MOT Appoints CEO: Will Two Heads Be Better Than One?

By Michael H. Margolin

In a highly anticipated announcement on Thursday, Dec. 5, Michigan Opera Theatre introduced Wayne S. Brown to Detroit. Beginning in January, Brown will become the president and CEO of MOT, a role previously filled by founder David DiChiera.

In February of this year, DiChiera announced his decision, after 43 years as the sole head of the opera company, to step down as general manager and relegate his talents and time to the role of artistic director - planning operas, casts, productions and overseeing the final product that makes its way onto the stage of the Detroit Opera House as he has done in the past, but without all the attendant administration of a big business, which MOT has become. This is the traditional model of many large opera companies.

At Thursday's press conference held in the Ford Education Center on the sixth floor of the Opera House, DiChiera said, "I planned to do this at forty years, but I was detained by the economic meltdown," and so he stayed in his dual position and helped to restore stability to the company by restructuring debt incurred in the building of the Opera Parking Garage.

"We wouldn't want to bring someone in without them knowing if the company would even exist," he elaborated. This was a rare moment: A financially stable MOT now has the best of all possible worlds as it enters Act II of its existence.

"When the Detroit Tiger Dennis Fister is leaving for Washington, I am leaving Washington for Detroit," Brown said. Born elsewhere but raised in Detroit, "When I left (some 40 years ago) opera was an emerging entity in Detroit," he told me later when we sat down for a face-to-face.

He transitions to Detroit from the National Endowment for the Arts, the powerful federal agency that oversees the spending of tax dollars for arts programming across the country, for which he has served as director of music and opera since 1997.

Brown, 64, has a warm, outgoing personality that travels across the room. Dressed in a grey suit, white shirt, red tie with small polka dots and tan shoes, he conveys the image of a business man, but with one foot in the arts.

"I am here to see the level of support (for MOT) enhanced, not maintained," he told the group. Later, as we sat and talked, he told me that DiChiera, who has been a wunderkid of fund raising - walking into a room with a crinkly smile and a warm hand he could make frozen assets turn to hot cash - would be a part of his fund development and outreach: a team, collaborative, like the conductor and the orchestra or Suzanne Mallare Acton and the MOT Chorus.

Brown grew up in the Russell Woods area of Detroit, a then-fashionable inner city "suburb" of large, respectable brick houses, many Tudors, some more contemporary, in Detroit's near Northwest side. He went to Winterhalter Elementary, and it was there that he had his first experiences that would lead to a career in the arts.

"When I was in the fourth grade, we went on a field trip to the Edsel Ford Auditorium to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra," he recalled. That Ford Auditorium experience - he described it to me as a "wow moment" - was the foundation for his interest in studying an instrument. "When my first vocal teacher at Winterhalter introduced me to the violin," he was ready. Later, at Tappen Middle School, his attention turned to the cello, because he wanted to know "a young lady cellist."

His vocal teacher, Claire Weimer, was the choral director at Eastern High School where George Shirley was a student. Shirley went on to an international singing career, returned to Detroit and recently retired from the University of Michigan"s School of Music, Dance and Theatre. Weimer introduced Brown to Kemper Harreld, who taught the cello, and he, in turn, brought him to the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, the famous Detroit based organization that promotes spiritual music of African-Americans.

"I had a supportive, nurturing environment in Detroit...Detroit was rich in experiences," he told me, and remembered that as "one of the leading newspaper carriers in 1963" - he delivered The Detroit News - he earned a trip to Washington. "I met President Kennedy two weeks before the (assassination)."

After high school (Mackenzie), he attended the University of Michigan as a vocal major ("I am a lyric baritone," but he genuinely laughed at my suggestion that we might also see him on stage.) He also minored in business.

"I have always been interested in the business side of the arts, something about making it happen" attracted him. Oh, and something else attracted him at U of M: He met a fellow student, Brenda Kee, a piano student from North Carolina who would become his wife. (At the press conference, she was introduced and stood, seeming somewhat embarrassed by the applause. For many years, Karen VanderKloot DiChiera has headed the Department of Community Programs at MOT, so perhaps another husband-wife duo will benefit MOT and the community?)

After graduation from U of M, Brown went to work for the DSO - remember his "wow moment?" - and while there was part of the team shaping and establishing the annual Classical Roots Concerts that would bring attention to ethnic musicians and, in particular, African-American composers. Subsequently, on his journey to the NEA, he worked for orchestras in other American cities - Springfield, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky - where he similarly developed Classical Roots programming.

DiChiera has, over 43 years, led MOT in one of his major objectives: the engagement, support and mentorship of black vocal talent. Forty years ago there was an unacknowledged barrier in opera - black male singers were not cast opposite white divas. While DiChiera has openly sought and presented black female singers, his casting has been colorblind. In recent years we have seen young tenors such as Noah Stewart singing opposite white sopranos. In that, DiChiera has been a radical, pushing the envelope: MOT has presented some fine singers, from the first Rosina ("The Barber of Seville"), later a famous Salome, Detroiter Maria Ewing to Latonia Moore, last season's Aida, and Denyce Graves, the heroine of the world premiere, "Margaret Garner."

Now, Brown comes to MOT in the top job, one of the first African-Americans to head up a major American company - though "that is not something I have sought...There is some discrimination in some companies," Brown acknowledged, but he is more interested in the disconnect between the majority population of Detroit and MOT. In my decades of opera reviewing in Detroit, I told him that in recent years I have seen an increase of young and ethnically diverse audience members when a singer reflecting their uniqueness is performing.

"How do you engage that population in participating not only because a person of color is performing?" he asks. The greater challenge that Brown has set for himself is raising MOT's already high racial bar in encouraging community collaborations.

And the other word heard frequently during the press conference, "collaboration." He elaborated for me: "More meaningful engagement within the community" is the way Brown channels it, but he refused to give a specific example, saying that "it would be presumptuous" to dictate to other organizations even before he has begun his tenure. Smart, canny and direct, Brown seems to know the ins and outs and avoid the downs and outs.

Still, I press, and he yields slightly. "I have clear ideas about taking opera outside of the opera house" to complement, though not replace, the work on the main stage, he told me.

For those of us with long memories and long in the tooth, we can recall that MOT began when DiChiera was an Oakland University music professor and established a small touring company that would travel to communities with reduced productions of works that would be seen at the Masonic Temple when the Metropolitan Opera spring tour made its annual stop in Detroit.

From that foothold, he was able to take MOT into the vacuum when the Met stopped touring, and at the same time bring the Music Hall back from post-Cinerama disuse. And, some say, began the long trek to downtown redevelopment.

Brown, it would appear, is someone who follows in DiChiera's footsteps, shares similar values and exudes warmth and approachability as well. And just as DiChiera led opera in Act I in Detroit, turning the reins over to Brown for Act II, all eyes are on the future: Act III.

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