured the Midwest premiere of English surtitles. The fall season included Lehar’s The Merry Widow starring Cleo Lane and Ron Raines and The Magic Flute starring Carman Balthrop and the wonderful Jerome Hines as Sarastro. MOT’s final production at the Music Hall was the unique music theatre piece Sweeney Todd. It was adventurous programming at its finest as Dr. DiChiera brought yet another major American work for its Detroit premiere. Sweeny Todd closed on December 1, 1984 and when the final curtain came down, the Music Hall years ended in a blaze of glory on the wings of a critically acclaimed aesthetic tour de force. It was a fitting way to end an era.
1985 The Music Hall era came to a close with MOT’s move to the Masonic Temple Theatre for its spring season and to the Fisher Theatre for its fall season. The move was made in order to allow the company to be in theatres with larger auditoriums, especially since the projected increased ticket revenue was critical to MOT’s growth. The administrative offices also moved to the New Center Area. The decision to leave the Music Hall was a difficult one, but ultimately it was a natural evolution considering the momentous growth and impressive goals laid out for the company by DiChiera and the Board of Directors. The eclectic programming continued with a stunning Aida featuring the world renowned James McCracken, with Leona Mitchell in the title role. Also on tap was a double-bill of the one act operas Gianni Schicchi and I Pagliacci, as well as the seldom seen romantic comedy Martha. The year ended with an extremely popular production of Bernstein’s West Side Story.
1985 Additional Note Dr. DiChiera was named General Director of Opera Pacific in California's Orange County. Now, as general director of MOT and Opera Pacific and artistic director of Dayton Opera he could essentially collaborate with himself, sharing the combined artistic resources and leveraging the financial resources of all three institutions for considerable savings and higher quality productions. DiChiera was indeed on the vanguard of the activity in the regional opera company movement in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
1986 MOT established itself as the nation’s tenth largest opera producing organization, supported by a record budget of $4.7 million. The company presented an expanded repertory of six full scale opera/musical theatre works with 51 public performances. The year began with a smashing production of Turandot, which featured world-class artists Ghena Dimitrova and Martina Arroyo in the title role. The season continued with Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld with sets and costumes designed by the celebrated Gerald Scarfe, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and the beloved American musical My Fair Lady.
1987 MOT continued to present the very best in operatic and musical theatre repertory in their mainstage productions at the Masonic Temple and the Fisher Theatre and was supported by an ever-growing patron base. In addition, MOT led by Karen DiChiera, continued to enhance its current 15-week state touring outreach program and its ongoing Community Programs activities. Mainstage productions included The Barber of Seville featuring noted Met baritone Pablo Elvira in the title role, Tosca, Porgy and Bess, Verdi’s Falstaff, as well as two major musical theatre works, The Man of La Mancha and Kismet. The budget topped the $5 million mark.
1988 Without doubt the most eagerly anticipated musical event of the year was MOT’s presentation of legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti in his Detroit concert debut at Joe Louis Arena. Over sixteen thousand area residents as well as over four thousand guests were witness to this magnificent finale to MOT’s spring season. Mainstage activity included Il Trovatore starring Leona Mitchell, Die Fledermaus featuring Jo Anne Worley as Prince Orlofsky, La Boheme featuring Stephanie Friede and Marianna Christos, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies starring Nancy Dussault, Edie Adams, Juliet Prose and MOT favorite Ron Raines, along with The Pirates of Penzance starring Gary Sandy and MOT stalwart Mary Callaghan Lynch. The company was proud to also feature the long awaited return of one of the great American operatic dramas, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe.
1989 With the dedicated efforts of leaders from MOT’s Board of Directors and Trustees, the dream of owning its performing facility began the transformation to reality with the purchase of the first parcel in the Grand Circus Theatre block. The Grand Circus Theatre, formerly the Capitol Theatre, was selected as the vitally necessary future home of Michigan Opera Theatre. For this year MOT commissioned a new production of Norma from English artist John Pascoe for Dame Joan Sutherland’s final performance in the title role. This production garnered the company its first NPR broadcast. The year also featured The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, Les Miserables and Hansel and Gretel during the holiday season. The year also included MOT presenting the renowned Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Sir Christopher Hogwood, performing Handel’s Orlando, a rich forerunner of the grand opera form, rarely heard in the United States.
