Our fourth and last interview is with the composer Dr. David DiChiera, an extraordinary man who has done a lot for opera in the United States with a long and very accomplished life dedicated to the art form. Learn more about him by visiting this page from the Michigan Opera Theater website, the company that he founded and directed for decades: [click here]. Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Reproduction authorized as long as the source is quoted and a link to this article is provided.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – I listened to some of your pieces – Letter to Roxanne, which is extremely beautiful and melodious. Loving you less than life, from your famous Four Sonnets, with great vocal lines for soprano. Fantasy, a piece for violin and piano, also exquisite, solemn and poignant. Ballade, for piano, is another very nice work. One can say you have a gift for melody and your music sounds quite romantic, which is not what people expect when they think about the atonal kind of contemporary music. How do you define and describe your musical style?
David DiChiera – I think of my music as being Neo-Romantic. Harmonically I am very committed to melodies but I often support them with what we call bitonal chords. In other words, the melodies are often very lyric, but the harmonies that support them have more than one chord. There are often two chords coming together, so that gives us a richer and stronger kind or harmonic color.
[Editor’s note – polytonality is the use of more than one key simultaneously. Bitonality often superimposes two fully harmonized sections of music in different keys. A chord is any harmonic set of pitches of two or more (usually three = a triad) notes (also called pitches) that are heard simultaneously. Harmony implies simultaneously occurring tones (notes) notated vertically that keep a similar frequency. Think of the little dots in musical notation listed vertically on the same point of the staff, while melody is the horizontal aspect (the progression of the musical line)]
OL – Interesting. Are there composers you consider that you were influenced by?
DD – Yes and no. I’m familiar with all of the composers. I suppose that two American composers have influenced me. Samuel Barber is somebody that I admire. Aaron Copeland was a good friend of mine, whose operas I directed, and so forth. Other than these Americans, you know, I’m Italian, so I have a great interest in the lyricism of Puccini.
OL – I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing your opera Cyrano or listening to it yet, except for a couple of YouTube excerpts (the letter-reading scene, and the second act quintet). Please tell us about the musical structure of the opera.
DD – I’ve structured it based on the libretto. I gave it a very lyric interpretation. I found a place to have an ensemble, the quintet in the second act. Most of it is very much through-composed but with opportunities for either arias, duets, or ensembles. What interested me is to be able to make sure that the drama moves, is clear, but at the same time there are musical structures within the opera.
OL – The story of Cyrano de Bergerac has inspired a stage play, two operas, and several movies. What made you choose it as the topic of your opera?
DD – Well, I’m inspired by the story. My librettist Bernard Uzan also loved the story. I really was taken by the character of Cyrano who loved so desperately but felt that because of his physical deformity he could never be loved. That feeling, “I love this woman but she could never love me.” In my understanding, she could. She would have loved him for his ability to express himself, and as one learns as the opera goes, she has fallen in love with his letters, with his words, which he writes for Christian. She thinks they are from Christian, and only later in the opera that she really understands that who she loved was this man who wrote these incredible letters to her. I loved the fact that Cyrano could only express himself through his words, but did not feel that because of his looks that he could be loved in return.
OL – Did the opera by Alfano on the same topic serve as inspiration in any way?
DD – No. Really, I did not pay attention to the Alfano opera. I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I looked at some of the structure. He used different parts of the story. I worked very closely with Bernard Uzan to find the ways that I could use to music to advance the story. The Alfano was written in the thirties or so. It’s just a very different opera.
OL – As a musicologist you extensively studied opera, including in Italy where your scholarly work took you to the detailed examination of opera manuscripts.
DD – Right!
OL – Now you have composed a full-length opera. What does it take, to compose an opera?
DD – Well, first of all, from my point of view, it had to be a subject that inspired me. I don’t think I could write an opera about any story. I needed a story that had real emotional depth, and Cyrano had that; that’s what drew me to write an opera about this story. He loved so much but always expressed it in words. The idea that I could express that in music was very special for me.
OL – I believe it took about eight years to compose this opera, right, because you had many other professional obligations at the time?
DD – That’s right. I was running three opera companies at the time – the Michigan Opera Theater which I founded; Opera Pacific in Orange County which I also founded, and then the Dayton Opera. I was in airplanes a lot, between opera companies. So it took me a good while. Otherwise I think it would have taken me two, two and a half years. But given that my life was so complicated running so many opera companies, being responsible for them in terms of their fund-raising, etc., I had to work on it when I had time.
OL – How was the creative process? I believe that you finished the opera before it was cast so you probably didn’t write it for specific voices. Did you do workshops?
