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Good Old Reliable Lotfi : Kismet brings Mansouri to the San Francisco Opera

Don’t call him Lofti. Everyone makes that mistake. Call him Lotfi.

Lotfi is short for Lotfollah. The name means “kindness of God.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 11, 1988 Los Angeles Times Sunday December 11, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 107 Calendar Desk Type of Material: Correction
PHOTO: A photograph of San Francisco Opera’s Lotfi Mansouri with Renata Scotto was incorrectly credited in Martin Bernheimer’s article on Mansouri last week. It was taken by Ira Nowinski, who also should have been credited with the Mansouri-Birgit Nilsson photograph.

Lotfi Mansouri got his name from his grandmother when he was miraculously revived after having been pronounced dead at birth. That happened in Iran 59 years ago. He seems to have led a charmed life ever since.

His parents were Persian aristocrats. His father wanted the boy to become a physician. Lotfi, however, was star-struck and movie-crazed. He was eager to leave all things Persian behind and make his mark on the Western world.

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He grudgingly studied medicine at UCLA, earned a degree in psychology, became a U.S. citizen, and drifted instantly toward the wild and irrational world of opera. His progress was circuitous, steady and startling.

A few months ago, he was appointed general director of the San Francisco Opera, becoming only the fourth person to hold that title in the company’s history. In order to take the post after the abrupt and mysterious resignation of Terence McEwen, Mansouri had to give up leadership of the Canadian Opera in Toronto, an organization he had brought from provincial routine to international prominence. He also had to curtail his own active career as a stage director.

“The choice,” he says, “was easy.”

He says so with eyes blazing and smile flashing. He may resemble Telly Savalas--every article about him makes that point--but Kojak never spoke with such probing, focused urgency.

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As fate would have it, Mansouri’s first experience with professional opera had involved San Francisco. While still a student in Los Angeles, he carried a spear in a performance of “Otello” given by the touring San Franciscans in the vast open spaces of Shrine Auditorium. Mansouri recalls it well. Ramon Vinay as the tempestuous Moor of Venice strangled the innocent Desdemona of Renata Tebaldi.

The hooking, he says, was instant.

By 1988, he had staged operas in major houses around the world, 40 productions in San Francisco alone. Some were triumphantly major, some emphatically minor.

He has come a long way from Tehran. He has come a long way, too, from the practical workshops in Los Angeles and the sacred studio of Lotte Lehmann in Santa Barbara.

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The great German soprano’s master classes in the early 1950s are recalled in tones of hushed reverence by most alumni. The encounter did not make a traumatic impression, however, on this would-be tenor.

“I was never one of Mme. Lehmann’s favorites,” Mansouri admits with a smattering of pride. “I don’t think she liked strong personalities among her students. I learned a great deal from her, but maybe I wasn’t sufficiently awed by her.

“She once caught me mimicking her mannerisms in Lieder. She probably never forgave me for that.”

His aspirations as a singer were soon abandoned in favor of stage direction. Herbert Graf took him along to important posts at the opera houses of Zurich and Geneva. Stints materialized at La Scala and in Venice. Even Hollywood beckoned, after a fashion, with invitations to supervise the opera sequences in the ill-fated “Yes, Giorgio” as well as the super-successful “Moonstruck.”

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For “Giorgio,” the vehicle that was supposed to make Luciano Pavarotti an idol on the silver screen, Mansouri spent four weeks at MGM, ultimately producing 12 minutes of footage used in the film.

“I loved my part of it,” he declares a bit defensively. He stresses my .

For the Metropolitan Opera scene in “Moonstruck,” he built a special “La Boheme” set in a little theater outside Toronto and trained members of his opera studio to lip-sync to the old Tebaldi-Bergonzi recording.

“It was a fascinating experience,” he recalls.

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At one juncture in his career he returned, briefly and traumatically, to Iran for command performances of “Carmen.” This was in 1971, the heyday of the shah.

“The shah’s wife was gracious and supportive,” Mansouri says. “But he was very arrogant, very aggressive. It was scary. He always was surrounded by armed guards, even when he interviewed me.

“Although he offered me great luxury, he didn’t seem pleased with me. He criticized my Persian accent and eventually tried to prevent me from returning to America.

“Now, everything has changed in Iran. Since the revolution, the opera house can be used only for religious plays. I still have aunts and uncles living there. They have not been affected by the new regime. But I can’t go back. I couldn’t even go back for my father’s funeral.”

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Somehow, between personal and operatic crises, Mansouri has found time to chronicle his rise in a casual as-told-to autobiography. Entitled “An Operatic Life,” it was published in Canada six years ago.

