Opera’s Great Communicator

John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

“People are wrong when they say that the opera isn’t what it used to be,” Noel Coward wrote in “Design for Living.” “It is what it used to be. That’s what’s wrong with it.”

But that was 1933. After World War II, opera began to step out of its visually and dramatically implausible, stand-and-sing mind-set. New works and new audiences have entered opera houses, where the one constant is change.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 28, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 28, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Alumni concert--An incorrect address was given in Sunday Calendar for Saturday’s Music Academy of the West Alumni Concert. It will take place at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara.

“Opera has changed unbelievably, which is the subject of a book I’m just starting,” says Lotfi Mansouri, general director of San Francisco Opera. “It was very esoteric before, something for rich ladies in tiaras, but it has become a very strong form of musical theater.”


This is a subject few people know better. Since his first professional production in Los Angeles in the 1950s, the Iranian American director--himself the subject of two books--has staged works around the world and instigated many of the changes he writes about, including perhaps the most conspicuous and universally adopted late-century innovation, supertitles.

Mansouri, 71, steps down from the helm of San Francisco Opera after next season, and the tributes have already begun. On Saturday, Mansouri will receive the 2000 Distinguished Alumni Award from the Music Academy of the West. Mansouri attended the Santa Barbara school as a tenor in 1957 and returned in 1959 as an assistant to the director.

The program at the Lobero Theatre features video clips and images illustrating Mansouri’s career and a recital by artists with strong ties to San Francisco Opera and/or the academy, including mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, countertenor Brian Asawa and baritone Rodney Gilfry.

“I am looking forward very much to returning to Santa Barbara,” Mansouri says. “In addition to my days at the music academy, my wife and I also spent our honeymoon there.

“And these artists are so special. Our world is small, like a village really. Rodney Gilfry was our Stan Kowalski in the premiere of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ [and Billy Budd at Los Angeles Opera this month], and Brian Asawa has grown up with us. Jake Heggie is one of my babies: I’m so proud of him and what he’s done the last few years.”

The new SFO season, Mansouri’s 12th and final as general director, also opens with a celebration in his honor. The Sept. 8 gala--”a fun thing,” Mansouri says, “I hate sentimental junk”--enlists artists such as retired diva Joan Sutherland, beloved American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, Verdi tenor Marcello Giordani and conductors Richard Bonynge and Donald Runnicles.



For Mansouri, the road to San Francisco started in Iran, and it took intercontinental detours.

Born in Tehran in 1929, Mansouri grew up in a wealthy, well-connected family; so privileged, in fact, that when young Lotfi announced an interest in the piano, his father benignly agreed to hire someone to play it for him.

Growing up, Mansouri learned to love American popular music broadcast from a U.S. Army radio station in Tehran during World War II. He also developed an unbridled passion for American film, seeing “Gone With the Wind” more than 20 times.

“I was supposed to become a doctor,” Mansouri recalls. “My father wanted me to attend the University of Edinburgh, but I loved everything American and persuaded him to let me come to UCLA.”

He found the premed studies difficult, he says, “and I wanted other courses with no homework.” An advisor recommended that he try singing in choir, which would result in two units of credit and no homework. “ ‘But I’ve never sung before,’ I said. ‘So take voice class the first semester,’ he replied.”

“We discovered that I was a tenor--I had no idea. Some time later I went to Hollywood Bowl to see my first full opera, ‘Madama Butterfly.’ I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I began failing my premed courses miserably and taking all the voice and theater classes I could. When my family found out, my father disowned me for about 20 years.”

The discovery of a tenor voice with a high C made Mansouri popular in the opera workshop program at UCLA. He also began making the usual rounds of the incipient professional singer: singing at churches, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

In 1951, he made his first contact with the company he would later lead, appearing as a soldier in a San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Otello” at Shrine Auditorium. The San Francisco company at that time had an annual summer season in Los Angeles, and Mansouri worked as a supernumerary or usher at every performance he could.

Three years later Mansouri graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and married a fellow student, Marjorie Thompson. But a somewhat undisciplined lifestyle and an abiding affection for all aspects of musical theater kept him from concentrating on singing as a career.

“I was not that good a singer, No. 1, and I loved the totality of the theater. I loved acting even more than singing. My first professional production was at Los Angeles City College. I also directed for Los Angeles Grand Opera, a small company performing at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Like Hitchcock, I would often do things, small roles or walk-ons, in my own productions.”

Mansouri’s burgeoning local success as a director earned him an appointment as associate professor at UCLA, and he continued to work at City College and at Marymount College. His voice remained good enough, however, to win him a scholarship in 1957 to the Music Academy of the West.

Directed by Lotte Lehmann, an acclaimed Wagnerian soprano and recitalist, the academy is a mecca for aspiring singing professionals and the American fountainhead of the public master class. As the only tenor that year, Mansouri often demonstrated scenes with Lehmann.

A more decisive academy experience came in 1959, when Lehmann went on sabbatical. Mansouri was invited to return as an assistant to the interim director, Herbert Graf, and work with staging as well as singing.

Graf brought Mansouri with him to the Zurich Opera the following year as resident stage director. When Graf moved on to Geneva in 1965, Mansouri followed. In 1976 he became general director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, where he introduced supertitles to the opera world in 1983. In 1988, he came general director in San Francisco.

“I went with Dr. Graf to Zurich, which was a wonderful school for me,” Mansouri says. “Then Geneva, Canada and now back in California at San Francisco. . . . While I was still working in Zurich I staged six productions for San Francisco [including Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” with Sutherland], so it’s like a whole circle now.”


Mansouri’s circle may be closed geographically, but it is wide open artistically, he says.

