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Q&A: David DiChiera on Detroit, Opera and Pavarotti

This Saturday, Michigan Opera Theatre will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a grand Opera Ball, or what the glitterti call Ballo dell'Opera. This fund-raising, black-tie event will be held at the Detroit Opera House, a glorious building at 1526 Broadway.

Part of the festivities will be to celebrate and honor founder and general director Dr. David DiChiera. He recently received the 2010 National Endowment for the Arts' Opera Honors, which recognizes individuals from the American opera world for their lifetime contributions to the art form. This is the highest award the country gives for opera. (More on Time.com: See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline)

And, yes, he found a few minutes to talk with little ol' me. In our conversation, DiChiera talked about Detroit's need to raise its own opinion of itself, his love of the city's opera house and performance legacy as well as what his recent honor means to him. (One of the other award recipients? Philip Glass. We live among legends, people.)

Here we go.

Q: When I think Detroit, I think Motown, Eminem, honking horns. Detroit and opera?

A: I think Detroit is a city blessed with great cultural institutions. The challenge is that the perception of the city from the rest of the county. Perhaps the world's vision of us has been so obscured by some of our other challenges. When people are focusing on those issues, then they tend to not be able to think that a city like Detroit could have a great cultural life. I think we have really one of the finest when you consider that we have a great symphony, great museum, a fine opera company – I think – and a great African American museum. I think it's interesting that people tend to talk about Toronto as a destination because they're going to go see “Phantom of the Opera” there. We have all of that. The Opera House hosts “Phantom” and the big musicals. Our large dance series is amazing. Everything is about perception. I think our biggest challenge is to focus on changing perception, on pointing out things that balance those elements that make the city world famous. Our cultural institutions are on par with those of any major American city. Our challenge is to put a spotlight on them. (More on Time.com: See 10 things to do in Detroit)

Q: Does Detroit have inner greatness?

A: In the larger sense, I think there's so much to celebrate with Detroit. It has one of the most wonderful settings of any city. We're sitting here as the gateway to Canada and on the river; it's magnificent. We're only now beginning to recognize it and take advantage of it. Look at projects like the Riverwalk. I think in a decade, the riverfront is going to be a very exciting place to come to and to live on. It will have elements of the Michigan Mile in Chicago. From that point of view, there's so much that is here but also will continue to evolve.

Q: We're heard about the financial challenges at other organizations, like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (which is now facing a musician strike). How is the Opera House doing?

A: We're all struggling with our financial challenges. When you're under a financial challenge, you're not in the position to do all the projects that you want to do or you're thinking about. But that too will come. We've done a significant amount of work that is important. One of my great missions has been to expand the operatic repertoire so it will build bridges into the various communities of our metropolitan area. And opera is a wonderful vehicle for that. I've presented several times the National Opera of Armenia, in which we've involved the Armenian community on many levels. And it let them see an important piece of their heritage and to share with the community. It's about letting a community know about their own heritage. Then, of course, with a city that is that has one of the largest preponderance of residents being African American, we've presented a variety of performances. From the first year when I founded the company 40 years ago, we've been dedicated to nurturing, to discovering African-American talent and furthering their careers by putting them on our stage. It's very important for people to see themselves in an art form and not that it's a distant European art form separate from their culture. We've probably done more than any other opera company in the nation launching African American singers. Kathy Battle made her debut here. Vincent Cole, Leona Mitchell – they've all had significant careers. To take that even further, to create additional operas that not only pay homage to the history, the experience of African Americans, but we've also give them additional opportunity to work, to celebrate. They can see again their own history and their own artists on stage. That was the reason I produced Margaret Garner with Toni Morrison writing the libretto – it's a vehicle for incredible talented artists, particularly Denise Graves and others we helped launch through those productions. That's something I'm continually looking for – to reach out to audiences who feel opera has no relation to them. (More on Time.com: Read “Why Motown Wants to Save Its Symphonic Soul”)

Q: What do you think you'll do next then?

A: I want to do a Latino opera. I want to do an opera that deals with Arab Americans; they're the largest population in north America. That's a culture that should not be neglected; it should be celebrating in an art form like opera that is so comprehensive. Visual, dance,  music – all of the arts come together in opera. It reflects so many things.

Q: What does the upcoming year look like for Michigan Opera Theatre?

A: We're doing the Mikato – it's 120 years old, but it is as vital and up to date because it deals with so many foibles of society. Even through it takes place in Japan, it's very much about our own culture. We're also doing Boheme, which everyone one loves to come and weep at. There's the Magic Flute, and Mozart is just a god in terms of his creativity. And then there's the Rigoletto, which is incredible work that launched Verdi's middle period of creativity. We're have a major dance series as well – Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Eisenhower Dance Ensemble. These are great American companies that will be here. Dance companies and opera singers love this opera house. When the American Ballet Company comes, they've always said its one of their favorite presentation houses, which delighted me. (Luciano) Pavarotti, who inaugurated the Opera House, called me sometime in 1999 or 2000 and said, “David, I'm going to revive my Aida at the Met, I haven't done it for some years. I'd love to do it at your house in particular because I'm comfortable there.” We made it a centerpiece. So all of that simply to say the house is really a jewel and the artists appreciate it a great deal.

See more from TIME's yearlong look at Detroit

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