1990 The Opera House Capital Campaign ran a successful program to name the private grand tier boxes which enabled the company to acquire the remaining parcels of the Grand Circus Theatre block, giving terrific momentum to the Opera House project. Also during this year MOT added classical ballet to its programming with a production of Swan Lake starring one of the world’s greatest interpreters of the role, Cynthia Gregory. Mainstage programming included a new production of Don Giovanni designed and directed by John Pascoe and conducted by Klaus Donath, Rigoletto and La Traviata, both conducted by longtime MOT friend Mark D. Flint, Romeo and Juliet starring Ruth Ann Swenson and the American musical classic, Show Boat, with Ron Raines as Ravenal and Eddie Bracken as Cap’n Andy.
1991 In the fall of 1991 during a press conference in the Opera House prior to his return concert engagement in Detroit, legendary opera star Luciano Pavarotti made the startling promise to return to help open the Opera House, bringing the project to the attention of the public at large and providing a tremendous boost to the Opera House Campaign. As a non-profit company MOT derives its annual income from a variety of sources, including ticket income of course, but also through the generosity of private donors, corporations, foundations, state and local agencies and special fund-raising events like the Pavarotti encore performance. It created a very enthusiastic, palpable buzz in the community for the Opera House project. Mainstage programming included The Mikado, Bernstein’s Candide, The Magic Flute, Madame Butterfly and MOT’s first-ever Richard Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, featuring international opera star Alessandra Marc.
1992 Michigan Opera Theatre, with a budget $5.4 million, had quickly ascended the ranks of its more than 100 peer companies to assume the prestigious position as one of the top ten opera companies in the United States. MOT was cited by the Ford Foundation as one of the most fiscally responsible arts organizations in the country. The company’s day to day operations were directed by a professional staff of 29 and were governed by a 35 member Board of Directors with further guidance by the 264 member Board of Trustees. Along with Lucia di Lammermoor, Side by Side by Sondheim, The Music Man and a sumptuous Sampson and Deliah, the highlight of the mainstage season was the American Midwest premiere of the Polish opera King Roger by Karol Szymanowski. The Polish community responded with an international outpouring of support.
1993 Kim Johnson, former executive director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, was named Managing Director of the Detroit Opera House, and charged with overseeing the restoration and renovation of the building. In spring 1993, the wrecking ball came down on the Roberts Fur Building on Grand Circus Theatre block, making way for the enormous task of building a new 75,000 square foot stage house. With a $1.25 million Kresge Challenge grant and the acquisition of the last of the eight parcels in the Grand Circus Theatre block, along with the 1994 Opera Ball inside the unrestored auditorium before a crowd of many who had never seen the interior, the project gained incredible momentum. Construction began in earnest on the stage house during the summer. Opera presentations included La Boheme, The Barber of Seville, The Merry Widow and a powerful Aida starring Leona Mitchell.
1994 Michigan Opera Theatre expanded its offerings in a 23rd season that featured opera, operetta and ballet repertory featuring some of the world’s renowned artists and emerging talent. Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, brought together a talented corps of dancers from throughout the country alongside talented Detroit dancers and international guest artists. Operas included Faust, Turandot starring Ealynn Voss, Madame Butterfly starring Karen Norate and one of the worlds most sought after coloratura sopranos, Tracy Dahl, illuminating The Daughter of the Regiment.
1995 The Masonic Temple/Fisher Theatre Years came to an end with a powerful spring season that included Mozart’s timeless Don Giovanni featuring Metropolitan Opera stars Jeffrey Wells and Martile Rowland in an opulent production by English theatre artist John Pasco. Swan Lake, arguably the most popular ballet of all time, was also on the bill choreographed by Detroit’s own Jacob Lascu, and the era came to a close with Puccini’s beloved Tosca starring famed Russian soprano Maria Gulegina in the title role. Tremendous enthusiasm was building for the opening of the Detroit Opera House slated for the spring of 1996. It would be the fulfillment of this company’s long-term goal to control its own performance facility, one which would be comparable in function, size and aesthetics with the finest opera houses around the world.
