Opera in 'D' and me

What Dr. David DiChiera's Detroit Opera House means to me and the city we love

Dr. David DiChiera and Paula Tutman

DETROIT – My twin sister Lisa and I were on a big adventure.

We were making our first big drive home by ourselves. We were in my brand new, bright red Chevy Cavalier. It was the very first new car I purchased on my own. It had all the bells and whistles including FM radio and a cassette deck. We were driving from Tennessee to Maryland to surprise our parents. It was before cellphones and iPods and laptops. It was a big trip for two 20-somethings.

I was at the wheel and so it was my turn to pick the music. I popped in an opera cassette, did a fast-forward to find my favorite section, and blasted it. My sister turned to me highly annoyed and said, “What is that caterwauling #$@&%*!!!”

“Opera,” I said.  

I’m sure I turned it up louder because as twins we live to ratchet things up to bug the other.

“It sounds horrible,” she said. "Let’s find something else to listen to.”

After a bit of bickering and noisy reminders that the driver gets to choose the music, I grabbed a different cassette. She’s 5 minutes older than I am, and often wins the arguments. I chose Malcom McLaren.  The cassette entitled, "Fans."  I pushed the play button. She listened contently to the first three songs, "Madam Butterfly", "Fans (Nessun dorma)", and "Carmen." 

"That’s better,” she said. "What’s this?”

“Opera,” I said triumphantly.

"Fans" is still one of my all-time favorite albums, except now I listen to it on YouTube and SoundDog on my phone.  

For people who say they don’t think opera music is for them, I challenge them. Listen carefully.  The "Flower Duet" of "Lakme" is in the background of numerous commercials. Pat Benatar, who belts out "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" honed those pipes as a classically trained opera singer.  Have you listened to NAS and Puff Daddy before he became P. Diddy? And who can forget Aretha singing "Nessun dorma" with all of that soul! Call it sampling or mashups. Call it whatever you wish, but if you can just get over the word “opera” you can probably find something that speaks to you in your own playlist, favorite cartoon, movie or TV commercial.

The day my parents met in college, they skipped a class to go to the library and listen to music. My father wooed my mother with opera music. My parents played opera music around the house. I was 4 years old the first time I saw an actual opera. It was "HMS Pinafore." It was so lively and colorful. For days I pranced around the house and sang, “My name is Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup.” I don’t think those are the actual lyrics, but that’s what I heard with 4-year-old ears, and I was hooked. I was hooked on big, orchestrated music. Lots of strings. Lots of drums. Lots of horns. Big voices, big costumes. Lots to see. I was lucky. I was given the gift of loving opera. It was made accessible to me as a small child. I tasted it and liked it. I’m glad it stuck.

But most of my post childhood love and exploration of opera didn't happen until my early 30s through a chance meeting 25 years ago with an opera aficionado, Dr. Margaret Bennett. I was fairly new to the Detroit area. I had just escaped a really bad first marriage and found myself in a really great job at WDIV. I was rebuilding my life and I had a sense of excitement and freedom. I loooooved Detroit and everything it stood for. For me Detroit was simply the right longitude and latitude for my soul. I have lived all over the world as a Peace Corps brat, (hence the proper pronunciation of the word, ‘again’ as “Agaaaaain”), but I never felt as though I was completely at home until I moved to Detroit. Never mind that downtown seemed to only have two restaurants -- a Subway and a Quiznos and the Quiznos eventually closed. 

Never mind that it was a depressed and dying city with massive empty buildings. Never mind the only real shopping on Woodward was wig shops and that shoe shop, Tall-Eez, that catered to women with large feet. I loved that store and its beautiful shoes and boots that made me wish I had size 11s. I would walk in and admire the shoes and say, “Don’t you have anything in my size?” The salesperson would always say, “Sorry, we start at size 10."

I loved this city.  And when Dr. Bennett introduced me to the Detroit Opera House and Michigan Opera Theatre I fell head-over-heart back in love with the art of opera. 

Dr. Bennett and I decided to become patrons and participate in the continued growth of this amazing venue. We became subscribers and saw every opera. We had front row seats in the center of the theatre in the Trustees Circle. We sponsored a brick in the pavement. We became regulars.

