DiChiera’s Debut

It took seven years to write “Cyrano,” and the composer hopes that lucky number extends to its premiere
Opera House
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

At 72, Michigan Opera Theatre’s general director, David DiChiera, is a daddy. He’s sired a new opera, Cyrano, based on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 romantic tragedy, Cyrano de Bergerac. The story revolves around a homely poet/swordsman with a sizable schnoz whose love for the beautiful Roxane is communicated through letters attributed to the handsome but inarticulate Christian. It’s only at the end of the opera, when Cyrano is dying, that Roxane learns the truth about who wrote the lyrical letters.

The librettist is French-born Bernard Uzan, who has directed several operas at MOT. DiChiera’s other compositions include song cycles, a children’s opera, and a piano concerto. Cyrano will premiere at the Detroit Opera House on Oct. 13 and run through Oct. 28. Romanian baritone Marian Pop assumes the title role; American soprano Leah Partridge sings Roxane; and Spanish tenor José Luis Sola portrays Christian. After Detroit, Cyrano will be performed in Philadelphia, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale.

From his sixth-floor office in the Detroit Opera House, overlooking Ford Field and the Detroit Athletic Club, DiChiera talked with us in midsummer about Cyrano.

You’re a busy impresario, so you had to wedge in composing whenever you had a few free moments. Could you elaborate on how long it took you and some of the places where it was composed?
It took seven years. I did it mostly at home, early in the morning. When you’re composing, you lose track of time, so I had to get an alarm clock to remind me of upcoming meetings that day. Sometimes I’d compose late at night, which I liked because I was unwinding anyway. But there were other opportunities to write. A conductor friend invited me to a castle in Scotland, where there was a piano. I thought it was going to be dreary, but it was just beautiful. One couple invited me to California, and I wrote there. I did some composing in the Caribbean, where one of my board members has a home. And a good friend of mine has a wonderful Manhattan apartment with a terrace and a grand piano, so I worked there as well.

Was it a given that Bernard Uzan was to write the libretto?
Yes. This man was so infused with the work, and suggested I compose it. The other thing is, he’s an actor and a director. In a lot of operas, the weakness is in the libretto, and I wanted to make sure to collaborate with someone who understands what’s essential, and I could build this house of music on the story.

Did you want to do it in French from the get-go?
At first, I hesitated. But I started thinking as I composed, “I just can’t hear this in English.” The French language is just so beautiful.

Cyrano de Bergerac has been filmed several times, with Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu, even Steve Martin. Franco Alfano also wrote an opera based on Rostand’s work. What do you hope to communicate that’s fresh and original?
I think Bernard and I have done a much more linear narrative presentation of the story. I really wanted to treat it like the play, but pare it down. There were so many wonderful scenes, but you can’t do all of them, or the opera would be five hours long.

And there are tons of characters in the play…
Oh, yes, and it’s in five acts. We’re doing three. We took out all the characters in the final scene. I said to Bernard that I can’t write an emotional climax with all those people standing around. I said, “Cyrano and Roxane have to be alone because it’s a very private moment.” We took out other scenes when they just weren’t to the point.

Mark Flint, who will conduct the performances here, orchestrated Cyrano. When you were composing at the piano, I’m sure you said to yourself something like, “I can hear cellos here.” Was it a seamless collaboration?
Oh, yes. I knew that if I were to undertake the orchestration, it would be another three or four years before the opera was finished. I went over everything with Mark as I was writing it, and I’d say, “I hear an oboe solo here,” or “The strings change colors here.” But Mark sometimes knew before I did where I was going.

You’ve been very candid that this opera is written in a tonal, romantic style.

I had really minimized my work as a composer. And the reason for that was that when I studied composition at UCLA in the early ’60s with Lukas Foss and others, composing belonged to the world of academia and what was considered appropriate in those times was atonal and cutting-edge. Because I wrote tonal music and was very much a romanticist, I felt kind of isolated. I always wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t think I belonged. But it was interesting to see the transition of composers over the decades. They wanted to communicate with audiences and started to use more traditional methods. By the ’90s, I felt I would take the plunge.

Critics from around the world will descend in Detroit for the premiere. How nervous are you?
I’m very nervous. I’ll tell you why. I have faith that the audience will respond to this opera, but critics often don’t respond in the same way. If it’s not breaking new territory, they don’t like it. So, I’ve prepared myself for that. I think that if the opera has a future, it will be because opera impresarios think it has audience appeal. My life is not going to rise or fall because a critic thinks I’m a successful composer or not.

So what’s next in your career? Do you want to compose more? Are you thinking about retiring from MOT?
Maybe I’ll compose more. I think if I write another opera, I’d like to set it in the South. I love the literary resonance of the South; I love Tennessee Williams. As for retirement, I want to leave the company with an appropriate endowment first. We haven’t had time to build an endowment because we’ve spent the last 15 years raising money for bricks and mortar. We had to create an opera house and a parking center. And every time I think about retiring, I think of something else I want to do. There are some artistic projects I still have in the back of my mind that I’ll be unhappy if we don’t try. I want to do Nabucco, and I’ve been itching to do Mefistofele, by Boito. And I’d love to do [Shostakovich’s sexy] Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And maybe then I’ll retire because people will be so offended [laughs].