Mansouri has worked with Joan Sutherland at the Met and with Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera. He was approached by the City Opera to succeed Sills as company director.

He has served extensive time on stages from Santa Fe to San Diego to Houston to Chicago. Still, he says he has always regarded the city by the Northern California bay as his American home.

Now, as guardian of San Francisco’s vicissitudinous operatic fortune, his career has come full circle.

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“I am excited,” he says. He sounds it. He also sounds a bit tired.

The homecoming hasn’t exactly been leisurely, orderly or easy. His predecessor, citing ill health, abandoned the job and the city virtually without warning, leaving behind a house in managerial disarray and plans notable for dubious artistic merit. Mansouri had to start picking up the pieces in San Francisco and arrange the change in Toronto at the same time.

“Don’t judge me prematurely,” he pleads over brunch, a prelude to what turns out to be a disastrous “La Gioconda” cast by McEwen. “The San Francisco season won’t really be mine until 1991.”

Toronto officials applied considerable pressure to keep Mansouri in Canada. He wasn’t swayed. He says he was unhappy with the limitations of the “awful, all-purpose theater” that housed the opera, and saw no hope of improvement for at least six years.

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“The pit was inadequate,” he says with a sigh. “I couldn’t get first-rate conductors to work there. We had to reinforce the sound--you know, amplify. I had done as much as I could. I think it was the right time for a move.”

He is careful to articulate his fondness for Toronto. He hopes to return for at least one production annually through 1991. Still, he cites a crucial distinction between conditions there and here.

“We have more potential in San Francisco. The audience is better. There is a real passion for opera. That just doesn’t exist in Toronto.”

And what does he not like about San Francisco?

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The question produces a long atypical pause. Being speechless isn’t the Mansouri manner.

“Honestly,” he replies ingenuously, “I can’t think of anything important.” He shakes his head, seems apologetic.

Before Mansouri was signed in San Francisco, one heard considerable public speculation that the position would be offered to Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Fleischmann claims he terminated negotiations because he could not get the financial assurances he wanted. Other sources theorize that he merely used the San Francisco opportunity to solidify his position in Los Angeles.

“Fleischmann did the same thing,” Mansouri volunteers, “when he announced he was going to the Paris Opera a couple of years ago and then changed his mind. The maneuver could not have hurt him when it came to renewing his Los Angeles contract.

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“I have never talked to him. But I read in an interview that he wishes me luck because I’ll need it. I thank him for that.”

Mansouri probably can thank McEwen, however, for his new job.

“I had a good professional relationship with Terry. I was flattered that he recommended me. Apparently I was his choice. Actually, I’m not sure I know why.

“The move is scary. I have to do a lot of commuting. My wife and I have just begun to look for a house. It is awful. Real estate is really expensive here.

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“When Terry was signed to take over, he had a 2-year transition period. I have nothing. There has been no time to get to know the plans and commitments, no time to get my bearings.”

One assumes that McEwen has been whispering advice in Mansouri’s ear. Wrong.

“I have had absolutely no contact with Terry. He is in Honolulu. I hear he isn’t well. I am trying to catch the ball as fast as I can.”

Mansouri has the reputation of being a tireless, totally committed, ultra-professional administrator backstage. On stage, he is generally regarded as a solid, tradition-oriented director.

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“Am I conservative?” he asks himself when prodded. The label doesn’t make him comfortable.

“That depends on your definition. If people think I am conservative, that bothers me. I am not the sort of director who wants to be noticed. I just want to communicate the work. I’m not obvious. I can’t use gimmicks.

“I’m not too crazy about being called a traffic cop, though. I prefer to be called an arrangeur . At least that sounds nicer.

“My productions are not what they call conceptual. I don’t change the time and place. I don’t take terrible liberties. I don’t fight the period or rewrite the libretto. I watch what the text and music are saying. I refuse to impose a handle on a piece.

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“Still, I don’t think my thinking is conservative. Emotionally and intellectually, I am not conservative. I am very proud of some of the modern works I have staged. It is just that I don’t want my productions to go out of fashion. My problem may be that I am versatile.”

Kurt Herbert Adler, the benign tyrant who ran the San Francisco Opera when Mansouri first worked there, tended to regard the young man as a utility player.

“Yes,” Mansouri says, “I was good old reliable Lotfi.

“In my first season--that was back in 1963--I had to do six different operas, ‘Die Walkure,’ ‘Traviata,’ ‘Samson et Dalila,’ everything. The sets weren’t new. I often had to select the costumes and props from the warehouse. The budgets were low. Somehow I made it work.