“Acting is so much better now. Singers are much better prepared; it is a different world,” Mansouri says. “Working with a diva, such as Renata Tebaldi, it used to be, ‘Madame Tebaldi, where would you like the chair? Madame Tebaldi, where would you like to make your entrance?’

“Opera used to be more a concert in costume, but audiences don’t accept that anymore, because of cinema and television. Believability of the visual aspect is so important now, artists have to go on diets: Violetta can’t be over 200 pounds and dying of tuberculosis.”

Today, meeting--and enlarging--audience expectations is a big part of Mansouri’s work. “At first, my job was more like a missionary, to pass on the gospel of opera, but audience expectations and knowledge have grown,” he said.

“I have shaped my entire career out of giving pleasure to the people who buy the tickets. . . . I work not for the critics or the staff or my colleagues, but for the audience,” Mansouri wrote in the SFO subscription brochure for next season.

Central to that work was the introduction of supertitles, the projection of the libretto above the stage as the words are being sung below. The supertitle concept first became practice at a Canadian Opera Company production of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” in 1983.

Controversial at first--Metropolitan Opera director James Levine vowed that the projections would be used only “over my dead body”--titles are now employed by almost every professional company, including the Met.

“You see subtitles in foreign films,” Mansouri says, “so I thought why not something like that onstage?

“The next step is dramaturgical control of the titles. The stage director must be very much in control of the nuances of the language. The translation must be stylistic; the literary quality of the titles is becoming very important. In San Francisco, every stage director has the privilege of choosing the titles.”

This does not mean that Mansouri has much affection for some of the wider experiments with supertitles, including updated, vernacular translations and animated, graphical projections.

“That damages the drama onstage; there must be nothing to distract from what is happening there,” he insists. “Peter Sellars’ titles, for example, often show not what the singers are singing, but what he wants them to be singing.”

For opera already in English, Mansouri and SFO have taken major steps to add to the existing body of American opera with a commissioning program called Pacific Visions. From that project have come four new operas: “The Dangerous Liaisons” (Susa/Littell), 1994; “Harvey Milk” (Wallace/Korie), 1996; “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Previn/Littell), 1998; and “Dead Man Walking” (Heggie/McNally), which is scheduled to premiere Oct. 7-28. Mansouri’s successor, Pamela Rosenberg of the Stuttgart Opera, will continue the program, he says.

“We have reaped the fruits of what others before us have done, and we should leave something for the future. Opera was so Eurocentric, but an American operatic language has developed. These are very much American works, based on American plays and literature.”

There is also an American style to opera appreciation, Mansouri asserts.

“In America, opera, no matter how serious the subject, is still entertainment. In Germany, they don’t consider opera entertainment. Culture is something very serious, almost a burden. In Italy, they look more for musical values rather than dramatic ones. Somebody like [conductor Riccardo] Muti, for example, insists that the singers always look at him, eyes always on the pit. Here the singers can look at monitors to the sides and move around.”

Mansouri is reluctant to extend comparisons to individual companies. He marvels at the changes in operatic and theater life in Los Angeles, however, and warns not to be too quick in assessing the work of incoming General Director Placido Domingo.

“Every company is a reflection of the community and the audience it serves, so none can really be compared. Arts organizations do not exist in a vacuum. L.A. Opera has done a great job and is going to benefit from Disney Hall.

“In defense of general directors,” he says, “you cannot judge them from the first couple of seasons. It takes at least three years to really develop their own profile with a company.”


The continuing prospects for opera are bright, Mansouri believes, particularly on two fronts: audience development and multimedia technology.

“The future of opera now is extremely exciting,” he says. “The average age of the San Francisco audience has gone down dramatically, and the younger audience has a tremendous appreciation of music theater. The whole MTV thing is like mini-operas, after all, and Broadway is coming closer to opera all the time: ‘Phantom,’ ‘Les Miz,’ ‘Miss Saigon’--which is just another version of ‘Butterfly’--everything is done through music.

“Opera is very demanding, it is a composite art form--orchestra, singing, stage, dance. It is a marriage of all these elements, including technology,” he says. “In 1998, we did a production of [Alban Berg’s] ‘Lulu,’ where we used computer-generated graphics for the first time. In the last act, there is an interlude where Berg wanted a film sequence to show Lulu’s arrest and trial. We did it all with computer graphics, and it was one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done.”

Those kinds of effects--Lulu came out onto the street and saw a giant bug, which morphed into a police car--are not cheap and require long-range planning. Indeed, the principal challenges he sees ahead for opera are financial, not artistic.

“The challenge is always fiscal,” he says, “to secure funds to expand and experiment. [Corporate and individual] giving comes and goes with the economic times. You’ve got to have an endowment, so as not to be victims of the marketplace.

“San Francisco Opera has to budget annually assuming at least an 88% to 90% capacity audience. With over 3,000 seats for each performance, to guarantee that means we have to be very careful to balance repertory.”

For the coming SFO season, Mansouri directs “The Tsar’s Bride” by Rimsky-Korsakov in September, and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” in collaboration with soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom in November and December. The season after his retirement next summer, he returns to San Francisco for a new “Merry Widow,” and he has other freelance directing assignments booked through 2003.

“At this point in my career, I have done just about every opera I want to,” Mansouri says. “I love to concentrate on pieces that still make me feel young, not doing the same thing over again. I did an ‘Albert Herring’ [the Benjamin Britten opera] recently with young artists and enjoyed every second of it.

“Teaching young artists is one of the most gratifying things I can do. I need to feel that I’m always learning something. I don’t want to repeat myself; that thought depresses me.

“Basically, I want to stop and smell the roses. I’ve been a general director a long time now. One of the first things I learned in opera was that you need to make good entrances and exits. It’s time.”


Music Academy of the West Alumni Concert, Saturday, 8 p.m., Lobero Theatre, 1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara. (805) 969-8787.