Director / Manager  Lotfi  Mansouri
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Iran, Lotfi Mansouri attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and received U.S. citizenship before serving as resident stage director at Zurich Opera from 1960 to 1966. In 1965 he started working simultaneously at the Geneva Opera, where he became stage director in 1966 and remained until 1976. During this period, he began fulfilling engagements as guest director at various houses throughout Italy and North America, including Chicago, Houston, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, San Diego, Dallas, and both the Metropolitan and New York City Opera companies. In 1976 he was named general director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, where he directed 30 new productions, 12 of them Canadian premieres.  Mansouri introduced supertitles in January, 1983, and this is generally regarded as the first use of such a translation system.

As San Francisco Opera's general director from 1988 to 2001 and currently general director emeritus, began his association with the company in 1963, when he staged six productions. He has since staged more than 60 productions there.

In 1992 he became a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the government of France, and is the subject of a 1998 biography by Joan Chatfield-Taylor, An Operatic Odyssey: Lotfi Mansouri and San Francisco Opera.  He is the author of Lotfi Mansouri, An Operatic Life, and his film credits include operatic portions of 'Moonstruck' and 'Yes, Giorgio' starring Luciano Pavarotti.  The National Endowment for the Arts honored Mr. Mansouri at the NEA Opera Honors in November 2009.

Lotfi Mansouri brought his directing talents to Lyric Opera of Chicago for seven operas over a twenty-five year period, beginning in 1970 with L'Italaina in Algeri and the following year for both Werther and Don Carlo.  Other productions included Anna Bolena (which he speaks of in this conversation), Andrea Chenier, and two lighter works, The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus

It was in the spring of 1982 during the rehearsals for Die Fledermaus that we met at his apartment.  Here is much of that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Did you go into operatic direction right away?

Lofti Mansouri:    No.  I was born in Tehran and came to the US when I was 17 in 1948 to go to UCLA.  My father sent me there to study medicine, and I graduated in my pre-med studies and was going to become a psychiatrist.  Meanwhile, I got interested in music and theater, and I slowly made the transition.  I went into Theater Arts.

mansouriBD:    Does having a background in psychiatry help you in directing?

LM:    I always joke about it – working with retarded children helps me understand opera singers… But it does help, of course, because when you’re dealing with motivations/relationships and everything like that, having had the background in psychiatry is vital in formulating your dramatic concepts.

BD:    I read that you studied at Bayreuth.

LM:    I was in the Bayreuth master classes.  The very first summer that it was organized I had a scholarship; that was in 1960.  I was the only stage-director; the rest were singers and architects!  They had a special grant to study about building opera houses, but the singers and myself were more involved in the productions and had master classes with Walter Felsenstein.  I found it very valuable.

BD:    Have you staged any Wagner?

LM:    I staged a Walküre in San Francisco a few years ago.  At the beginning, I was frightened of Wagner.  My stay at Bayreuth had an opposite effect on me – I developed an allergy to that kind of fanaticism about Wagner.  There were situations that I didn’t like, and art must be joyful and must be something elevated beyond the political aspects.

BD:    So did you try to make Walküre more joyful?  

LM:    I’m more of a realistic person, so I approached it on a more human level.  Basically it turned out all right alright, and I had an ideal cast – Shuard, Vickers.  [See my Interview with Jon Vickers.]  Ludwig was the conductor.  It was my first brush with Wagner, and after that I tried to stay away from it.  I felt I didn’t have the emotional affinity or the psychological preparation.  Finally, about a year and a half ago, I ventured into Tristan, and that turned out be a very happy experience for me.  I was very excited and I was glad I waited until then to do it.  I’d been offered Wagner before and always turned it down.  I didn’t want to go into it just as a job; I wanted to go into it believing I could bring something of myself into it.  The Tristan turned out very well for me – I had taken a gamble on it with Joanna Meier.  She had never done it, and when we were doing another opera I suggested it to her, and she said it had been her dream.  We also had Spas Wenkoff and Maureen Forrester.  It was a very happy experience working on it.  I just immersed myself in it and understood as much as I could about the significance of night and day and love and redemption.  In 1985 I will venture into my first Meistersinger in Toronto. 

