The Fat Lady Keeps on Singing

Bucking national trends and the local economy, the Detroit Opera House is thriving
Photographs by Cybelle Codish

The art form that brought us such works as La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Pagliacci is in a state of emergency. In recent years, opera companies in Baltimore; Hartford, Conn.; Orlando, Fla.; and Santa Ana, Calif., have shut down; in October, after a failed attempt to raise money through Kickstarter, New York City Opera closed its doors.

The Detroit Opera House (DOH) is in the middle of a successful season, but it has not been immune to the financial crisis of the last decade. During the 2008-09 seasons, the DOH — home to the Michigan Opera Theatre — lost General Motors and Chrysler as corporate sponsors, an investment in a parking structure went belly up, the biggest patrons stopped giving, and money from the state came to a halt.

“All of these problems hit … it was a disaster, it was a catastrophe,” says Rick Williams, chairman of the board at the Michigan Opera Theatre, which is in its 43rd season.

Detroit’s national conversation is about bankruptcy, massive unemployment, and dwindling population. Yet in the midst of the city’s woes, Detroit Opera House is thriving — and drawing more diverse audiences than ever before.

Much of the credit goes to David DiChiera, MOT’s founder and general director, who has committed decades of his career to increasing diversity on stage and attracting younger audiences. And while some opera companies were shutting down, MOT Board Chairman Williams used savvy financial management to put Detroit Opera House on solid footing.

In 2010, at the height of the economic recession, the Detroit Opera House hosted Ballo dell’Opera to kick off the opera season and celebrate Michigan Opera Theatre’s 40th anniversary. Attracted to the pomp and couture that comes with an opera ball, a new generation of opera-goers snapped up tickets and made it a sold-out event. More than 500 people came out on an unseasonably cold and rainy night to support opera in Detroit.

Grounded in Diversity

While selling out the 2010 ball was a major achievement, steady growth in attendance from Detroit’s ethnic communities helped keep seats full during the recession. DiChiera has long been committed to creating one of the country’s most diverse opera houses.

In the 1970s and ’80s, he began nurturing the careers of African-American opera singers such as Leona Mitchell, Vinson Cole, and famed soprano Kathleen Battle — who made her stage debut in 1975 at the Michigan Opera Theatre.

In the 1990s, DiChiera was steadfast on building a home for the traveling Michigan Opera Theatre. He focused on renovating the old Capitol Theatre. Creating the Detroit Opera House out of an old movie palace was no small feat. So daunting was the challenge, that on a visit to Detroit, world-renowned singer Luciano Pavarotti even promised to sing at the opening — if it happened. It did.

Preservationists praised DiChiera for saving the Capitol Theatre and heralding a new era for downtown Detroit. MOT became one of a handful of American opera companies to own their own home.

Having a proper opera house meant that DiChiera could create large productions rivaling those in St. Petersburg, Fla., and New York City. The move elevated Detroit’s international standing in the fine arts community — and created a platform to promote diversity on stage.

DiChiera had a clear goal: “The very first opera that I give birth to is going to be an opera that has African-American singers, an African-American story,” he says. “When … we can afford a world premiere, it’s going to be an opera which celebrates and reflects the African-American community.”

The Detroit Opera House had its grand opening in 1996, and Pavarotti kept his promise to sing. Three years later, DiChiera commissioned Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison to write a libretto. Margaret Garner — with music by Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour — told the story about an enslaved pre-Civil War woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow the child to be returned to slavery. In a genre full of Italian tragedies and German dramas, Margaret Garner is one of the few operas written about the African-American experience.

In his own way, DiChiera was an activist. By giving lead roles to African-American men and women he was showcasing interracial couples on stage.

“There are places where African-American tenors are not cast if they’re in a romantic role,” DiChiera says. “It’s not spoken but it’s true.”

The groundbreaking premiere proved that a story about Black America could be popular with all audiences. Margaret Garner drew enormous interest from the black community. African-Americans saw themselves reflected in the story line — and the production showed off a full African-American cast, including mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and baritone Gregg Baker in lead roles.

“The risk invested in Margaret Garner paid off in an important new American work,” wrote the Detroit Free Press in a review. The world premiere in 2005 was a smashing success.

Betty Brooks, a leader in Detroit’s African-American community, was instrumental in bringing Garner to life, and says it helped opera become popular among African-Americans. To attract interest in a performance, she says, “You have to have something that’s akin to you. Opera was not really our thing … we’ll go to Broadway musicals,” she says. “But to have a story about a slave was unbelievable.”

Today, 24 percent of DOH audience members are African-American, making what DiChiera believes to be one of the largest African-American-based audiences of any major U.S. opera company.