DD – Yes, we did workshops, I think we did two over the years, with different singers, but I wrote not for specific singers. I wrote music that I thought was what was necessary to express the emotions of the characters. Then my challenge was to find the singers who were appropriate for those roles.
OL – How was your interaction with the librettist? Did you ask for modifications? Was there mutual feedback?
DD – Yes, we worked very closely together. I would compose, then I would say to him: “You know, Bernard, I think I need an aria here.” That’s the way we worked. For example, near the end I said “I believe I need an ensemble where all of the characters are expressing their emotions at the same time” and Bernard provided that for me. I told him what I needed in terms of the structure for the opera, and he gave me what I needed, and at the same time he gave me a libretto that was very clear and with lots of emotions.
OL – I’m a big fan of contemporary opera (and even authored a guidebook to one of them, Written on Skin by George Benjamin), given that I believe that each generation has the responsibility of keeping the art form alive. Unfortunately many contemporary operas are performed only once, unlike yours which got good legs. Please tell us about the obstacles to get contemporary opera to be recorded, performed, and accepted by the public, and what advice you’d have to ensure its success.
DD – It’s always a challenge because the public often wants to hear the operas that they know, whether it is Verdi or Puccini or Mozart or whatnot. But I believe that if you write music that expresses emotions, the audience will be absorbed and will like what they are hearing. I’ve been very fortunate with Cyrano. It’s been performed in a number of cities. The audience has always been very enthusiastic. The best I can say is that my music always tries very hard to express emotions. If I can’t do that well, then I don’t think that I’ve done a good job.
OL – The experience of having founded and directed a regional opera company for several years must have been something! Actually two, since you also founded Opera Pacific (you are the only person in the United States to have founded and directed two opera companies!). Please tell us about the challenges encountered by a regional American company trying to survive and thrive. What strategies you’d advise companies to adopt these days, including ours here in Charlotte?
DD – I think the most important thing is to involve the community; to reach out to the community; make them a part of the process; make them feel that you are not just creating an opera company, but you are doing something for them. Bring them in to hear excerpts. Talk to them about the opera and what you hope to present. My suggestion for composers is to involve the community in workshops when you are writing your opera. You can make people feel that they appreciate and understand what you are trying to present with your opera. Let them hear some of the things you are doing; let them respond; that’s for me very important.
OL – You served as the president of Opera America, and the chairman of the Opera and Musical Theater panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. So you participated in both ends of this equation, an advocacy organization and a support/funding one. These days, funds for the NEA have been slashed, and unlike in countries like Germany, these funds were insufficient to start with. What is your view about the viability of support for opera in America these days, and what can be done to enhance it?
DD – From one time to another, from different administrations, sometimes it becomes more challenging than other times. That’s precisely why it is important to reach out to the community and make them experience what you are doing, maybe in small ways. Excite them about, and make them part of your support system. That’s what I believe, and always tried to do.
OL – Opera has occupied your entire – and successful – life. As such a veteran of the art form, looking back, what do you think you did right? What would you have changed?
DD – Oh wow, that’s a hard question. I mean, I guess what I did right is that I was able to create an opera company, and we have now our own building, our own opera house. What I did right is that I involved the community in Detroit every step of the way. They were part of the process; it was my approach. Maybe what I did wrong is that it could all have been better, but I did my best.
OL – We share an Italian background (my father was also an Italian immigrant), so I’m interested in learning what represented, for you, the fact that the President of Italy bestowed upon you the title of “Commander in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.” Did it bring up some deep emotions?
DD – It did. You know what saddens me the most? Is that my mother and father were not alive. They came here from the south of Italy; they never went to school, they had very little opportunities. I would have loved for them to know that the Italian government was honoring me for what I did with my music and my career. I was very appreciative of that. The Italian culture is very important to me. Probably some of that Italian culture is in my blood and within my music.
OL – I always end my interviews by asking the artist to describe a bit his/her personality, his/her take on life, his/her interests and projects, so that our public gets to know the human being underneath the artist a little bit. Would you try to describe yourself to us, please?
DD – Let me tell you what I think is most important to me; even more important than my work, my music and everything: people! I love people. I love the opportunity to reach out to people and get to know them and learn about the things that are important to them. That’s how I would describe myself: that I am a people’s person. I love people no matter what. They don’t have to be in music or what. I love to reach out and meet people from every walk of life. Tonight at the restaurant I met some very excellent people; some of them will come tomorrow night to see Cyrano. That’s what I enjoy, getting to know people because that’s what life is about.
OL – I appreciate your time very much. It was a great honor for us to talk with you.
DD – Thank you, and call me anytime, it will be my pleasure. Will you come to the opera tomorrow?
OL – Yes, I will!
DD – If you see me, come and talk with me!
OL – Certainly