BD:    You’re the Managing Director there?

LM:    I’m the General Director, so when someone asks me what I do, I say direct generally.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do you arrange things so you can direct the operas you want to?

LM:    Yes.  Making a repertoire for a company is a very delicate matter.  You have a responsibility to expand the horizon of the community and the public.  You want to give them things they’ve never had before, yet you don’t want to scare them off.  So every season I try to balance it as much as I can.  We do about 6 six major operas and 2 two or 3 three smaller ones a year, like a stagione.  It’s better that way.  We can concentrate on one opera at a time and not put undue stress on the company’s resources. 

BD:    If you get into a production, or have a couple of performances and find it’s all wrong or it doesn’t sell, can you drop it?

LM:    No, you’re stuck.  It’s happened.  We did a production for a singer, but he pulled out and no one else who could do the role was available.  The singer we finally got I had not heard, and I learned my lesson from that.  But those are the rules of the game.  Planning a season is like rolling the dice.  Some come out very well, and some which read beautifully on paper turns out to be not so hot.  There is no guarantee in our business. This singer had been recommended to me by a good agent in Europe, but I think he had sung too many other roles since he’d had a success in the part I needed him for.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have done a number of works by Massenet.  How is he different from any other composer?

LM:    My career has taken some very strange directions.  For awhile a while I did a lot of Massenet operas, and his grandson or great-grandson was impressed and gave me some background material.  I did Esclarmonde for Joan Sutherland, and I’ve done Thaïs, Don Quichotte, Werther, Manon, and right now I’m preparing Cléopȃtre.  I’m trying to talk Troyanos into doing it because it’s a gorgeous mezzo role
– very lush and very beautiful.  I haven’t talked her into it yet, but I’m working on it.

BD:    Do you ever envision doing all the Massenet operas over 20 years?

LM:    I would like that.  I don’t set that kind of goal for me, but it would be fun to have the understanding of a composer.  I think Manon is a wonderful opera – a gorgeous piece of music theater
– but it is very delicate and difficult to do.  You need a first-class cast and a first-class production in a smaller house so the nuances and details can work out.  It’s a gorgeous pastel–tableau with lots of detail and you can’t just shove it on a big stage with 4,000 seats.  I did it for French TV and it worked out very well.  I had a very good cast. 

BD:    You could zoom in for close-ups…

mansouriLM:    Oh yes, and you could work on the different characterizations for Pousette and Javotte and the Innkeeper and all these little vignettes.  The hotel Transelvanie is a wonderful scene, and Guiot de Montforte would have been a wonderful role for George Sanders.  It’s a very good piece of theater.  Another opera I’ve very much enjoyed doing – and it cost a fortune – was Louise by Charpentier.  I was fortunate – I got the original sets from the Opéra-Comique and they were breathtaking.  I did it in Geneva.  Rossi-Lemeni was the father and Louse was Suzanne Sarocca, a charming French singer.  The mother was Solange Michel, who had done the role with Charpentier.  She was a kind, helpful lady who taught me, for example, how Charpentier had said what they do at the table, how they bless before they start the supper.  It’s a dramma-musicale – it’s like a novel not a real opera.

BD:    It’s a conversation. 

LM:    Very much like that, yes.

BD:    Does it work in translation?

LM:    It might, yes, but not for television.  That would be an opera ideal for TV.  Do it as a gorgeous period piece with the costumes and a very attractive cast.  I’ve done a few things thought of as out in left field.  Another piece which I adore, and it’s never been done here at least in a major way, is L’Étoile by Chabrier.  That is a gem, an absolute gem – like a beautiful, beautiful diamond perfectly cut, but again, it needs a small house.  I had Eric Tappy and a very good cast. 