During one performance we were strolling the halls at intermission. A hush came over the crowd. People started whispering. Someone important was walking by.  

“That’s Dr. D,” someone whispered.  

“That’s Dr.,” someone else said behind me in a hushed tone.  

I’m a reporter. I’m nosey for a living and so I asked, “Who’s Dr. D?”

Someone whispered, "He built this opera house."

I watched curiously as this seemingly small in physical stature man strolled with a confident stride through the adoring crowd. He walked as though he owned the place.

Several years later I was sent to Detroit Opera House to interview Dr. David DiChiera. When we met, he greeted me warmly, as if he had known me for years.  His eyes were compassionate.  His manner, confident but approachable.  He shook my hand gently and spoke in his smooth, gravelly, friendly voice.

There was not an ounce of bravado or arrogance. He wasn't stuffy or stiff or full of himself. He was this gentle gentleman who spoke barely above a whisper. We walked around the opera house. He talked about the massive set that was being built for the next production. He spoke nonchalantly with a hint of great pride, yet giving credit to everyone but himself for this great opera house and its productions.

When the interview was done, he said, “Do you like opera music?”

“I do,” I said. “I come here all the time. I’m a subscriber.”

He was delighted.

The next opera I attended, during intermission, I lounged near the banister on the second floor when the hush fell upon the crowd as Dr. D walked through. He strolled by me. I didn't say anything. I just watched him walk by. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and turned around. He walked over to me and smiled warmly and took my hand. He asked me if I was enjoying the show. We talked for a few moments as the crowd watched. When he finally strolled off, my friend, Dr. Bennett said, “You know Dr. D?”

“I guess so,” I said, as I watched him walk away.

Even if you don't know what an aria is and think opera is not for you, consider this, the man who saved the Detroit Opera House and built Michigan Opera Theatre was an original architect for the revival of a fallen city.  Before the first brick was laid in a place called Campus Martius, before a billionaire named Gilbert turned his eye to a failing downtown, Dr. David DiChiera was already building a house to invite the world. He was flawlessly and unapologetically in love with Detroit. He told me in one of our many interviews that when he decided to refurbish the Opera House he was scolded and doubted. He was asked to build in the suburbs. He absolutely refused. He believed Detroit should be the cultural heartbeat of the region. And so he built the Opera House and the city built up around him.

When David DiChiera got to Detroit, the Opera House was a dilapidated ruin between Broadway and Madison. The brand new Opera House opened in 1996 and it was the start of something epic. It wasn't just about opera.  No doubt, opera was the main thing, but it also turned into a vehicle to promote the City of Detroit and other causes that were important to Dr. D.

Once he finished the House, he built the program. He booked the best talent in the world. The productions started off good and then got great very quickly.  He and his team figured out ways to bring young people into the House to hear the music with the fundraiser, BRAVO, BRAVO -- a must attend and be seen, high-end, all-out house party.

In a city ravaged by riots and deeply divided by race, Dr. D proclaimed, "Not in my house!"  He championed civil rights on the stage of theatre, creating opportunities for people of color, seeking, pushing and celebrating diversity with multi-racial pairings in the classics and bringing new theatre to the world. "Margaret Garner," an opera he co-commissioned, was based on the real life of a woman who killed her daughter rather than allowing her to be stolen back into slavery. The world premier was at the Detroit Opera House in 2005.

He wanted all people to recognize themselves on the grand stage and so he brought in the Armenian opera, Anoush and Polish operas, and yes, the classics that bring in the casual fans and boost the box office, "La bohème," "Madame Butterfly," "The Barber of Seville ala," “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” "Aida."  He took chances with "Dead Man Walking," which had a nude scene. He had "Carmen" staged in the 1950s. He took risks. He could. It was his house.

He helped launch the career of Kathleen Battle when she was just a student in Cincinnati, and she became arguably one of the most talented and famous artists in the world.

His image is literally in the very plaster of the walls. The artists brought in to repair and refurbish the frescos and the sculptures had a sense of homage and humor and to Dr. DiChiera's surprise he learned that his image was tucked between the laurels and leaves framed near the stage. If you’ve never been, go to one show and look carefully and you'll be surprised to see the face of Dr. David DiChiera peeking out at you in the audience. In a game of Where's Waldo, Dr. D can be found in numerous places in the walls and painted on them.