1996 The Inaugural Gala at the Detroit Opera House, on April 21, 1996, featuring Luciano Pavarotti making good on his celebrated promise, is without question the single most significant milepost in the entire history of Michigan Opera Theatre. The dream became a reality as Dame Joan Sutherland declared the Opera House “open and ready for music”. This magnificent theatre is not just a world-class home for the opera company, it also instantly became a cornerstone in the cultural life of the city of Detroit. The Mayor, the Governor and the President of the United States all joined the tremendous international outpouring of support for this monumental achievement. Celebrating the company’s Silver Anniversary while opening the beautiful new Opera House was both a stunning artistic achievement and a civic contribution of the highest order. Dear friend and colleague, Lofti Mansouri, then General Director of the San Francisco Opera wrote to Dr. DiChiera: “You have been a fantastic champion for opera in North America, David, with the commitment, dedication and talent to make the difference. Generations of opera audiences will reap the rewards of your hard work, and that is something to cherish.” The incredible spring season also included, as the first opera on the Opera House stage, a wonderful La Boheme starring Marcello Giordani, followed by Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet, Verdi’s La Traviata and a spectacular Salome featuring Maria Ewing in the title role. The 1996 Fall season, aptly named “Building on a Dream” included the beloved Carmen featuring MOT favorite Irina Mishura, a touring production of West Side Story and a new program, launched by Karen DiChiera, called “Learning at the Opera House” which immediately began winning national awards for its scope and content.
1997 MOT inaugurated its first Season of Dance at the Detroit Opera House with two special presentations by America’s premiere ballet company, the American Ballet Theatre. Also on tap were a visit from the Cleveland San Jose Ballet and a third, special program titled “An Extraordinary Evening of Dance”. In addition, there were Broadway touring productions of A Chorus Line and Damn Yankees featuring Jerry Lewis. 1997 also featured Aida, Rigoletto, The Marriage of Figaro, MOT’s first Wagner opera The Flying Dutchman and The Magic Flute with set and costume design by Maurice Sendak. World-class Maestros Steven Mercurio, Klaus Donath and John Mauceri were featured on the podium leading the way. MOT was firmly ensconced in its new home and spectacular programming was the order of the day.
1998 The spring season opened with MOT’s first ever staging of Massenet’s moving and sensual Manon featuring Marcello Giordani and Ruth Ann Swenson, followed by Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love and a magnificent production of Porgy & Bess starring Gordon Hawkins and Marquita Lister. It has always been a great source of pride that MOT was among the very first opera companies to present Porgy & Bess. Another source of great pride is that throughout its history MOT has been a leader in seeking out and introducing some of the world’s great African American operatic talent. Kathleen Battle, Cleo Lane, Leona Mitchell, Wilhelmina Fernandez, Gregg Baker and Vinson Cole are but a few of the featured artists and are a reflection of MOT’s exemplary history of multi-cultural casting. Also on tap this year were productions of Turandot, starring Richard Margeson and Alessandra Marc and Lucia di Lammermoor starring Sumi Jo, Fernando De La Mora and Evgenji Dmitriev, along with a Romèo et Juliette presented by Le Ballet de Monte Carlo, which included an appearance by the president of the company, H.S.H. Princess Caroline of Monaco.
1999 Spectacular programming continued with American Ballet Theatre’s third visit to their “Midwest Home” featuring a new production of Don Quixote, and a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard starring Petula Clark. The spring dance season included a visit from The Paul Taylor Dance Company and the spring opera season featured Madame Butterfly, MOT’s first production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and a magnificent Samson and Delilah starting MOT favorite Irina Mishra. In July MOT presented The Three Tenors, at Detroit’s Historic Tiger Stadium, in the world renowned trio’s only North American appearance that year. The Three Tenors concert launched MOT’s New Century Fund and provided the opportunity to raise the first $14 million. Also, super star tenor Andrea Bocelli made his North American opera debut in the Detroit Opera House in Werther, the first American production to be webcast.
2000 MOT started the new century with stunning back to back visits from the legendary Stuttgard Ballet making its Detroit debut and American Ballet Theatre returning to its Midwest home with a new production of Swan Lake. The exciting spring opera season included presenting two incredible operas never seen on MOT’s stage, Der Rosenkavalier and Peter Grimes, as well as a powerful and moving Tosca with Sylvie Valayre and Amy Johnson in the title role and MOT favorites Marcello Giordani and Ian DeNolfo alternating in the role of Cavaradossi. Wonderful programming continued and the fall featured a return visit from Les Ballets De Monte-Carlo performing Prokofiev’s Cinderella as well as MOT productions of Cosi fan tutte and La Boheme. The fall programming also included the national tour production of Rent giving Detroit audiences a rare opportunity to experience La Boheme and Rent, two important, related works, back-to-back.