BD:    We’ve been trying to get a season in the Civic Theater, but with no success…

LM:    The Civic is an ideal little theater.  I rehearse there.  You could do L’Étoile there.  You’d need a very good English translation because I feel the audience should really understand the wit.

BD:    This is one of my hobby-horses.  Does opera-in-translation work?

LM:    Depends.  For instance, I’ve just commissioned a man to do the translation of La Belle Hélène for Toronto.  Offenbach had brilliant librettists, so what I’ve done is to go to another creator to do the translation for me.  I was not interested in a literal translation; I was interested in a spirit of the piece.  This gentleman is a creator and he’s given me a brilliant translation. 

BD:    Won’t this offend the purists?

LM:    I don’t really care – I want the audience to enjoy.  I don’t do these things for the purists.  If they don’t like it, they can always listen to the original. 

BD:    So you are a man of the theater?

LM:    I like to think that opera is theater.  Opera is the highest form of theater – it’s a composite art form.  It has everything.

BD:    Does it work on TV with the running translation?

LM:    Yes, that works very nicely with the subtitles, so you could do Louise without a translation and the audience would follow the story nicely. 

BD:    Is that better than actually translating it?

LM:    Louise maybe yes because Paris has a voice and it has an attraction for this young girl.

BD:    Are there any operas that don’t work in translation?

LM:    I would not like to do Rosenkavalier in translation.  I would rather not translate Hofmannsthal. 

BD:    It seems like the ones that don’t translate are the intimate things.

LM:    Emotional nuances depend on the nuances of language.  I’m not saying that you can’t translate it; you can, but you will lose something. 

BD:    So it’s a balance of give and take, and in that case you lose more than you gain?

mansouriLM:    I hate to generalize.  We just did Jenůfa in English, and I think it would have been rather snobbish to have done it in Czech.  Doing it in English involved the audience to such a point that whatever you would have lost in the subtle nuances, you gained in the direct communication with the audience and their involvement.  We did the new 3-act Three Act version of Lulu that was in English, and I think Lulu is tough enough so I didn’t want yet another barrier.  I wanted the audience to get involved in the piece. 

BD:    Do you approach Lulu differently because it is so difficult?

LM:    The problem is that it is so dense.  Lulu plays on so many levels, and this was one of the three or four times in my life where my production took an emotional philosophy and its levels that it was very exhausting.

BD:    Was it then exhausting for the audience?

LM:    I hope so, but perhaps less because I’d lived with it for months and the audiences is there for three hours.  But I wanted them to leave with something – food for thought, or being affected somehow.    

BD:    Isn’t that one which the audience should prepare for before coming to the theater?

LM:    Oh sure, yes.  I always say opera is not a passive art form.  Even Traviata you have to prepare for.  If you don’t really understand a little bit of the background, then you get only a certain superficial percentage.

BD:    Do you go back to Verdi, or back to Piave, or back to Dumas?

LM:    I go back to everything.  First, I go back to the source – if it was a play, then to the way the play was adapted into a libretto.  Then putting the music to it, you find if the music has brought new dimensions to the emotions or if it’s it has added other colors that the words did not have because music has such wonderful, descriptive possibilities.

BD:    Are there operas where the music detracts rather than adds to the drama?

LM:    Probably.  Sometimes yes, but most of the time, when you’re dealing with first-class composers, the music is an addition and it brings a level beyond the text.  Wagner is a prime example.  The singer can sing a line, then all of a sudden the orchestra is giving the depth of thoughts and feelings which was not in the words.  So it adds other levels.  The more simple, direct composers might not add as much, but Verdi, for example, does a great job.  Verdi is underestimated.  I think he was a great man of the theater.  Traviata alone is a beautifully crafted piece of theater. 

BD:    I love Verdi, and I’m glad that now we’re getting into the earlier operas.

