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Opera's Great Communicator

San Francisco's Lotfi Mansouri, whose quest for accessibility led to supertitles, prepares to retire on a joyful note after this season.

June 25, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | 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
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.

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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.

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