As Michigan Opera Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary, we are thrilled to recognize Karen V. DiChiera on her 80th birthday! Karen has been instrumental in shaping not only MOT as an institution, but also the lives of thousands of aspiring young musicians, performers, and opera-goers through her work as an arts educator and the founder of MOT’s Department of Education and Community Programs.
An educator, composer, and stage director, Karen VanderKloot DiChiera studied composition in the early 1960s with Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan and with David DiChiera, who at the time was professor of music and composition at Oakland University. She graduated with honors from Oakland University before she helped to lay the groundwork that led to the founding of MOT in 1971. Beginning in the early 1970s, she composed several children’s operas and revues with librettist partner Joan Hill – their first completed work was Vigilance (1973) about an Underground Railroad station in Detroit. She held composer-in-residence posts with the Birmingham Public Schools and Ludington Middle School in Detroit and was certified in the Orff method of music and composition instruction, which uses instruments like xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels. In 1977, she founded MOT’s Department of Education and Community Programs, bringing opera, improvisation and composition into schools and community centers throughout Michigan. Young people from dozens of statewide communities and school districts, from the Detroit Public Schools to small towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, experienced Karen’s groundbreaking educational outreach programs.
She established MOT’s Touring Opera Program, bringing operas and revues to young audiences throughout the state and commissioning new operas from composers such as Seymour Barab (known as "the Dean of American Children’s Opera”), Robert Xavier Rodriguez, and James Eiler, to name a few. Her work also encompassed myriad master classes, lectures, publications and even co-hosting with singer Jonathan Swift a local cable television series produced by Bloomfield Television called “Time Out for Opera,” which garnered multiple Philo T. Farnsworth Awards for Excellence in Community Programming.
Under Karen’s direction, MOT’s Department of Education and Community Programs became a leader in the field of accessibility. In 1979, Karen formed the Detroit Committee on Disabilities, which led to the installation of ramps, railings, and accessible restrooms at the Music Hall as well as American Sign Language interpretation of MOT’s mainstage and community performances. She worked with disabled children and adults in creating their own operas, and was recognized by the United Nations during the International Year of the Disabled.
After the opening of MOT’s new home at the Detroit Opera House in 1996, Karen established “Learning at the Opera House” in 1997, a program series providing learning in the arts to more than 1,700 young people and adults. Learning at the Opera House received a Success Award from Opera America, and also introduced one of MOT’s flagship programs for youth, Operetta Workshop (now re-named Operetta Remix) which gives Teen performers the opportunity to be coached by opera professionals as they mount their own production each summer.
Over her career, Karen DiChiera has served as a consultant to the National Opera Institute and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She co-authored "Working Ideas," a basic guideline for opera education and was a contributor to "Words, Music, Opera!" published by M.M.B. music publishers for Opera America. She has received awards from the Variety Club of Detroit; MU Phi Epsilon, the National Music Sorority; Northwood University; Mercy Hospitals; the Italian Heritage Society; and the Keenwanau Bay Tribal Council. She received the Humanitarian Award from the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit and is a past recipient of the Michigan Governor’s Award for Arts Education.
In addition to Karen’s decades of impactful work with MOT, she has served on numerous boards and spent endless hours as a tireless volunteer for organizations dedicated to arts education, disabilities and youth engagement. In 1996, MOT founder David DiChiera stated, “Her impact on touching the lives of thousands of children and adults throughout the state is incalculable.”
In honor of Karen V. DiChiera’s Birthday, please consider making a generous donation to the MOT Education Programs. https://cart.michiganopera.org/donate/q/86
Michigan Opera Theatre mourns the passing of Karen VanderKloot DiChiera. “Ms. DiChiera’s leadership and commitment to Michigan Opera Theatre has been unwavering from the earliest days of our organization,” says Wayne S. Brown, MOT President and CEO.
In addition to her work as an arts educator, administrator, and stage director, Karen VanderKloot DiChiera is also an accomplished composer, a role...