LM:    Oh yes.  I did Attila for the New York City Opera, and I had a bit of difficulty with it because he needs much larger singers.  But I enjoyed doing it because there’s a certain sincerity and youthful passion in the early works.  It sweeps you along with it.  It might not be subtle or have the psychological details that Otello or Falstaff do, but it still has that wonderful kind of early power.   

BD:    A drive?

LM:    Yes, a great deal of that.  I’ve tried to stay away from the early Verdis because I find in every career there comes a time when you have to pull back so that when you return to it you can be better.  I did a production recently that I was not too happy with.  I did a very proficient job, and that’s about the worst insult you can give me.

BD:    Was that your fault or the singer’s fault, or what?

LM:    It was a lot of circumstances, so now I want to pull back a bit from those kinds of operas.  Beverly Sills offered me something in the same vein and I turned it down. 

BD:    How do you decide which operas you will accept to direct at other theaters?

LM:    In other theaters, I like to do things I don’t do elsewhere.  I work a lot in Amsterdam, and they give me chances to work in other repertoire.  I’ve done all the smaller Strauss operas for them – Ariadne, Cappricio, Arabella
so I get to do a whole other gamut of the repertoire.  So that helps me decide to go to Amsterdam.  If they offered me a Bohème, I wouldn’t be so hot to do it.  If they give me a challenge, that is incentive.  After this Fledermaus in Chicago, I’m going to do Hamlet in Sydney with Sherrill Milnes.  I’ve never done that opera and I’m delighted.  Last year I did Huguenots in Sydney, and believe it or not, I’d already done a Huguenots

BD:    There are not many directors in the world who can say that!

LM:    I’ve done most of the Meyerbeer operas – Prophète, L’Africiane, and Huguenots yet again!  Now to tell you the truth, I don’t want to do it again for a very long time.

BD:    Is he justly neglected?

LM:    If I can prune it, two and a half hours out of five hours are fabulous music.  That would be exciting.

BD:    Suppose I came to you and said I wanted to do Huguenots your way, and then bill it as an abridged production.

LM:    You’d have to give me a lot of money because it’s a cast of thousands
– a Cecil B. DeMille production!

BD:    And they’re all big singers – not like Louise where you have many singers, but only a couple big stars.

LM:    Right.  But I do things that stretch me, rather than yet another Bohème or yet another Rigoletto

BD:    But in your own house, if a director falls ill, you’d have to do it no matter what.

LM:    In my own house, I’m responsible for the totality.  For instance, John Conklin did a Lucia which was so wonderful that the production I’d been planning
one of my very favorites, Falstaff I right away asked him if he were free and would do it because I thought the company would benefit by having a new vision of a director of his caliber.  [See my Interview with John Conklin.]  I try to expose my public to different tastes and a variety of approaches so they don’t always get my own way.

BD:    How much do you do each season?

LM:    According to my contract, I do three of the overall nine.

BD:    Are these seen only in Toronto? 

LM:    We tour all of Ontario, but on a smaller scale and not with the major productions.  My first Canadian production was in Vancouver, but I don’t have anything there right now. 

BD:    How much of a headache is it deciding to use one singer over another singer?

LM:    A lot of times I wrestle with it, but a lot of times it’s availability.  A lot of operas should not be done unless you have the right singers.  You can’t do a Tristan if you don’t have the singers for the title roles.  You don’t do an Otello without an Otello.  Just to do an Otello, you damage the work.  

BD:    Are there any that you put on because you have to?

LM:    You have to do Traviata because it’s bread and butter and we always sell it.  Fledermaus we did and cast it very well with lots of young singers.  The piece is so strong and so good, and it’s not that demanding so there are a lot of good singers who can do it and make the show work, whereas other operas without the right singers should not be done.

BD:    Do you ever envision singers in a piece and suggest it to them even if they hadn’t seen themselves in the role? 

