06 Aug 2010

Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey

The noted operatic impresario and stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, with the professional help of writer Donald Arthur, has issued his memoirs under the title Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey.

The volume (over-priced at $39.95) might just as well have been called ‘the loves and hates of Lotfollah,’ well spiced with gossip, pay-back, and self-regard as it is. In other words, it is a business-as-usual celebrity memoir. But it is also a bit more, because in many ways Mansouri was a cut above.

To be serious about Mansouri, his long career producing opera in Europe and leading North American companies such as Canadian Opera in Toronto and the San Francisco Opera, accomplished much that was creative and remains positive for the opera world. Perhaps Mansouri’s finest hours were in Toronto, where he took a minor provincial opera company and developed it into a thoroughly professional operation capable of first rate performances, with excellent community outreach and support. He also was the earliest sponsor of ‘supertitles’ or singing texts projected over the stage during performances. His reputation in Canada remains strong and favorable, as it should.

Mansouri, born (1929) to a family of some prominence in Iran, and came to the US to study music much to the dismay of his father who wanted him enrolled in Scotland to study medicine, remains, for all his accomplishments, a controversial figure. His personal work in producing and stage-direction were, if generally traditional, usually competent and entertaining. He left Toronto with a good quality company, healthy and viable — far more so than he found it. San Francisco is another matter. He followed the tenure of the star-struck Terry McEwen, a recordings executive and bon vivant, with little interest in administration, who had attended well the needs of the superstars he loved to bring to the San Francisco stage, but did not bother with much more.

Mansouri’s noted success in Canada seemed to make him a fair choice to replace McEwen when “bad health” dictated McEwen’s retirement to Hawaii. But even before Mansouri was finally hired at SFO there were doubts about the fit. A friend on the SFO board telephoned me one winter evening at my home in St. Louis to discuss the pending Mansouri matter. “Many of us on the board do not think him sufficiently elegant to succeed here,” I was told, a comment received with some amusement. Mansouri seems to confirm such doubts, however, when he writes, “the Victorian Board room cast a glum shadow over much of my tenure” [p. 163], at San Francisco. Even early on, when in its first days, Mansouri did stage work at the Santa Fe Opera summer festival where general director John O. Crosby would refer to Mansouri as, “our Persian rug merchant.” His constant “Persian smile” (his term) did not always inspire confidence.

Mansouri and Arthur write an interesting narrative of rebuilding the SFO and restoring it to the luster of former years. Then, in 1989, the severe Loma Prieta earthquake struck, rendering the War Memorial Opera House structurally unsound. Rebuilding would be necessary, and in due course, Mansouri had the staggering, and as it proved, thankless job of finding temporary quarters for the company for several years, mounting operas under makeshift conditions in ill-suited venues, and keeping the company at least alive, if not thriving, until it was time to return to the reconstructed Van Ness Avenue opera house.

Somehow, from that point on, his career in San Francisco seemed to wane. He does not directly admit such, though his report is filled with tales of Board intrigue and dire politics. Most particularly, Mansouri undertakes a long diatribe of blame against Scots musician Donald Runnicles, a first-rate Wagner conductor who Mansouri had brought to SFO as music director, and who by the account of this book, spent increasing amounts of time undermining Mansouri in order to take over his job. Neither side won that battle, whatever it may have been, and by the late 1990s while a large repertory was being mounted each season, quality began to slip as budgets grew to record heights. I was much in attendance at San Francisco during that period, reviewing opera for a UK publication, and have rarely seen a major company provide so many ill-set or sloppy performances. Massenet’s tedious Herodiade was played, with an expensive all-star cast, looking as though it was set with scenery from several other shows, while standard repertory, such as Il trovatore, was indifferently given with singers hardly up to their assignments. Yet, an embarrassingly clichéd Carmen, directed by Mansouri himself, was in the same mix with a stylish and effective Lulu.

I well remember Mansouri’s disastrous casting of a striking red-haired American soprano as Isolde, whom I had last heard singing Massenet coloratura in Santa Fe, a singer who could not even get through a Wagner rehearsal without vocal collapse. “I didn’t think she could sing it,” Mansouri muttered in the aftermath, as the opera company scrambled for a replacement. During those days, Robert Commanday, the venerable Bay Area music critic and writer, said to me in the Opera press room one night, “Runnicles has abrogated his responsibilities; he should not allow this musical mismanagement to happen.” Mansouri’s retort to that can only be guessed, but it would not be favorable to Runnicles.

Yet, to give well-earned credit, Mansouri commissioned some operatic exploits that gave pleasure — notably Dead Man Walking, a memorable evening of music theatre composed by a SFO employee, Jake Heggie — a piece that has now entered standard repertory. A new opera, Harvey Milk, a production shared with Houston, was interestingly mounted, and Dangerous Liaisons by another local composer, Conrad Susa, in a strong production, found some approval, while a certain amount of success was enjoyed by Andre Previn’s first operatic effort, A Streetcar Named Desire, which stage director Colin Graham called “a play with incidental music, and Renée Fleming.” Meow. I thought Mansouri’s effort to expand repertory and support contemporary opera was valid, and made with above the usual results for such. One can only imagine the things that might have happened under his direction — for example, he reveals he really wanted Sondheim or Henze (!) to write the Tennessee Williams opera that eventually devolved to Previn (by no means a composer of Sondheim or Henze stature).

SFO did not end well for Mansouri; his contract was not renewed and he had to produce his own farewell gala in 2001, apparently not a particularly warm occasion. Soon enough his even more controversial successor, Pamela Rosenberg from the German opera world, was installed in Mansouri’s wake at SFO, only to depart five years later. But that is another story, no doubt featuring “the Victorian board.”

Meanwhile, in spite of its cost, the worthwhile Mansouri book contains much of value and interest to opera aficionados and historians of the art-form.

© J. A. Van Sant/Santa Fe