2001 MOT marked its 30th Anniversary Season by securing its place in the top ten of American Opera Companies by virtue of its $12 million budget. The year-long celebration of Giuseppe Verdi continued with La Traviata, one of his most famous operas, followed by Falstaff, his final opera. The spring season came to a close with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. The fall season included Carmen, with Detroit’s own Irina Mishura and a revival of the Armenian national opera Anoush, which received its American premiere on the MOT stage in 1982. The production received a tremendous outpouring of financial support from the Armenians for Anoush Committee and the hundreds of Armenians and friends who contributed their time and resources to the success of this production.
2002 MOT remained deeply committed to staging the greatest in dance programming and the year began with an amazing series starting with The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Joffrey Ballet followed by a return visit from American Ballet Theatre with a lavish production of Le Corsaire. Opera offerings included two productions new to the MOT repertoire, Verdi’s supreme masterpiece Otello and Delibes’ beautiful and exotic Lakme, along with perennial favorite The Marriage of Figaro, Il Trovatore and Don Pasquale. Renovation continued at the Opera House and this year marked the opening of the GM Opera Café’, located at the Madison entrance. It is a cozy, pub-like bistro open to all guests before curtain and after the performance. The year came to a close with a stunning visit from the legendary Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake and Cincinnati Ballet’s The Nutcracker, now a holiday tradition.
2002 Additional Note Programming included MOT’s first production of Too Hot to Handel , the Jazz Gospel Messiah, which would go on to be a favorite annual holiday tradition at the Detroit Opera House. Directed and conducted by MOT’s Suzanne Mallare Acton, Too Hot captures the essential core of Handel’s famous masterwork and reinterprets it with chords of rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel.
2003 Surely the most notable event of the year was the Michigan premiere of the stunning new American Opera, Dead Man Walking, which “makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theatre since West Side Story,” according to London’s The Guardian. The opera repertory also included Don Giovanni directed and designed by John Pasco and conducted by MOT regular Steven Mercurio as well as Die Fledermaus directed by longtime DiChiera friend Bernard Uzan and conducted by MOT’s own Suzanne Mallare Acton. There was also a Madame Butterfly as well as MOT’s first production of Verdi’s The Masked Ball along with performances by The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and a rare North American appearance of the mighty Kirov Ballet, presented on the only stage in Michigan large enough to accommodate its grandeur.
2004 Wonderful dance programming continued as the year started off with performances by Les Ballets Africans followed by Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Opera House stage was also graced by productions of The Magic Flute, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pearl Fishers, Rigoletto and Faust. Two other major developments occurred in 2004: the first was the completion of the Crowning Achievement Campaign allowing MOT to begin its final construction phrase which included the six-story office tower on the Broadway Street side of the building, and the Detroit Opera House Parking Center. The second major development was the announcement that R. Jamison (Rick) Williams Jr. was elected Chairman of Michigan Opera Theatre’s Board of Directors. Mr. Williams serves to the present day as the Opera Company’s third Chairman, succeeding Lynn Townsend (1971-1980) and Robert Dewar (1980-2000) in this key position.
2005 On May 7, after six years of preparation, MOT hosted the world premiere of Margaret Garner, the first world premiere to be staged on the Detroit Opera House stage. It is an incredible and powerful American opera by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison and it starred internationally renowned soprano Denise Graves in the title role. The opera repertoire also included Tosca, The Daughter of the Regiment, Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece Norma and a revival of the ever-loved La Boheme. Also on tap was a much-anticipated return of the Kirov Ballet, one of only three U.S. performances this season, with a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty. MOT and the City of Detroit were also proud to host OPERA America’s Opera Conference 2005, titled Diverse Voices. MOT continued in its role as a major cultural presence as opera colleagues world-wide were welcomed to the magnificent Detroit Opera House and exposed to the many treasures of this great city.