LM:    I always do.  That’s why a lot of people come to our company to do a role for the first time.  Sutherland is coming to do one of the last roles she will learn, and that is Anna Bolena.  [See my Interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.]  I’ve been after her for 10 ten years to do it, and she finally is doing it.  We were going to do it before, but she simply hadn’t had time to study the part and begged me to select anything else from her repertoire.  I agreed under the condition that she come back for the Bolena.  Thomas Stewart did Balstrode for the first time with us, and now the Met is doing it with him.  I very much like to do this. 

BD:    Ever have a singer fall on their face because of your suggestion?

LM:    So far, no.  Knock on wood…

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is opera going today?

mansouriLM:    I’m an optimist.  I like to think that opera is developing.  In the ‘50’s was the symphonies – after the war and the long playing record, the symphonies had a nice boom.  Then in the ‘60’s came the ballet which became very much “the” thing.  Now the time has come for opera.  In the last 10 ten years, there has been over 100% growth in opera in North America.

BD:    Is that big companies, or little ones, or what?

LM:    Everything.  The whole gamut.  The companies are functioning and doing well, and the audiences are going.  Opera, being the most complicated art form, is the most demanding, so it’s very natural for it to come last.  Symphony is the only one part of opera, ballet is another, and you add all the other elements, so it’s normal for the public to take more time to appreciate the art form because of the complexity.

BD:    There is so much that can go wrong.  I’m often surprised that so much goes right.

LM:    Yes, it’s an adventure. 

BD:    Does some of the audience come just to see if a singer misses the high C?

LM:    If you become a media personality, they love to build people up in order to break them down.  They do it everything – in politics, in art, in painting.  They build him up to when they’re exactly where they should be, and then they start picking at him.

BD:    Even though I am part of the media, my objective is to showcase my guests in the best possible light.  I give everyone their shot and allow the audience to explore their artistry.  Moving on to the creators, do you feel there are there any great new composers coming along
– any new Verdis or Wagners?

LM:    I am not aware of them.  I find now we’re going through a very arid period of creativity.  There are two things.  First, it takes a great deal of time to write an opera, and very few people have the money or the time.  It’s much easier to sit down and write a sonata or a string quartet.  And you don’t know if it will be a success.  If you’re lucky, you might see five performances of it and then another company doesn’t pick it up because they the eyes are always at the box office.  So one thing is the economics of it, and the other thing is the urge of creativity.  I find that no matter how many problems there are, if somebody had something to say, he’d be saying it.  You cannot hold a creative talent down either by economics or frustrations.  If you really have something to say, you’ll find a way of saying it.

BD:    Let me turn the question around – is there a place in the modern repertoire for the oldest masters such as Monteverdi, Cavalli, etc?

LM:    Oh yes.  But there, every instrumentalist has to be soloist and it all has to be prepared.  You have to budget the continuo, which is 5 five musicians who have to be at every staging rehearsal because that’s the way they’ll learn to accompany the recitatives.  So that’s a whole different preparation.     

BD:    Instead of a rehearsal pianist, it’s 5 five players…

LM:    ...and you have to put them on a weekly salary.  You cannot do it any other way.  After doing three or four weeks of staging, then to bring the musicians in would be a disaster.

BD:    Will you use “authentic” instruments?

LM:    Not so far, perhaps because our sensibilities have changed and the tonalities have changed.  I don’t want to do anything for a museum.  One of the greatest things about Monteverdi was that he was like Shakespeare – he started music theater and music drama.  Monteverdi never wrote a line unless it expressed a thought or emotion of the character.  He was a musical playwright, so that’s what is much more important to me than authentic instruments.  And tastes change all the time – back then and even now. Art is not a crystallized purity
– you can’t freeze it.  It’s got to be subject to human interpretation and emotion.

BD:    Is the public always right about that?

LM:    Basically I like to trust the public’s sensibility.  After all, opera is a form of communication, and you are communicating to the public.  So that’s the vital link.  That is why the public is so important for me.  All opera companies should take seriously their audience development program – to challenge audiences, to come better prepared.  This could help them to appreciate more, and that’s also part of our responsibility.  But I produce for the public, not just for my friends.

