Lotfi Mansouri, who led the Canadian Opera Company from 1976 until 1988, died in San Francisco on August 31 of this year. He left an indelible mark on the COC. When I interviewed him for The WholeNote seven years ago, he said right at the start of our conversation, “Opera really is the most wonderful art form in the world!”. That passion for opera shaped his work, and his life.
In the international opera world Mansouri will be best remembered for inventing Surtitles. The idea of projecting a translation of the libretto during an opera performance, like subtitles on a television broadcast, came to him while he was at home in Toronto with his wife Midge, watching an opera on TV. His idea revolutionized opera-going. It allowed audiences to understand what singers were singing while they were singing. The first outing for Surtitles was on January 21, 1983, during Mansouri’s staging of Elektra for the COC, when they appeared on a screen above the proscenium at the O’Keefe Centre (later renamed the Hummingbird Centre, now the Sony Centre). Opera history was made in Toronto that evening.
Mansouri gave Toronto opera audiences much more than Surtitles. But it’s his work as a stage director that had the most immediate influence on Toronto audiences. In Toronto alone he directed 44 productions, 30 of which were new productions. He had started out in opera as a tenor, and he brought everything he had to offer as a musician as well as a director to his productions. For him it was all about the music, the words, the story, the singers, the chorus, the musicians in the pit and their conductor, and, above all, the audience – not his personal vision. His direct approach resulted in some exciting productions, especially in modern repertoire. His remount of Wozzeck for the COC’s final performance in the Hummingbird was stunning in its clarity, stylishness and sheer poignancy – he got right to the heart of the piece.
When I talked with Mansouri, he had retired as general director of the San Francisco Opera four years earlier, and was working on his memoirs. I expected a follow-up to the warm-hearted brief memoir he had published during his Toronto years, Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Life. But he ended up publishing two remarkably candid books. The first, a full-length autobiography, Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey, offers a fascinating description of his early years in Iran, and a controversial look at the difficulties of his final years with the San Francisco Opera. The second, True Tales From the Mad, Mad, Mad World of Opera, offers a sharp, funny collection of anecdotes from his extraordinary career.
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Lotfi Mansouri came to town recently to receive a Ruby Award from Opera Canada magazine, and to give a masterclass at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Mansouri spent 13 years in Toronto as general director of the Canadian Opera Company, from 1976 to 1988. During that time he set up the COC Orchestra and Chorus, as well as the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, where he nurtured a generation of young Canadian singers. He set the ball rolling for the new opera house, and saw through the building of the Tanenbaum Opera Centre. He lured top singers like Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Söderström, Tatiana Troyanos, Siegfried Jerusalem and James McCracken to Toronto. He invented Surtitles. It’s safe to say the COC would not be where it is today without him.
I met with Mansouri at his Toronto hotel just as his wife Midge was going out to have lunch with friends. They both recalled with fondness living in North York and Cabbagetown. Although they stayed on in San Francisco after Mansouri retired from the San Francisco Opera in 2002, they maintain their strong ties with Toronto. “We still have a lot of connections here, with all the friends, all the lovely people who mean a great deal to us,” says Mansouri. “So when we come here, it’s like coming home.” Their daughter remained in Canada and works as a doctor in Yellowknife.
Mansouri radiates unbounded enthusiasm and good humour as he recalls how he was here last spring to direct Berg’s Wozzeck. “I started my work here in 1977 with Wozzeck. It’s one of my favourite operas. I’ve learned in my career that you always do your very, very demanding pieces in your honeymoon period with the board of directors, because later they get very conservative and careful. One of the newspaper critics wrote, ‘Mansouri smiles at the brink of disaster,’ because they didn’t think you could sell six Wozzecks. But we sold them all.”
Mansouri directed Wozzeck again in 1990 during his last season here. It was this production, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine, who designed the recent Ring Cycle, that was revived last season. It turned out to be the final opera performed by the COC in the Hummingbird Centre.
“I never liked that place, even though I worked in it for 13 years. It was just not right for opera. So it was very ironic that I got a chance to do the very last performance there. Afterwords, I said to the company, ‘Do I lead the torch parade? Let’s put the flames to this dump!’ We had worked for years to build an opera house. We had the land, we had the architect, Moshe Safdie – and then the government pulled the plug.
“That was one of the major reasons why I left Toronto. When I got the invitation from San Francisco Opera to be their general director, I realized I wanted to finish my career in a real opera house. But I would have loved to have stayed here and seen the new house built. Finally Toronto has the house that it deserves. It’s a big success – it’s excellent.”
When he first came here 30 years ago, he found Toronto rather provincial, and very Anglo-Saxon. “Then all of the sudden things started to explode and the city became wonderfully exciting. It was a very good time to be here and I enjoyed it. I felt like we were in one of those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films, the let’s-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn kind of thing. We just did it.”
Mansouri left his native Iran for Los Angeles to study medicine, or so his devout Muslim father thought. He was actually dreaming of Hollywood. “I had grown up on Hollywood movies. I’m still a big film fan.” He started a career in opera as “a very bad tenor.” And he did work in a couple of movies, playing Caruso in an early telecast, then directing the operatic segments in the Pavarotti feature Yes, Giorgio and in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck.