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“What I did was clean, professional. I am a good director. Still, I had a lot to prove. Maybe I still do.”

Over the years, Mansouri tended to remain the director who was hired when a prima donna had to be accommodated or a conventional production had to be reheated. The more interesting theatrical vehicles went to Germanic types, people with names like Ponnelle and Haugk and Joel and Lehnhoff.

“That may be over now,” he says. “I hope it is. Next year I’ll be doing a new production of ‘Lulu.’ That should show what I am about.”

McEwen had intended to bring from Chicago a trendy facsimile of Berg’s masterpiece as staged by Yuri Lyubimov. Mansouri, however, doesn’t like the idea of importing a prepackaged production, especially if the original director is no longer involved.

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“I want to get away from the road-show mentality,” he explains. “It doesn’t work.”

His long-range plans for San Francisco are ambitious. He wants to have a year-round opera season, with special festive events in the summer. Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, a McEwen legacy, is planned for 1990, to be followed the next year by a Mozart survey.

One of his most problematic legacies from the previous regime involves the company’s music-director, Sir John Pritchard. Mansouri confirms that he wants someone to fill that post. He is laconic if not evasive, however, regarding the future involvement of the critically beleaguered Pritchard.

“The question of a music director is under consideration,” he states.

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When does Pritchard’s contract expire?

“In 1990, I think.” The verb is revealing.

Will Pritchard conduct the “Ring,” as had been planned, perhaps rashly, by McEwen?

“No.” Mansouri shakes his head gravely. “He has withdrawn from that.” The choice of verb is interesting here, too.

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Then who will conduct the “Ring”?

The reply involves diplomatic evasion. “It is difficult to get a world-class conductor at such short notice. We are considering various possibilities and negotiating right now. . . .”

Subject closed.

Mansouri is an ardent advocate of supertitles. In fact, he pioneered their use in a Toronto “Elektra” five years ago.

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“Now that I have them,” he says, “I plan to do everything in the original language.”

And when the original language happens to be English?

“If the text is difficult, yes, I’ll use supertitles. If not, well, we’ll see.”

What English texts are not difficult?

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Mansouri reflects for a moment, then offers three little words: “Gilbert and Sullivan.”

He acknowledges the common differences of opinion regarding the projection of instant captions atop the proscenium. But he voices no excuse.

“The controversy is healthy.”

He laughs proudly when he recalls what the leading opera publication in Great Britain calls supertitles: “That plague from Canada.”

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He insists that he harbors no rancor about recent career twists. He doesn’t mind running companies more and staging operas less.

His new contract allows him 12 weeks a year to do whatever he likes away from San Francisco. One can’t do very much in that time.

“I have been approached with intriguing projects from Sydney, Australia, and from the Bregenz Festival in Austria,” he says. “I will be very selective. This is no problem--no problem at all.”

Does he protest too much?

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He answers the question with a question.

“What’s left that I haven’t already done?”

The “Ring” is one blaring omission from his list of credits.

“I’m scared of the ‘Ring.’ I admit it.” He scowls. “The only way I’d like to do it is in collaboration with Disney Studios. I want to see the horses really fly. I’m sick of all this metaphysical Wagner.”

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He says he is sick, too, of having to work with certain singers who happen to suffer from ego problems. Surprisingly, he names names.

“I have paid my dues. My most unpleasant experiences probably were with Franco Bonisolli, Renata Scotto, Richard Tucker and Fiorenza Cossotto, for starters. They wouldn’t listen. They are narcissists. I had nothing but trouble with them.”

At the other extreme, Mansouri is eager to sing the praises of some model collaborators.

“Every director has his favorites. Terry McEwen had his, I have mine. I love working with Jerry Hadley, Carol Vaness, Sam Ramey and Frederica von Stade. I adore Elisabeth Soderstrom. I really like Joan Sutherland, both as an artist and as a person. Placido Domingo is so intelligent. . . .

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One famous name, perhaps the most famous of all, is conspicuously avoided. What about Luciano Pavarotti?

Mansouri mouths a sly grin and musters another telling pause.

“Just say that I had an excellent time working with him here in ‘Elisir’ (in 1969) and ‘Gioconda’ (in 1980).”

Faint praise like that can dangerously strain relations with a superduperstar. But Lotfi Mansouri has always been philosophical about such matters.

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“I am a believer in kismet,” he has written in his book. The subject recurs with leitmotivic frequency.

“We are in the hands of destiny. Secondary things we can control, yes, but the most important events are not in our hands.”

In this context, one must assume that the task of running the mighty San Francisco Opera is a secondary thing. Kismet is an unreliable impresario.


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