2006 One of the year’s true highlights was the opening of the Ford Center for Arts & Learning which makes facilities available to expand the Community Programs and Dance Departments. The Center is made up of the Chrysler Theatre, a flexible black box performance space for intimate presentations, the Margo V. Cohen Center for Dance, which serves as the nerve center for all dance activities, the David and Marion Handleman Media Studio designed to support interactive classroom programming and distance learning, the Lee & Floy Barthel Costume Shop and the Allesee Dance & Opera Resource Library. Also included is a much needed street-level retail space. MOTs mainstage repertoire included Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Aida, Cinderella, Salome, Porgy & Bess and The Barber of Seville, as well as holiday favorites The Nutcracker and Too Hot to Handel.
2007 Without doubt the highlight of the year was MOTs third world premiere, David DiChiera’s magnum opus, Cyrano. The grand, romantic opera, to a libretto by long-time colleague Bernard Uzan, was a tour de force and unleashed a spectacular outpouring of support as well as a smashing kick-off to the 2007 season. This seminal year also included productions of Turandot, MOT’s first The Abduction from the Seraglio, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, The Marriage of Figaro, as well as appearances by American Ballet Theatre, Grand Rapids Ballet’s production of Where the Wild Things Are, Miami City Ballet and the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.
2008 Michigan Opera Theatre’s first La Sonnambula by Bellini was featured along with Puccini’s La Rondine and audience favorites La Traviata and Madame Butterfly, as well as a return engagement of the powerful Margaret Garner which also toured to Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. Return visits were made by The Grand Rapids Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance of Chicago. Also notable is the arrival of MOT’s newly formed Children’s Chorus. Along with performing in concert the Children’s chorus presented its first full staging of a children’s opera, The Maker of Illusions.
2009 With the economy in steep decline and after a series of dramatic cutbacks, MOT soldiered on with productions of The Elixir of Love, the ever popular Carmen, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and a critically acclaimed, spectacular production of Verdi’s Nabucco, not seen in Detroit since 1961. There were return visits from American Ballet Theatre and The Grand Rapids Ballet and the legendary Pilobolus performed on the Opera House stage for the first time. Too Hot To Handel and The Nutcracker were back during the holidays and MOT Children’s Chorus undertook opera on a larger scale mounting Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása’s dramatic Brundibar.
2010 With the economy starting to show signs of life, MOT is riding out the recession by hunkering down to meet expense and revenue goals and sticking with a reduced schedule of four instead of five operas for the season. Cost cutting trims MOT’s budget from $12.5 Million to just under $10 Million. MOT, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Institute of Arts are all caught in a squeeze of falling corporate support, sagging ticket income ad disappearing state funding. The headline in the Free Press in March echoed the overriding concern, “Who Will Save the Arts?” The 2010 forecast shows a total budget of $12.5 Million with zero shortfalls. Dr. DiChiera is planning for an improving economy in 2012 and envisions a Capital Campaign of about $20 Million to retire MOT’s mortgage debt once and for all.
Awards and Honors David DiChiera has garnered honor and recognition abroad and at home by the Detroit City Council, the Michigan State Legislature, the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the University of Detroit and the governor of Michigan. The Detroit News selected Dr. DiChiera as a Michiganian of the Year in 1979, stating “Dr. DiChiera has done more than any single person in the city or state to bring opera to the people.” He expanded upon this concept by creating a permanent home for opera in Michigan with the 1996 opening of the Detroit Opera House. He delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan’s graduation ceremony in 1998 and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree. He has also received honorary doctoral degrees from Oakland University (2001), Marygrove College (2004), Madonna University (2008) and Wayne State University (2010). In recognition of his significance to the musical world, he has been honored by the mayors of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Detroit, as well as the governments of France and Italy.
In recognition of his mandate to build bridges of understanding and cooperation across racial, social, economic and political divides, David DiChiera received the 2000 Bridge Builder’s Award, bestowed by the Partner’s for Livable Communities, a Washington DC-based civic leadership organization. Also to honor his efforts as a “bridge builder,” DiChiera was honored by New Detroit, Inc. with its 2008 Closing the Gap Award and in that same year, also received the Neal Shine Award for Exemplary Regional Leadership. During the fall of 2010, DiChiera was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts at the Kennedy Center as a recipient of their annual Opera Honors, given to four noted individuals each year for their exemplary lifetime contributions to opera. It is our nation’s most prestigious opera award.
Awards and Honors