Feast your ears

Sep 26, 2007 at 12:00 am

To be properly out to lunch with David DiChiera, he and I should be feasting off a European banquet table as in Romeo and Juliet.

We should be purchasing oranges, dates and hot chestnuts from street vendors like those who hawked such snacks in La Boheme. We should be attending a church picnic where the fare matches the menus popular in 1920s South Carolina, the setting for Porgy and Bess.

At least we could be drinking wine. How many operas, after all, feature consumption of that favorite beverage?

"Yes," says DiChiera, the general director of Michigan Opera Theatre. "There are a lot of drinking songs in opera."

But this is a column about lunch, and we're in downtown Detroit in the summertime. Not to mention that DiChiera can barely spare time for a meal — let alone an afternoon of imbibing with me for publicity's sake.

He's busy planning the 2009-10 season, overseeing auditions for this year's productions, reviewing budgets, planning for board meetings, raising always-needed funds and, oh, preparing for the world premiere of his own opera, Cyrano, next month.

But he makes some time for Metro Times, intrigued by the title of our new monthly feature.

"Just make sure it doesn't read, 'David DiChiera is out to lunch,'" he playfully warns.

We meet outside the Detroit Opera House's lobby, where singers are arriving for auditions and ticket clerks are selling seats. DiChiera and I discuss where to eat. He suggests Vicente's, the Cuban restaurant located a few blocks away at 1250 Library St. Shamefully, I've never been there so I'm happy with his suggestion.

We arrive at the colorful restaurant, where music from the Caribbean island blares amid the mingling smells of seafood, meat and spices that define Cuban cuisine.

Our meals are a mouthwatering blend of seafood, rice and vegetables. Still, I jokingly wrinkle my nose and pretend to sigh with disappointment as we're seated. "I don't see any opera connections here."

My lunch companion reassures me. "Don't worry. Bizet took some of the melodies in Carmen from Cuban songs."

If anyone in Detroit can find opera amid the plantains, it's DiChiera.

Ever since his family saved pennies to purchase a piano for him in his elementary school years, DiChiera has been inseparable from music. He earned a doctoral degree in music from UCLA, and then moved to Michigan to become a faculty member and department chair in music at Oakland University in the 1960s.

He founded Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971, helping the company grow and moving it in 1996 to the Detroit Opera House after the completion of the multimillion-dollar renovation of a 1922 movie palace.

Along the way he's always worked to build an appreciation for the arts in general among Michigan's youth.

"We're in a different environment. Young people have so many choices and opportunities for their entertainment. It's all about the experience. Sometimes we win that victory one person at a time," he says.

DiChiera has attracted new audiences to opera, specifically when Detroit hosted the world premiere of Margaret Garner two years ago. The emotional opera told the story of an escaped slave who killed her children rather than return them to slavery. Audiences gasped at the opening scene of a slave auction. During the applause when the singer who played the slave owner took a bow, the audience hesitated, confused about whether their applause meant they appreciated his performance or approved of his character's actions.

DiChiera has often stated his commitment to multicultural productions in Detroit, and he believes the predominantly African-American city was the right place to address an ugly chapter of American history.

"It wasn't all that long ago that slavery was very much a part of our world," he says.

Two seasons later, DiChiera is premiering his own opera here, only, he insists, because two other companies will perform it this year as well. Transforming the story of Cyrano de Bergerac into an opera was something DiChiera had thought about for years. Finally, he composed it.

Cyrano, DiChiera believes, is a character any audience member can identify with. "He led an extraordinary double life," he says. Cyrano was an aristocrat and accomplished swordsman, part of upper-class French society. He also was considered monstrously ugly — mostly by his own standards — because of his enlarged and misshapen nose.

Insecurity over the facial feature caused him to forgo seeking the affections of Roxanne, the woman he loved. He penned her love letters but only with the signature of his fellow soldier, Christian, who was handsome but incapable of Cyrano's brilliant prose. Roxanne fell in love with Christian because of the writings.

"Inside Cyrano suffered terribly," DiChiera says. "I think we all have something in our own psyche that keeps us from total self-fulfillment. I think that's what Cyrano is all about."

The opera premieres Saturday, Oct. 13 — with a weekend of dinners, brunches and meetings with the artists and performances that cap the years of work producing it.

DiChiera's eyes twinkle but he doesn't answer how long he'll keep doing what he's doing. "I want to keep doing this until I can't do a good job," the 72-year-old says.

We finish our lunches with some crusty white bread — just like in Cinderella when the stepdaughter fed the beggar who was actually scouting for the handsome prince — and discuss the merits of DiChiera's chosen field.

"Opera is a unique art form. It can give expression to emotion in a way that no other can," he says.

Out to Lunch is a regular monthly column spotlighting local food and celebrities. Sandra Svoboda is Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]