Photo by Ameen Howrani
Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and raised in Los Angeles by Italian immigrant parents, David DiChiera pursued studies in composition with Lukas Foss at UCLA, earning his MA in 1956 with highest honors and election to Phi Beta Kappa Society. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Italy where he simultaneously composed a sonata for the Naples Festival of Contemporary Music and researched and contributed a series of articles on 18th-century Italian opera to the world’s leading music encyclopedias. Returning to Los Angeles, he joined the UCLA staff as an instructor, subsequently earning his PhD in musicology.
DiChiera’s long and storied affiliation with Detroit began in earnest in 1962, when he became a professor and ultimately the chairman of music at Oakland University. During this time, he created Overture to Opera, a program of staged opera scenes and one-act operas that he narrated and toured to hundreds of schools and community centers throughout the state. Through this work he laid the foundation to create Michigan’s own professional opera company, Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), in 1971. Even while creating the state’s first professional opera company, he simultaneously spearheaded the establishment of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit (1973), serving as its founding director.
However, DiChiera’s impact on the field of opera would not remain focused solely on Detroit for long. Named chairman of the board of OPERA America (1979–1983), his focus expanded from one opera company to opera organizations nationwide. During his tenure, two highly significant programs were initiated on behalf of the opera field, which continue to have a lasting impact on opera in America. Opera for the ‘80s and Beyond developed innovative methods of encouraging and funding new American musical theater works. Opera for a New America supported companies in their efforts to reach previously underserved segments of the population.
In 1981, DiChiera was appointed artistic director of the Dayton Opera Association. The success of his first season was evident in an increase in season ticket sales and a favorable critical response to the artistic standards he brought during his tenure. DiChiera made history in 1986, when he became the founding general director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, California, becoming the only general director in the nation to have founded and led two opera companies.
DiChiera retired from the Dayton Opera and Opera Pacific in 1993 and 1996, respectively, to devote his time and energy to the establishment of an opera house for Detroit. In so doing, MOT would become only one of a handful of American opera companies to own their own home. Through the multimillion dollar renovation of a 1920’s movie theater, the Detroit Opera House opened its doors on MOT’s 25th anniversary as legendary sopra-no Joan Sutherland cut the ribbon for the grand opening.
Throughout its history, MOT has been at the forefront of nurturing the careers of leading African-American artists, and DiChiera has been recognized both locally and nationally for these efforts. In his desire to present an opera whose story would resonate with the local Detroit community, DiChiera commissioned composer Richard Danielpour and author Toni Morrison to write the opera Margaret Garner, which became the first world premiere on the Detroit Opera House stage in 2005. Co-commissioned with Cincinnati Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia, the work reverberated not only in Detroit, but also in communities throughout the country, receiving positive reviews from media outlets nationwide.
For his achievements in music and community leadership, DiChiera has received numerous honorary doctorates and has been recognized by the mayors of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Detroit, as well as the governments of France and Italy. Whether it be through his academic accomplishments and scholarly contribu-tions, his passion for creating and running opera organizations and performing arts centers, or the commission-ing and premiering of new works, DiChiera’s commitment to opera in America is truly immeasurable.