BD:    The public as a specific entity?

LM:    As many as I can get because the larger the public is, the more changes for growth I would have, and the more chances of acceptability of the art form.

BD:    I was just wondering if you tailor it at all – for instance, a series for school children

LM:    Oh, of course.  When I do a Fledermaus, I don’t go a metaphysical route, or say it is a comment on the capitalistic society.  I do Fledermaus as a very lovely, elegant, frothy, entertaining operetta, and I know what public I’m aiming it for.  I’m not aiming it at those who go for afternoon chamber concerts.  But if I’m doing a very delicate piece of Milhaud for instance, I would do it differently.  I can’t approach Fledermaus the way I do Lulu.  Everything has its own framework. 

BD:    Since you’re the General Director of the Canadian Opera, what if another director is doing Fledermaus who wants to approach it like Lulu?

LM:    I wouldn’t engage him if I knew that’s what he wanted to do.

BD:    What if he was already under contract for it?

LM:    I’d buy him off.  I’d rather do that than open my company to a kind of disaster like that.  I have a responsibility to my board and I have a responsibility to the government who pays me so much as a grant each year.  I’d let them experiment on a smaller scale where the risk is not so high, but a Fledermaus, where we’re counting on 100% ticket sales, I’m not going to take that risk.  I’d rather sell out the Fledermaus and then do a stylish, avant-garde production of Jenůfa.

BD:    What about turning it around – doing Lulu in the style of Fledermaus?

LM:    Well, the emotional language is different and it will throw it out of kilter.   I don’t know what you’d gain by it, unless you’re doing a kind of low dada-ism of some sort.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s the role of recordings on the public and the performer?

LM:    I find it positive and negative
– positive because they’re accessible and you get to hear a lot of works you don’t get to hear otherwise, and negative because they’ve been manipulated.  Notes have been held out or stretched or cut or spliced.

BD:    Are they too perfect?

LM:    They’re certainly not authentic from a live performance standpoint.  I’ve been involved in recordings for TV and for film, and they manipulate things mechanically.

BD:    So much that you’d turn down another offer to do film?

LM:    Oh no, I love films.  I just feel that people tamper too much on recordings, and the audience comes wanting to hear that [perfection].  Then they don’t hear it because it’s mechanically produced. 

BD:    Will film bring the public closer to the opera, or drive them away from the theater?

mansouriLM:    I find that visual media – films and TV – have to find new techniques for opera.  You cannot just go in and shoot an opera performance.  I’d rather see them go ahead and start, and learn from their mistakes.  There have been some magnificent opera films – mostly made by the Russians.  Their Boris is a realistic film; they shot it all in the real locations.  In the ‘50’s the Italians filmed operas, and some are quite good.  Everybody says the story of Trovatore is nonsense, but I tell them to see this old Italian film.  Every time there was an aria, they showed a flashback of what was happening, so you saw what was being sung about.  The trouble with Trovatore is that all the action happens offstage and they talk about it.  So if you don’t know what they’re talking about, you won’t get the story. 

BD:    Could that be done in the theater – have singers downstage or in the extreme left and right, with actions going on up center?

LM:    If you had money to do it, it would be wonderful.  I did that once in Pique Dame.  I had part of the set be a scrim, and as Hermann was singing about something, the lights came up behind and I had an extra playing Hermann going through what he was singing about.  So I’ve done that trick.  It was in a smaller theater, so it worked very well.

BD:    The size of the theater seems to be the determining factor so often.

LM:    It is.  When you have 4,000 seats, you have to play everything big for everyone to get the actions.  You can’t concentrate on psychological details.

BD:    When you’re staging it for 4,000 people, is it too big for the first 8 eight rows?

LM:    No.  In Fledermaus, I use mikes for the dialogue – very subtly and they’re very sensitive mikes.

BD:    Lapel mikes?

LM:    No, on the floor, but sensitive.

BD:    Is there someone controlling it?

