'Idol' making at the Detroit Opera House

Michigan Opera Theatre continues to bring future stars

By Michael H. Margolin

DETROIT -

Don't we all want to be star makers? Be the first to designate this actor or that singer as the one for the ages? Isn't that what "American Idol" is all about, that and hating Simon Cowell?

Well, nobody hates David DiChiera, head of Michigan Opera Theatre, and in nearly four decades he has done remarkably well in debuting young operatic talents who go on to big things. "It keeps me constantly energized," says DiChiera, "the search for the next wonderful artist."

Take Irina Mishura, for example. A young Russian emigre, she left a promising career in Russia and was living in Oak Park, Mich., when her name was buzzed into the ear of Detroit Symphony Orchestra maestro, Neeme Jarvi. He hired her for the vocal role in a Tchaikovsky piece and called DiChiera. In 1994 he cast her as Suzuki in "Madame Butterfly."

"Did you ever see a 'Butterfly' in which the Suzuki stole the show?" DiChiera asks. Recognizing the sensational voice, figure and sublime acting, DiChiera rapidly cast her in some of the great, staple roles in opera: Carmen and Aida, to name two. Soon she was singing at the great opera houses in America, then the Royal Opera House in London. Still living here - though, more fitting for a diva, in West Bloomfield - she is singing leading roles here and abroad.

In 1990, a young lyric mezzo sang the small trouser role of Stephano in "Romeo and Juliette" and made a great impression. Susan Graham is now a major recording artist and recently starred at Chicago Lyric, San Francisco and New York's Metropolitan opera in a smashing new production of a Gluck opera - one made for her prodigious talents.

"Some are so successful that it is a great challenge to get them back", says DiChiera, when their marquee value requires a major house and pay scale. Graham is in that category, as is Marcelo Giordani, now the reigning Italian tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. MOT had him three times, as recently as 2000 (a spectacular Cavaradossi in "Tosca") and now he is doing opening nights with the top sopranos in New York.

On a recent Sunday, the New York Times devoted a full page to today's newest starry baritone: Mariusz Kwiecien shone like a beacon in a MOT production of "La Boheme" in 2000 - and DiChiera wisely got him back two seasons later. He had it all: looks, presence and a lustrous baritone. Today he is one of the most sought after Don Giovannis as well as singing in the staple Verdi roles.

Perhaps the greatest of all is Kathleen Battle who sang with the fledgling MOT in 1976 and 77 and went on to become one of the most lauded sopranos of the 20th century.

How does DiChiera do it?

"I look for the person I think will really convey the essence of that character", he says. And if some of them become superstars and too expensive to get here again, he adds, "It is a great pleasure to see them go on to great careers."

Of course, some come for a quick visit and make their careers just off the radar, such as the incandescent Mariella Devia, who sang a beautiful Lucia for MOT in 1982 and now sings lead roles in her native Italy at La Scala, one of the half dozen most prestigious opera showcases in the world.

This year has already seen impressive debuts, and the season beginning on March 29 will open with the first ever MOT production of "La Sonnambula," one of the great bel canto works and one of Maria Callas' noted roles. A new Russian soprano will debut. Her name is Ekaterina Siurina.

The next Callas?

In the finale of the spring season, "La Traviata" will showcase the return of Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who was a stunning Juliette just last season.

The next Renee Fleming?

A tenor of inspiring sound and youthful evanescence, Antonio Chacun-Cruz, the recent MOT Romeo, will sing the roles of Ruggerio ("La Rondine") and Alfredo ("Traviata"), two lyric tenor roles that can prove a singer's worth.

The next Domingo? Pavarotti?

Unlike "American Idol," no one singer will emerge as the winner; but we can put our bets down and wait to see who will make it as a bona fide star.

(FOR "REVIEW BOX")

PREVIEW:

'La Sonnambula'

Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit. March 29, April 2, 4-6. Tickets: $28-$120. For information: 313-237-7464 or http://www.michiganopera.org.

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