OPERA NEWS - Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey 
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Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey  

spacer By Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur
Northeastern University Press; 330 pp. $39.95
 

Books Mansouri Biography Cover 9110

Like other impresario memoirs, Lotfi Mansouri's is rich in anecdotal gems relating the eccentricities and behaviors of artists from the world of opera. After more than fifty years of directing opera — beginning in the 1950s, when a dislocated elbow sidelined the aspiring tenor from one production and resulted in his staging another (a UCLA workshop performance of the Prologue from Ariadne auf Naxos, with Marni Nixon as Zerbinetta) — the author has plenty of experiences for tasty dishing.

Two aspects make this memoir different and, at times, engrossing. Mansouri's experience in the opera world — as singer, stage director and head administrator of Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera — shows how opera is created in extreme circumstances, especially when grand personalities are the least of one's worries. At San Francisco Opera alone, Mansouri worked against a cabal of antagonistic board members, faced the possible demise of the company after the devastating 1989 earthquake and endured wearying squabbles with his appointed music director, Donald Runnicles. Mansouri characterizes the latter as highly insecure, at times unprofessional, and presents him not so much as another artist behaving strangely but as a maestro in over his head.

Beyond the details of a fascinating career, the other draw of this memoir is its charismatic author. Mansouri is enterprising and utterly devoted to opera as an art form, but it is his charm and civility that hold the reader's interest. Whether mediating between an irate orchestra and its conductor or schmoozing with wealthy donors, his engaging manner repeatedly greases the wheels of collaboration, even with the reader. There are other memoirs with more critically astute insights (Daniel Barenboim's recent book comes to mind), but Mansouri's is probably more fun.

Born in Tehran in 1929, Mansouri developed an early fascination with international cinema that led him to pursue an uncertain future in Hollywood. A busy schedule as an operatic tenor and occasional screen actor followed and morphed into an apprenticeship under Herbert Graf. A trained musician and multi-linguist, Mansouri, in the Graf mold, became one of those indispensable men of the theater whose traditional expertise would shape the production of opera for decades. Reading how Mansouri's proclivities were later passed over for the European-modeled, stage director-driven theatrical values of his successor at San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg, one laments that his erudition was taken for granted. Mansouri writes, "The kind of production my colleagues and I had always regarded as self-explanatory was now being ridiculed as old-fashioned or lightweight." Unfortunately no discourse on the changing attitudes toward opera production follows. Mansouri's preoccupation here is in story­telling, not polemics.

Though the author could have been more expansive on certain points, there is much of value in this book. One area that Mansouri covers at length and with earnest passion is his belief in new operas. The origins of such SFO projects as The Dangerous Liaisons (1994), Harvey Milk (1996), A Streetcar Named Desire (1998) and Dead Man Walking (2000) are recounted in detail. An Operatic Journey shows Mansouri's conviction and charm as forces in getting these operas written, funded, cast and produced. Sustaining interest in them, however, remains one of the art form's great challenges, eluding even the smoothest of talkers. spacer 

JEFFERY S. MCMILLAN

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