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

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

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 clichÈd 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 RenÈe 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

image_description=Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey
product_title=Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey
product_by=By Lotfi Mansouri; Donald Arthur, contrib. Northeastern University Press, 2010. 348 pp. 40 illus. 6 x 9″.
product_id=ISBN: 978-1-55553-706-7