One of his triumphs as a stage director here was Bellini’s Norma with the greatest Norma of her day, Joan Sutherland, and the equally unforgettable Adalgisa of Tatiana Troyanos. “Norma was the first time that I brought Joan here. And Tatiana, wasn’t she superb? The tension, the excitement!” Norma had never been done here, even though it is a mainstay of the bel canto repertoire. “As a general director of a repertory company, I felt that my responsibility was to introduce the entire gamut of the repertoire.” So they went from the baroque with Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea right up to Britten’s Death in Venice, which had been written just ten years earlier.
“We always had one operetta every year. If the more esoteric critics thought Fledermaus was too fluffy, I would say, “Then don’t come. People who like it can come.’
“Many times I put on stuff that I didn’t particularly care for. You don’t do it for yourself, you do it for your audience. If you were running a restaurant, you wouldn’t only serve what you liked. You see what I mean? You’re not a hot dog stand serving just hot dogs. I even invited directors I might not agree with philosophically, but whose work our community and the audience needed to see.
“I was very fortunate because as a young man I had worked with the best conductors. At the Zurich opera I had Otto Klemperer. He drove me nuts, but he was a genius. I did Massenet with the greatest French conductor, Ernest Ansermet. This man was a god. But he was very sweet, a gentleman. He had studied with Claude Debussy, so when we did Pelléas, he would say, ‘Oh, Claude m’a dit…’. When Ansermet did French repertoire it was so passionate and exciting. When French repertoire is done pastel, it becomes wishy-washy. It needs passion – it’s tricky.
“I had always wanted to do War and Peace, which is a monstrous opera. So in San Francisco, again in my honeymoon period, I said to myself, ‘Lotfi, do it in your first year or two, before the board gets too wise.’ Someone told me about this young Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev. I took him to supper in London. In five minutes I was in love with him, so I brought him to America for the first time. He was, of course, brilliant. But my musicians don’t like him because he makes them nervous. He makes demands, so they can’t just mail it in.”
I mention to Mansouri that Gergiev is going to conduct the Toronto Symphony next February. “When I first came, the Toronto Symphony played for the COC. They were so arrogant. They actually thought the opera experience would weaken them. I said, ‘Excuse me, but would you say that about the Vienna Philharmonic?’
“Any time I wanted the TSO conductor Andrew Davis for an opera, the manager, Walter Homburger, wouldn’t allow it. I finally did get Andrew for the COC – as one of the guest artists in the second act of Fledermaus! I dressed him up, and he sang ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General.’ But we would have to pay for the entire Toronto Symphony even if we were doing Mozart.” So Mansouri set up a separate COC orchestra, which actually worked out to be much cheaper.
Soon after, he started the COC Ensemble. “I was a product of a workshop myself at UCLA. When I went to work with Herbert Graf, who was my mentor, we had started a studio in Zurich, and then in Geneva. Here in Toronto I gave each ensemble member a two-year contract so they could concentrate on their careers. I gave them roles, covers, and even their own productions. Stuart Hamilton, a wonderful coach, and so knowledgeable, was the first music director. Ben Heppner was one of the masters in Meistersinger and ended up being one of the very best Walters.
“Artists need the guidance of people they can trust to say, ‘No, no, no – you can’t do that!’ In the past, agents were really impresarios. They didn’t just make bookings, like today – they created careers. They put the artists in the right situations with the right conductor.”
Mansouri does try to advise young singers when he is directing or doing masterclasses. “But, you see, they have to listen to you. You cannot dictate to them. Also, artists must develop their own discernment and their own ears.”
He talks with regret about singers who damage their voices, usually by singing roles that are too heavy for them. “When I work with young singers I want to sensitize them to the fact that you want a lasting career. Look at Mirella Freni – she’s 73 and she’s still singing. Alfredo Kraus sang until his early 70s. He was invited to do Don José hundreds of times. He always turned it down. He knew what was his repertoire, stuck to it, did a magnificent job and had an extended career. But nowadays singers get impatient and want to do everything. Sadly, they shorten their careers. The voice is very delicate. A unique artist like Plácido Domingo can do just about everything, but he’s one in a million.
“For the number of people in this country, there are a lot of great singers. Canada is a land of immigrants. A lot of people come from Italy and eastern Europe, all those places, and they bring that culture and tradition with them. It’s fabulous.
“Judy Forst is a model singer. I love Maureen Forrester. Louis Quilico was absolutely one of the best baritones. There are very good singers of the younger generation, like Ben Heppner, of course. John Fanning is a lovely artist. Richard Margison is a nice beefy spinto tenor. John Relyea has the voice, and the intelligence, to be the new Sam Ramey. They all just have to be careful.
“The COC Ensemble was set up strictly for Canadians, which it should be when you get a government grant. But the Merola program in San Francisco is truly international, with Spanish singers, Russians, a lot of young Canadians. Here, I was always accused of not using enough Canadians – perhaps because I was not a Canadian myself. But I used many more Canadian artists of any time before or even after me.”
