31 August 2013

Lotfi Mansouri, 84, Populist Director-Administrator Who Revolutionized Industry with Supertitles, Has Died

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Lotfi Mansouri, 84, whose boundless enthusiasm for opera took him from a charted path in medicine to a career as an influential stage director and as an impresario at Canadian Opera Company and later San Francisco Opera, has died.  

Mansouri died at his home in San Francisco after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Born in Tehran in 1929, Mansouri emigrated from Iran to study medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, but — inspired by his experience while working as a supernumerary in a Los Angeles production of Otello — found himself enticed into the music industry. 

Between 1960 and 1966, he served as the resident stage director at Zurich Opera and, following that appointment, went on to spend a decade as the head stage director at Geneva Opera while simultaneously directing performances elsewhere in Europe, as well as at American companies that included the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, San Diego Opera and Dallas Opera. Mansouri's Met debut arrived in 1976, when his staging of Esclarmonde, which he had mounted two years earlier in San Francisco for Joan Sutherland, followed the soprano to New York. His only other contribution to the Met's repertoire was his staging of Andrea Chénier, which had its premiere at the house in 1990 and was a handsome exemplar of the big, broad production style that defined Mansouri's directorial work throughout his career. Mansouri made his San Francisco Opera debut during the 1963 season, which saw performances of his stagings of Dialogues des Carmélites, Die WalküreLa Sonnambula, La Traviata, Mefistofele and Samson et Dalila. He would go on to direct more than seventy-five productions during his long association with the company. In 1979, Mansouri's take on La Gioconda became the first staging by San Francisco Opera to receive a live international telecast. 

In 1976, Mansouri was appointed general director of Canadian Opera Company, where he stayed for a dozen years. During his time with the company, he staged thirty new productions — twelve of which were Canadian premieres, including Lulu and Death in Venice — in addition to extending the company's performance season; establishing the COC Orchestra, the company's chorus and the COC Ensemble Studio for young artists; installing permanent administrative offices in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre; and creating COC's own production shop. It was in 1983, for a performance of Elektra that Mansouri made what was perhaps his most revolutionary, enduring contribution to the art form: inspired after watching a subtitled opera performance on TV, Mansouri created the now ubiquitous system of projected supertitles, which display a synchronous English translation of the opera's libretto.

"Lotfi Mansouri was a legend. There is no question he was one of opera's most influential general directors — whether it be his passion for promoting young performers, his zeal for attracting new audiences to the art form, or his undeniable love of opera and all its idiosyncrasies," Alexander Neef, Canadian Opera Company's general director, said in a press release issued by the company. "The international prestige that this company now enjoys is due in no small part to his strong leadership and tireless efforts. I am personally very grateful for his friendship and the advice he shared with me ever since I joined the COC."

In 1988 Mansouri  moved on to San Francisco Opera, where he became the company's fourth general director. He held the position until 2001. During Mansouri's tenure, SFO presented the world premieres of works that included Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons, André Previn's Streetcar Named Desire, John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer, Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. During his general directorship, six of the company's productions were recorded for telecast and video (MefistofeleOrlando FuriosoCapriccioTurandotThe Dangerous Liaisons and A Streetcar Named Desire), and commercial recordings were made of SFO performances of HérodiadeOrphée et EurydiceHarvey MilkA Streetcar Named Desire and Dead Man Walking. In addition, Mansouri fashioned a cultural exchange with the Kirov Opera that imported strikingly authentic productions of War and PeaceBoris GodunovThe Fiery AngelRuslan and LyudmilaEugene Onegin and Betrothal in a Monastery, and which resulted in the notable American debut of conductor Valery Gergiev. 

In 1989, the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake badly damaged SFO's home, the War Memorial Opera House, and Mansouri adroitly shepherded the company through both the short- and long-term turmoil, temporarily instigating performances at San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium prior to the immediate reopening of the opera house, as well as identifying alternate venues in which SFO forces could perform during the 1996 seismic retrofit of the company's home. In 1999, Mansouri was honored with a gala concert for more than a decade of leadership and thirty-seven years of artistic collaboration with San Francisco Opera. In 2001, he was awarded the prestigious San Francisco Opera Medal, the company's highest honor awarded to an artistic professional. spacer 

More information can be found in the OPERA NEWS Archives ("Exit Lines"), San Francisco Opera and Canadian Opera Company.   

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