Behind the Scenes Panic

As general director, DiChiera was making great strides in creating works that drew audiences. But behind the scenes, he and Williams were terrified. By 2011 the Opera House had debt upwards of $18 million and the banks were looking to foreclose.

Income from the parking structure that was built to create a continuous revenue stream for the MOT plummeted. Detroit businesses lost employees.

“I spent, I would say … a three-year period trying, struggling to figure out how the hell we were going to get through this — and the banks were getting very nervous,” Williams says.

Just five years after the success of Margaret Garner, the board of directors at the MOT was now in damage control. Williams fired the chief financial officer; he made sure other operations tightened their belts. They made the decision to cut two of the season’s operas — going from six productions a year to four. DiChiera had no choice but to reduce the salaries of several full-time employees, including his own.

Kudos Amid Turmoil

DiChiera is the longest-serving general director of any opera company in the United States. And in the midst of the financial crisis, he hit a career milestone. In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed him with the Opera Honors Award, the nation’s highest lifetime achievement award in opera.

“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,” the NEA wrote.

Around the same time, Latinos had become a political powerhouse. They began to make massive inroads in baseball, music, and television. Yet, DiChiera saw there was little to no effort to give them representation in the classical arts. “It’s time for me to really focus on the Latino community, in a way that I’ve done for many years with the African-American community,” he says.

As the 2011-12 season began, DiChiera chose tenors Rene Barbera and Eleazar Rodriguez to alternate in a role for The Barber of Seville and Jesus Garcia to sing in The Pearl Fishers. The following season, he chose bass Ricardo Lugo to sing in Fidelio.

The audience was also beginning to diversify. Gabriel Guerrero went to the Opera House for the first time last season. The 32-year-old attorney says he had no idea Detroiters had access to such quality. “Before going to the Opera House I felt I had to go to New York City to experience that level of entertainment,” he says. “They deserve my patronage.”

Getting Out of Red Ink

Ticket sales and theater rentals were going well, and support from donors was coming in. But, the Detroit Opera House was far from out of the water. For three years Williams made drastic changes. Yet with all the work he and DiChiera had done to turn the finances around, bankruptcy seemed imminent.

“We were not losing money on operations; we were losing rivers of money on our debt,” Williams says. “I was literally scared to death. I woke up one morning at 2 o’clock … I was just sweating; I was terrified, terrified to be the chairman of the board when this thing went down.”

But Williams is not the kind of man to give up. He’s the founder and managing partner of the law firm Williams, Williams, Rattner & Plunkett, and for 40 years he’s counseled business owners, CEOs, financiers, and bankers. His business acumen helped broker a deal with the banks that some say was complete insanity. He negotiated the forgiveness of $7 million if, in return, the Detroit Opera House came up with $11 million in cash — in six months. The banks went for it.

But if the DOH was having trouble paying the interest on the monthly loan payments, how was it going to come up with $11 million in six months?

Williams and members of the board began the fundraising effort by personally making significant contributions. Williams and DiChiera then systematically approached high-end individual patrons, foundations, and corporations and made their case.

“Our case was basically this: This is a critical institution, we’ve been here 43 years, we have a legacy of success and a legacy of achievement, and this is a cornerstone of the city. We appeal to the masses, and it isn’t just people with bow ties,” Williams says.

Williams went as far as to create a matching gift fund. After every opera, DiChiera would go on stage and ask audience members to give. If they donated $25 it would become $50, and so on.

“We raised $350,000 from 1,600 patrons, many in small amounts, which was immensely gratifying,” Williams says.

In the spring of 2012, six months after the frenzy of round-the-clock phone calls and dozens of personal visits to program officers and corporations, the Detroit Opera House had reached its goal.

“Without David our plan wouldn’t have been effective at all,” Williams says. “David is an iconic character.”

David DiChiera (left) and Rick Williams helped steer Detroit Opera House out of financial trouble.

Looking Forward

This year marks the 43rd season of opera in Detroit. 2014 brings A View from the Bridge and Turandot to the stage. DiChiera is laying the groundwork to produce Frida. Robert Xavier Rodriguez is writing the opera based on the life of Mexican painter and international cultural icon Frida Kahlo. DiChiera plans to produce it for Detroit’s stage by 2015.

With the Detroit Opera House financial crisis in the past, the MOT plans to split DiChiera’s job into two positions. They are conducting a national search for a new executive director, and DiChiera will transition to artistic director for a few years. Then comes retirement. DiChiera also plans to write a memoir. But most of all, he’s excited to develop new works and continue to devote his life to diversity in opera.

“If there are two singers of equal talent vying for a role, I will always choose the person of color,” DiChiera says.