Half a century ago almost to the day, a 21-year-old dollar-a-gig super in an Otello in Los Angeles’ cavernous Shrine Auditorium was so bitten by the operatic bug that he chucked his pre-medical studies forthwith. Fifty years later, on the telephone from his general director’s office at the San Francisco Opera – back from a bit of moonlighting, staging Mozart’s Idomeneo for the San Diego Opera – Lotfi Mansouri accounts for those past years in his usual voluble exuberance. “My life has all been spent in interesting places at interesting times. Back home in Iran after college, I worked at the Shah’s opera house just before he was overthrown. Later there were the thirteen years as head of the Canadian Opera in Toronto, struggling to get a proper opera house built – which didn’t happen and still hasn’t – but otherwise watching the city explode from a provincial nowhere to a major cultural venue. Then the fourteen years in San Francisco, including an earthquake, an orchestra strike, a struggle to get this proper opera house put back together – which, thank God, did happen.”
Those San Francisco years end — officially at least — this summer, as Mansouri vacates his office to Pamela Rosenberg, the company’s fifth general director in its 78-year history and its first native Californian. His name may be off the door, but the traces remain. He owes the company one more production, a Merry Widow scheduled for December. “I had thought to make my exit quietly, on the Marschallin’s arm at the end of Der Rosenkavalier,” he says. “Now I’ll waltz my way out the door to a bit of Lehár instead, arm-in-arm with Flicka von Stade.” One of his future projects involves a book – not the name-dropping tell-all memoir that retired opera impresarios have been known to write, but “something about the growth of opera as an art form in my lifetime.”
His contributions to that growth – and, more to the point, to the growth of operatic consumership in his time – are indeed impressive. It was during his stewardship in Toronto that he dreamed up the notion of English-language “supertitles” (simply from watching an opera on TV and applying a little common sense). If any development has most drastically changed the sight and sound of opera, and the breadth of its appeal, in Mansouri’s quarter-century, it would be this rupture of the language barrier – opposed by some managements at first (famously, by the Met), now a worldwide fact of life.
It doesn’t stop with the supertitles, however. Even San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake had its operatic up side. “The house was damaged,” he remembers, “enough so that some of the board members thought we should just shut down for two years during the seismic retrofitting. I managed to convince them that that approach could be fatal.” What the company did instead was to broaden the venue. In the cavernous Civic Auditorium, in-the-round performances played to thousands more seats than at the main house, and attracted thousands more young operagoers. In another daring move, Mansouri moved the company into a downtown movie theater for a run of La Bohème with several casts – not just the five or six performances of a regular opera season but upwards of thirty. “We sold over 45,000 tickets,” Mansouri gloatingly recalls, “and when the Opera House reopened, a lot of these new people came back with us.”
Some there are, of course, who recoil in horror at what they discern as “rank populism” under Mansouri’s years – compared, say, to the iron-fist elitism of Kurt Herbert Adler, the predecessor once removed. Even the company’s forays into commissioning new opera, it has been claimed, bear the taint of movieland – easy-listening works such as Conrad Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and last season’s Dead Man Walking by the relatively unknown Jake Heggie. Mansouri points out that Alban Berg’s Lulu needed a quarter-century to make its way into the repertory, but that Streetcar sold out its opening night and Dead Man warranted an additional performance.
“Of what am I the most proud?” he wonders aloud. “It’s the work I have done to spread the notion that opera is for everyone. People thought I was crazy to run La Bohème for thirty performances in a movie theater, but now Baz Luhrman is bringing his production to Broadway next season. Perhaps my directing hasn’t all that experimental, but at least I’ve shown opera as musical theater – as a very long MTV if you prefer.
“There will be plenty of my work on view here in San Francisco for several years. My 1997 Tosca returns next season, and there will be more of me at least through 2004. No, I won’t be here for the stagings. A friend gave me some good advice.
“ ‘Don’t ooze out,’ he said. ‘GET out.’ ”