David DiChiera, the founder of Michigan Opera Theater, a regional company that attracted world-class talent and became a bastion of culture and a booster of revitalization in a downtown Detroit that many had abandoned, died on Tuesday at his home in that city. He was 83.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Erica Hobbs, a Michigan Opera spokeswoman.
Dr. DiChiera led the company from its establishment in 1971 to 2014 and drove the effort to buy and renovate a grand but dilapidated movie theater that became the Detroit Opera House, the company’s home.
He was also a composer whose opera “Cyrano,” based on Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” had its premiere at the house in 2007. (It has since been performed by Opera Philadelphia, Florida Grand Opera in Miami and Opera Carolina in Charlotte, N.C.)
“Opera is an extension of something that is everywhere in the world — that is, the combination of music and story,” Dr. DiChiera wrote in a monograph published by the Kresge Foundation in 2013. “It’s really a universal art form.”
Dr. DiChiera actively sought to encourage diversity, both on the stage and in the audience. He took steps to reach out to the black community and featured prominent African-American performers, like the soprano Kathleen Battle and the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, in major parts.
Dr. DiChiera was known for his willingness to present contemporary operas; he programmed two every season. One was “Margaret Garner,” commissioned by Michigan Opera, the Cincinnati Opera and Opera Philadelphia and based on Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” with a libretto by Ms. Morrison and music by Richard Danielpour; it had its premiere at the Detroit Opera House in 2005.
Ms. Graves, who sang the title role in “Margaret Garner,” praised Dr. DiChiera for taking risks that the heads of other companies might shy away from.
“People have wonderful ideas that they want to share, and they don’t see the light of day, but he would follow through,” she said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Graves said that Dr. DiChiera had put a lot of time and effort into bringing black audiences to performances, and that his efforts had paid off.
“Never before had I seen so many faces that looked like mine in the opera house, when we premiered this,” Ms. Graves said of “Margaret Garner.” “I was enormously proud of him for taking this art, which has this reputation of being elitist and belonging to the upper echelon, and bringing it to the masses, to educate, entertain and share at the same time.”
Dr. DiChiera (pronounced dee-key-AIR-a) was born on April 8, 1935, in McKeesport, Pa., to Italian immigrant parents. His father, Cosimo, was a laborer, and his mother, Maria (Pezzaniti) DiChiera, cleaned homes. The family moved to Los Angeles when David was 10.
He graduated from Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles in 1952 and went to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he initially studied piano. He received his bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s in composition there and in 1962 completed a doctorate in musicology.
In 1962 Dr. DiChiera took a position as an assistant music professor at Michigan State University, Oakland (now Oakland University), in Rochester, Mich., a Detroit suburb. He later led the university’s music department and worked to bring opera companies to Michigan. But he yearned for a more fixed location for opera.
“The time seemed right to find a home in which to establish a permanent professional opera company in Detroit,” he was quoted as saying in the 2013 monograph. “Of course, there was significant pushback: an opera company in a blue-collar town? A home in the core of a city that had recently experienced devastating riots?”
Dr. DiChiera persuaded American carmakers and other businesses to support what became Michigan Opera Theater. Its first season, in 1971, took place at the Music Hall Theater, an abandoned historic building in downtown Detroit that was slated for demolition before Dr. DiChiera saved and renovated it with money from the Kresge Foundation and Detroit Renaissance, now known as Business Leaders for Michigan.
He married Karen VanderKloot in 1965. They divorced in 1990. He is survived by a sister, Ellen DiChiera Blumer; two daughters, Lisa and Cristina DiChiera; and three grandchildren.
Michigan Opera Theater had outgrown its original home by 1985 and spent the next seasons staging productions at two different theaters in Detroit. The company found its current home when Dr. DiChiera, who was general director, oversaw the purchase of a theater in the center of Detroit in 1989. The building cost just $600,000 and was in bad shape.
“Everybody thought we were really insane, we had no touch with reality, this was such a forsaken area,” Dr. DiChiera told The New York Times in 1999.
After an investment of more than $75 million and years of work, the Detroit Opera House opened in 1996 with performances by Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti.
Michigan Opera now puts on five productions a season on an annual budget of around $12 million. The theater also plays host to dance companies.
Dr. DiChiera was Michigan Opera Theater’s chief executive from the company’s inception until he retired from the position in 2014. He continued as artistic director until 2017.
Detroit’s downtown has revived in recent years, leading to the opening of new sports stadiums near the opera house — and to parking shortages. But, Dr. DiChiera said, after decades of trying to establish his company, that was the least of his concerns.
“I’d really rather deal with the problems of where people park,” he said, “than the problem of getting people to come down.”
Follow Daniel E. Slotnik on Twitter: @dslotnik