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San Francisco Opera Leader Recalls


July 5, 2000, SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Lotfi Mansouri is fond of saying that he saved countless lives over the years by making opera his profession.

"My father wanted me to become a doctor," he recalls. "Unfortunately, I had no interest in medicine, and would not have been a very good one."

Now, sadly, the world of opera is about to lose what the world of medicine was spared. At age 71, Mansouri is just one year away from retiring as general director of the San Francisco Opera.

In an interview in his modest fourth-floor office backstage at the War Memorial Opera House, Mansouri reflected recently on a career that traces back to his first appearance as an extra in Verdi's "Otello" half a century ago.

Fittingly, that "Otello" was a production by the San Francisco Opera, which in 1951 was visiting Los Angeles, where the Iranian -born Mansouri was studying at the University of California at Los Angeles. He took singing lessons (he's a tenor), but soon gravitated toward the production end of the business, becoming a stage designer and eventually an administrator - in Zurich and Geneva, Switzerland,Toronto, and, since 1988, in San Francisco.

For a time in the 1970s he was cultural adviser to the shah, who built Iran 's first opera house as part of the celebrations marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Peacock Throne. Mansouri staged several productions there and was reconciled with his father, who finally forgave him for abandoning medicine.

"But, of course, it all came crashing down with the revolution," says Mansouri, who has not been back to Iran since and doesn't expect ever to be able to return.

And so, in permanent exile, he presides over an organization whose annual budget of more than $50 million makes it the second-largest opera company in North America after New York City's Metropolitan Opera. Its season runs from September into January, then, unlike most opera companies in the United States, it picks up again with a full schedule for June.

"We've proved that we can draw a subscription audience to fill our 3,000 seats even in June," Mansouri says. "The Bay Area has grown so much that we now have 6 million potential customers - very affluent customers, too."

This June saw good, if not always sold-out, houses for three operas, one from each of the last three centuries: Mozart's "Don Giovanni," directed by Mansouri himself along with soprano-turned-director Graziella Sciutti; Wagner's "Parsifal" in a striking, space-age setting by Nikolaus Lehnhoff; and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," produced by John Cox with sets by painter David Hockney.

The company has always played in the major leagues when it comes to competing for top singers. The Stravinsky, for example, starred Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Nick Shadow, the devil who leads poor Tom Rakewell to disaster. The title role of "Don Giovanni" was sung by Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and the crucial part of Gurnemanz, elder knight of the Holy Grail in "Parsifal," was taken by the great German bass Kurt Moll, who first sang the role here in 1974 and sounded amazingly sonorous despite the passage of time.

Artistically, the results were uneven. "Parsifal" was a complete triumph, the "Rake's Progress" dryly amusing, the "Don Giovanni" listless and, in some key roles, weakly sung.

Mansouri seems to take the critical brickbats, as well as the laurels, in stride. "One thing about a general director: Everybody knows how to do my job better," he says.

Undoubtedly Mansouri's greatest challenge during his tenure was leading the company through the renovations required by damage from the 1989 earthquake. The repairs provided an opportunity to improve a house that hadn't been modernized since it opened in 1932 - but it meant the auditorium would be unavailable for 18 months.

"Of course, some of my more conservative board members wanted to close us down (as was done at London's Covent Garden during renovations)," Mansouri says. "They think you save money doing that.

"But I was prepared for them," he says with an impish smile. "I had a study done that proved it would cost us $15 million just to do nothing. And that didn't even include the cost of losing our audience, some of whom would never come back."

Instead, Mansouri used the opportunity to break down what he calls opera's "elitist image" by taking it to the community. He staged productions in two different settings - the mammoth Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for amplified spectacles like Borodin's "Prince Igor," and the smallish Orpheum Theater, where he put on Puccini's "La Boheme" in an eight-performances-a-week format with a top price of $70, compared to the usual $120 for orchestra seats.

Critical response to the 1996-97 season was mixed, but Mansouri considers it a huge success.

"We met our main goal, which was to attract the first-time operagoer," he says. For performances of "La Boheme," the average age of the audience was 31, compared to an average age in the opera house of 54.

Admittedly, some of the newcomers weren't exactly musical sophisticates, but they were just the type of patron Mansouri was hoping to attract.

"I'd stand in the lobby during the 'Boheme' intermissions and people would come up to me and ask, 'Is this the original Broadway cast?"' he recalls.

A lifelong advocate of the premise that "opera is for everyone," Mansouri helped popularize the art form while in Toronto by introducing supertitles, the running English translations that appear above the proscenium. Initially assailed by purists as a distraction, these titles have become ubiquitous.

"Now, Wagner doesn't seem so long," Mansouri says. "My God, people even laugh at the jokes in the 'Ring' cycle!"

Mansouri thinks the next revolution in opera will be the visual magic offered by computer-generated graphics, used by the company in a 1998 production of Berg's "Lulu."

"Look what it's already doing for the movies. Can you imagine the possibilities!" he asks excitedly. "George Lucas doing the 'Ring'? Or Pixar doing 'The Magic Flute'?"

Mansouri has worked hard to continue the company's proud history of presenting soon-to-be-famous artists before they appear elsewhere in this country. Over the decades, such legendary sopranos as Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi all made their U.S. operatic debuts here.

This past June included two promising U.S. debuts - English tenor Christopher Ventris, who made a convincingly youthful and brightly sung Parsifal, and Monica Colonna, an Italian soprano who had the power and technique, if not yet the confidence, for the role of Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni."

One of Mansouri's proudest coups was engaging conductor Valery Gergiev of the Kirov Opera in 1991, before he was widely little known in the West. Gergiev has since become an international celebrity, and the Met recently named him its principal guest conductor.

"Mr. Joe Volpe (Met general manager) thinks he just discovered Valery Gergiev," Mansouri says with a laugh. "I said, 'Excuse me, Joe, he's been here for eight years. You really need to come see what we can do in the provinces."'

One star he failed to entice was Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli.

"I was close," he sighs. "I wanted her to do Offenbach's 'La Perichole.' She came out here to look at the house, but then she decided no. I wish she had trusted me."

Future casting decisions will be up to Mansouri's successor, Pamela Rosenberg, a California native who now runs the Stuttgart Opera. She'll arrive at the end of the year and work together with Mansouri for six months before taking over for the 2001-02 season.

But given the need to book artists years in advance, all the planning for the 2001-02 was already done before Rosenberg's appointment. She was able to have some input into 2002-03.

"I told her I'll take all the blame for that season, too," Mansouri says. "After that, she's on her own."

Mansouri, meanwhile, plans keep his hand in directing, in San Francisco or elsewhere, "if it's a really lovely project."

Given his evident vigor and enthusiasm, one is tempted to ask why he is retiring at all.

"It's a cliche, but in this business especially, you have to know how to make an exit," he says. "Better to go when I still enjoy coming to work every day, before people start saying, 'Oh, is he still around?"'


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