Every time I went to the opera, I looked for Dr. D. He rarely said my name. He usually called me, “My dear."  I mentioned to him that I was working on a short story about a cellist and I often wondered what it was like to be a professional musician. He invited me to sit in the orchestra pit during a performance. He invited me to be a supernumerary in "Tales of Hoffman."  Those are so-called "extras" who have walk-on roles. They might be a maid or a butler or a babysitter, but I even had a line. My God, I was so nervous opening night. Friends even flew in from other states just to see me walk on stage and deliver my one line, which consisted of an exasperated, “Hoffman!” That’s it, but I can honestly say that I have been in an opera. I often introduced a "Nutcracker" performance during the holidays and would be invited to bring guests to sit in Dr. D’s box at the theatre. During his Grand Celebration last year, he asked if I would be his "Voice of God" to announce the show.

A private email announcing his illness was sent to a small circle of people last year. Pancreatic cancer. That’s a bad one. When I got the email I cried, though I was grateful that he thought enough of me to include me on the list of close associates. I was glad I wouldn't hear it through the grapevine or read it in the paper. I could brace myself. Tuesday night I got a late-night phone call, informing me he had passed. Erica from the Opera House didn't want me to wake up and see the news release in my emails. Again, I was grateful. 

Dr. DiChiera meant a great deal to me. It was something above fan-girl and way above journalist. He simply represented love, compassion, brilliance and genius.  

I was in the audience for the premier of the opera "Margaret Garner." I was there for the debut of Dr. DiChiera’s "Cyrano," the opera he wrote himself. He told me how nervous he was opening night of the premier. I marveled at Andrea Boccelli and how he moved around the stage like magic even though he couldn't see. I held my breath for a moment when he tripped on the red scarf of Denyce Graves but found his footing and never missed a note of Werther. 

I sat in the theatre for dress rehearsals of my favorites. From where I sat, I watched the city grow up around the opera house. The GEM Theatre across the street got a makeover. Campus Martius was built around the corner. Restaurants appeared nearby. Comerica Park was erected across the street and then Ford Field. Parking became ridiculous and then an Opera House parking garage was constructed.  

I looked for reasons to do stories on productions and goings on at Michigan Opera Theatre because I knew it was more than just opera. That was just the music form, but what was going on in that House was the center of so many other important things in this city. The cherry on the top was seeing Dr. DiChiera from time to time as he strolled smoothly through that Opera House. He was an impresario to so many To me, he was simply a rock star.

My friend Dr. Bennett is still around. We no longer go to dinner and the opera. We have long since given up our wonderful seats in the Trustees Circle. She is 35 years older than I am, and I am now her legal guardian and seemingly her only remaining living friend, though she doesn't remember the operas we’ve seen together that sealed our friendship and lately she often doesn't even remember me.

Dr. D is gone now. Stolen by an insidious disease that has robbed us all of so many great people. I think it’s interesting synchronicity that Arthur Mitchell, the founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, died within hours of Dr. DiChiera. I wonder if they passed one another during their passage. I wonder if they recognized one another. I wonder if they’ll see my dad.

Opera is so much more than a kind of music to me. It takes me back to being 4 years old. I laugh when I think of me and my sister on that long trip home, feeling like grown-ups but bickering like children. It sealed a friendship between me and a woman who had no children of her own but, through a mutual love of opera, found someone to care for her during her own Final Act. I think about watching a city I love evolve around this amazing building and the vision of Dr. D.

I don’t think I can say that we were the text book definition of good friends. Good friends know each other’s birthdays or talk on the phone and tell one another their secrets. I am comfortable saying that we were both very, very fond of one another. I love we went from handshakes to hugs. I’m honored he asked me to participate in some of his projects. I’m pleased that the small brick I purchased to help him build his vision rests next to his in front of the Opera House Café window. I’m thrilled I knew this giant of a man. I’m sad he has left us. But more importantly, I’m so damned glad he was here, if even for what seems like a brief moment.

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