Then there are the Canadian singers who got away. “I could never get Teresa Stratas. She is one of those great artists who could do anything. But she is a very complicated person. She came here for the party for my tenth anniversary with the COC. I was dying to work with her here. But like a fish, she just slipped out of my hands.
“I invited Jon Vickers here every season, and I was always turned down. He thought Toronto audiences just weren’t ready for him – they weren’t intelligent enough. But he would go to Guelph for Niki Goldschmidt. I offered him anything. I had directed him elsewhere, and he was a handful, but he was a giant – and very exciting.”
Many of Mansouri’s innovations at the COC seem inevitable, like scheduling Sunday matinees. “That became one of our best subscriptions. People started taking buses in from Buffalo, Hamilton, Kingston.” Then there are the CBC telecasts, which grew naturally out of the radio broadcasts, for which he had made Stuart Hamilton quizmaster. But other moves seem truly daunting, like creating the Tanenbaum Opera Centre, the administrative building on Front Street, which opened in 1985. “I got the money from Tanenbaum, we bought the building, and then we got the government. It’s absolutely the envy of every opera company, because you’ve got your administrative offices, your workshops, a theatre, everything under one roof – and it was originally a canning factory!”
But when it comes to commissioning new operas, Mansouri’s legacy is flimsier, especially when compared to the commissions he later pulled off in San Francisco, like John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. “I couldn’t do those kinds of commissions here. I tried to. I had wanted to do Streetcar as an opera for years. Leonard Bernstein loved the idea, but if I had brought an American composer here they would have crucified me. In San Francisco I didn’t have that problem – I could get any composer, without criticism.
“We did Murray Schafer’s Patria, and Shafer was just terrible to us. He hated the COC and bad-mouthed all of us. One of the last things I did here was to commission Harry Somers’ Mario and the Magician. This maybe sounds sacrilegious, but I didn’t really find many composers who excited me. Harry was one of the few. I set up a composer-in-residence program here, producing one-act operas. Those were interesting. But after I left, Brian Dickie, who took over from me, stopped the program. If I had stayed, I would have continued it.”
If Mansouri has plans to slow down, they’re not apparent. He is working on a second autobiography. In April he is directing The Merry Widow for the Los Angeles Opera. What isn’t in Mansouri’s plans is to go back to Iran. “I don’t know if they’d let me out. I worked for the Shah,” he reminds me. Indeed, he spent five years as the Shah’s admittedly reluctant opera director.
Of all Mansouri’s accomplishments in Toronto, the one that has had the greatest impact is his idea for Surtitles, now used around the world. “As a stage director I was always frustrated when I would work very hard on detailed nuances, but nobody would know what the hell anybody was singing about. We were doing The Coronation of Poppea, one of my favourite pieces. It’s like a Shakespearean play, so you really have to understand every word. And I wanted to do it in the original Italian.
“One night I was home watching the Ring Cycle from Bayreuth on television with my wife. My wife was not a great Wagnerian, but suddenly she said, ‘You know, Lotfi, this really isn’t as dumb as I thought it was.’ She had been reading the subtitles on the TV screen. All of a sudden it was like the proverbial apple falling from the tree. If they could put subtitles on the bottom of the TV screen, why couldn’t we put them at the top of the opera stage? And that’s how it all started. At the beginning I was just lacerated. Critics tore me to pieces. An editorial from London called Surtitles ‘the plague from Canada.’ Now, of course, everybody’s using them.
“Some directors, like Peter Sellars, use them to write what they want the words to say. I don’t like that. I find it’s not honest. Translate what they really are saying, especially in Wagner. I don’t like these conceptual productions – as if the composer didn’t know what he was doing. For me opera is theatre, and theatre is communication. My job as a stage director is to draw you in emotionally and intellectually. I don’t want you to sit there and think, ‘Oh, that’s a clever idea.’ That means I haven’t done my job. I want to involve you so much that at the end of it your response is, ‘Wow, what an opera!’”
FURTHER READING AND LISTENING
DVDs (*denotes COC productions)
* Bellini: Norma (CBC/VAI 1981)
* Donizetti: Anna Bolena (CBC/VAI 1984)
Meyerbeer: L’Africaine (Kultur 1988)
* Janáček: The Makropulos Case (VAI 1990)
Lehár: The Merry Widow (Kultur 1990)
Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots (Kultur 1990)
Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmila (Philips 1995)
An Operatic Life by Lotfi Mansouri with Aviva Layton (Mosaic Press/ Stoddart Publishing, 1982)
Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey by Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur (Northeastern University Press 2010)
True Tales from the Mad, Mad World of Opera by Lotfi Mansouri with Mark Hernandez (Dundurn 2012)
Opera Viva: Canadian Opera Company – The First Fifty Years by Ezra Schabas & Carl Morey (Dundurn Press, 2000)
San Francisco Opera: The First Seventy-Five Years by Joan Chatfield Taylor (Chronicle Books, 1997)