This story was copublished with the Detroit Free Press.

A new, more accessible, future for that most highbrow of artforms — the opera — has now begun in Detroit, with Roberto Kalb at the helm of Detroit Opera.

Kalb began his term in November as music director of Detroit Opera, formerly known as the Michigan Opera Theatre. It’s the state’s premier opera company, staging renowned opera and dance seasons each year. Kalb will remain in this position until the end of the 2025-26 season. 

Kalb said one of his main goals is to lower barriers for those who have not been exposed to the black-tie world of classical music and opera productions and to truly make the theater feel like a home. While noble, his mission could be a difficult undertaking considering the luxe reputation attached to the opera where it might be easy to feel underdressed or unfamiliar. 

“It’s really paramount to the future of our art form,” Kalb said. “One of the biggest problems that audiences feel when they go to the opera is that you don’t feel included, involved or that they’re out of place. We’re really motivated to make opera really accessible and exciting, and bring it out to the community.”

Kalb started with Detroit Opera in November. He is the opera company’s first music director since the 2017 retirement of founder David DiChiera. Kalb is also a conductor and previously served as resident conductor and head of music at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He also led productions across the country and abroad including in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mexico City and São Paulo.

“I think once you go to the opera and you’re not made to feel like you’re out of place, then you get hooked. If we make people feel at home, then that’s the hook.”

Roberto Kalb, Detroit Opera music director

Kalb said he is hoping to expand and increase the theater’s free programs for the community in the Detroit area, including concerts using the full orchestra and singers. The opera house is commissioning a few studies to identify communities who have been neglected in the past, Kalb said, to better reach audiences who have yet to experience a performance. 

During his tenure at Detroit Opera, Kalb will conduct at least one production per season starting this fall. The 2022-23 season includes a production of George Frideric Handel’s “Xerxes” in March and Golijov’s Ainadamar “Fountain of Tears” in April. 

We spoke to Kalb about his plans to increase accessibility to the opera here in Detroit, his vision for the future of opera and getting Detroiters “hooked.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What barriers make people feel intimidated by the opera? And how are you planning to eliminate them? 

It’s a little bit of an uphill battle because there are some societal stereotypes that we need to break. Even in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, there’s the diva singing with the horns and the chest plate and people see that as what opera is: these women screaming at the top of their lungs in a language that no one really understands unless you’re German or Italian. Opera is the opposite of that. Opera is singers telling stories that are incredibly human, that everyone can identify with. 

I also think that the dress code is part of it. I feel like people think you need to go in a tuxedo to the opera, and people treat it as a special occasion. I think that’s why people feel it’s a little bit elitist. That’s part of my role where I will be very blunt with people. I’ll say, listen, if people give you a weird look, then shame on them. And that’s not your problem. 

We really want people to feel at home at the opera so that going to the opera is as natural as going to a movie.

I think once you go to the opera and you’re not made to feel like you’re out of place, then you get hooked. If we make people feel at home, then that’s the hook.

Roberto Kalb, new music director of Detroit Opera. Photo credit: Benjamin Taylor

What advice would you give someone who wants to give opera a chance but knows next to nothing about the art?

They don’t need to know a single thing about opera to go and enjoy opera. You’re going to understand the plot. You’re going to love the music. I would say: Don’t feel intimidated. You don’t have to know anything. And if you do want to know something, then arrive an hour early and go to the pre-opera talk. In those sessions, we try to just really bring people up to speed a little bit about the history, and why the piece is so cool, and why the composer is a master composer, and just give people a little bit of insight so then they can feel more involved.

The experience needs to be whatever you want it to be. You go and you sit in your seat, and it’s dark, and that experience is for you alone. It’s whatever you make it.

What would you say is the role of an institution like Detroit Opera in the community?

Any arts institution is crucial to the life of the community in profound ways. Obviously it’s never life and death, but for me, it’s a mental and spiritual life and death. The opera house should be a center where our lives are reflected. It needs to be a meeting point where we can connect with each other. When we are 3,000 people in an audience from every walk of life, every ethnicity, et cetera, we all concentrate on one story that speaks to each and every one of us. And it’s not just to put opera on, it’s about getting the people to the opera house. 

People say that it’s like an escape, and it’s an entertainment. And that’s great, but I think it goes beyond escapism. It’s more about a reflection of our humanity. The opera house should be where everyone just goes to speak to each other and then to reflect on our own humanity during the show.

Do you see this direction of increasing accessibility as the trend for all opera houses or do you think this is unique to Detroit?

The trend is this way, but I do think that we’re the leader. 

We’re going to do our masterpieces in an interesting way. We’re also going to do new works. We’re going to really do projects that speak directly to our community. This is really the way forward. In Europe, there’s a sort of a different culture about opera. In someplace like Germany, it’s already ingrained in your education and in your culture to be a part of these things. It’s a little bit different here. You know, you don’t just naturally go into the opera. It’s not really taught in schools, so you really have to reach out and educate and bring people in. I really do think this is the way forward, is to make things really accessible.

Any hints for which production you’ll be conducting in the fall?

I can tell you that it’s a piece we’ve never done before, and it’s by a composer that we’ve never performed before. But it is a very well known composer, and it will be directed by our artistic director, Yuval Sharon. And it has animals in it. 

See Detroit Opera’s calendar for show details and pricing. Opening performances at Detroit Opera House will be broadcasted live on WRCJ.

Miriam Marini is a breaking news reporter for the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media. Contact Miriam at

Miriam (she/her) is a strong believer that journalism should hold leaders accountable and serve as a platform for marginalized groups. She can often be found at The Congregation — usually with a hot mocha in hand and finding an outlet to charge her dying laptop.