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Detroit Opera House

Detroit Opera House

Long before the construction crews came, a sign appeared on the side of the Grand Circus Theatre in downtown Detroit announcing it as the new home of the Michigan Opera Theatre. Could this crumbling theatre, closed since 1985 and surrounded by other boarded up theaters, actually reopen? Another sign, boldly placed on the new part of the structure housing the greatly expanded stage facilities, now says yes in bold letters. It reads simply: Detroit Opera House.

Originally opened in 1922 as a movie theater (designed in an opera house style by Detroit architect C. Howard Crane), it has been called the Capitol, Paramount, Broadway Capitol, and Grand Circus Theatre. The Detroit Opera House faces Grand Circus Park and encompasses a city block bordered by Witherell and John R, Broadway and Madison Streets. The restoration process itself, which broke ground in June 1993, was not the major hurdle.

“The biggest challenge on this project,” says Detroit Opera House Managing Director Kimberly Johnson, “was getting people to see when it wasn’t here. To get them to believe. To see the theater through our eyes, to see the neighborhood through our eyes, and to see downtown Detroit through our eyes. While there were many engineering challenges, the talent in Detroit existed to meet all those challenges, but changing people’s perceptions takes more than architects and engineers and drawings and renderings.”

Detroit Opera House

When the Michigan Opera Theatre was looking for a permanent home, they knew where they wanted to locate. “I have always felt,” explains Michigan Opera Theatre Founder and General Director Dr. David DiChiera, “that cultural institutions belong in the city – the symphony, museums, opera – and we never considered anything else. These cultural institutions are urban institutions, and the city should be a place where the surrounding parameter of people comes into, as well as the people living in the city. Why a lot of people have supported this project who may not even be particularly involved with the arts has been the role that a project like this does in the revitalization of the city. And that’s been a great incentive for all of us.”

No stranger to this kind of endeavor, DiChiera helped revitalize the moribund Music Hall in 1971, only a few years after the riots in Detroit and when few people thought the project would fly. It became the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts with DiChiera as artistic director as well as the home to the newly named Michigan Opera Theatre. The MOT eventually outgrew the space at the Music Hall, and has for several years divided their season between the Fisher Theatre in the fall and Masonic Temple in the spring. In 1996, the Michigan Opera Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and moving into a new home only a few blocks from where they started.

The City of Detroit has provided a great deal of assistance to the project, says Kimberly Johnson, including assigning a point person to help them in their dealings with 14 different city departments. The Downtown Development Authority provided early funding, and renovations of Grand Circus Park as well as street scape work – historic lighting, landscaping, new sidewalks and curbs – are scheduled to start this summer. Fundraising for the $24 million project consists of two phases: the first involved corporate and foundation donations, endowment gifts for the 18 opera boxes, and bank loans to complete construction; the next is the public campaign to get individuals involved by underwriting a seat, buying a personalized brick in the forthcoming walkway, or making a donation.

Detroit Opera House

Raising those funds should not prove difficult once people see the Detroit Opera House. There’s a new stage and orchestra pit (which allow for even the most massive opera productions), wider padded seats, additional restroom areas and lobbies, and grand entrances from both Broadway and Madison Streets. Everywhere there is incredibly ornate plaster work in shades of blue and gold, intricate designs beautifully rendered. The work is even more impressive considering that the once neglected theater had suffered ninety percent plaster loss. The plaster work was meticulously recreated from original blueprints, photographs and fragments, the molds all made by hand. The reasons are more than aesthetic. “The way the ceiling was designed,” expains Johnson, “it’s a giant sounding board, it’s absolutely integral to the acoustics. Plus, it was absolutely beautiful. It’s like function and beauty absolutely matched.”

For their opening, the building will be “operable,” functioning onstage and in the auditorium. Most of the support and office spaces and a few lobbies won’t be fully complete. Work will continue on the renovation through the summer, and the Detroit Opera House will open in the fall with a full season of MOT-produced opera and dance. They also plan to host outside performers, dance companies, and musical theater.

The large scale of opera – the sheer amount of people needed to stage a performance – make it one of the most expensive art forms to produce, and its patronage system has given it the reputation of being the exclusive domain of the rich. But opera itself, Dr. David DiChiera insists, is more populist in nature. “It speaks to so many people in so many different ways,” he says. “The diversity and the potential of opera are as limitless as the styles and cultures that exist in our civilization.”

Detroit Opera House

While the most popular pieces remain romantic and richly emotional 19th century works, the perception of what constitutes opera is changing, DiChiera explains. Opera has incorporated many musical traditions, and reinterpretation of its established repertoire along with the creation of new works keeps the art form relevant. “Because opera reflects so many different aspects of our times and places,” he explains, “we constantly have to not only use works that have already been written but be involved in creating new works that build bridges to constituencies who may not feel that they have as much of an investment. We have a very large African-American audience in this city. We need to create more new works that tap into other musical styles, gospel music for example.”

Once the Detroit Opera House project is completed, DiChiera says, “We’re going to start concentrating again on commissioning works, stretching the repertory. Stretching our audience with it.”

Feature by Serena Donadoni
First published in the Metro Times, 1996.