LM:    Oh yes.  The sound man is working like hell back there.  I think it’s unfair for the actors to have to shout all that dialogue, and with the mikes, they relax and speak it much more naturally.  Otherwise it sounds phony and people say,
“Look at how they do that dialogue.  Opera singers cant act.

BD:    What
’s the place today of unknown works by well-known composers such as Giordano or Boito?

LM:    They just did the Romeo and Juliette of Zandonai in San Diego, and it got scathing reviews saying it was
“justly neglected.”  Cavalli was unknown until L'Egisto was done and everyone commented on how gorgeous it was.  Because of his bicentennial, people are beginning to discover the operas of Haydn.  There are some beautiful works that are not done any more.  I did Macbeth of Ernst Bloch, which I enjoyed very much and thought it was a very good piece, an excellent opera.

BD:    Would you ever do many versions – different settings – of the same story in a single season?

LM:    If I had a repertory house with 250 performances in a season so that while these were going on, there would be the other operas to satisfy the rest of the public.  But what you suggest is a fascinating idea for a festival.  I’ve done a kind of festival evening of Shakespeare – scenes from plays, some ballet, and scenes form operas all inspired by Shakespeare.  That was just one evening, but you could take it and develop it.  I’m trying something else – one night doing Taming of the Shrew, and the next night Kiss Me Kate – but using the same sets.  This would be the play, though, not an operatic setting.

BD:    Do you know the opera Goetz or the setting by Giannini?

LM:    The Giannini is a good thing for Julliard to do, but I don’t think it would be great for us. 

BD:    Is that the kind of thing music schools should usually do?

LM:    Oh yes.  I find that music schools get over-ambitious.

BD:    They often do Hoffman or Bohème

LM:    I think they should coach them, but the schools should not perform Bohème – or they should do the setting by Leoncavallo, which other people do not do.

BD:    Is it right to get singers to learn roles they probably will not sing again in their career?

LM:    If you can convince them they are learning it to learn the style.  They might not do the work, but they will probably do other works in that same style.  You don’t have to do Cavalleria to understand what verismo means.  I don’t think they’ll lose by learning those kinds of things.  It’s harder to try and convince an established singer to learn a new role.

BD:    Do singers ever come to you and say they’d love to do this or that new role?

LM:    Some, especially if they’ve worked with me earlier. 

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BD:    In your role of General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, how much do the financial concerns dictate the artistic decisions?

LM:    A great deal.  You have to make a repertoire.  You have to calculate from past experience and decided how much will come from the box office, and then put things on that will draw well.  In Toronto, we have to operate with 90% attendance, and that’s madness. 

BD:    Is that constricting? 

LM:    Very constricting.  I can’t take risks unless it’s a calculated risk – like Lulu
and then I put a popular operetta next to it which I know will sell out. 

BD:    Does the same audience come to both?

mansouriLM:    Some do.  Some get up and walk out, and some new people will come to Lulu.  After people left Lulu, others stayed and cheered to the rafters at the end of it.  I also get nasty letters saying that if they wanted fornication, they knew where they could go for that.   

BD:    Would you ever do an all-nude opera?

LM:    If it were part of the story; I wouldn’t do it just to shock.  In Europe there is a lot of nudity in their productions. 

BD:    Would you go for, say, having Alfredo and Violetta making it during the prelude to Traviata?

LM:    I’m not against it, but it would have to work right.  I would have to work out the psychological motivation for it.  In a Trovatore I saw, during “Il Balen,” Luna was caressing three naked ladies.  Later, in the camp scene, Azucena was caught and raped by 5 five soldiers.  I don’t know if that’s really necessary.    

BD:    Do you like any kind of acting during preludes?

LM:    Zeffirelli did it during Traviata, and that was beautifully worked out.  When I did Fra Diavolo, nobody knows what that work is about, so I used dancers during the overture to tell the story of who Fra Diavolo was.

BD:    So you can take more risks in an unknown opera than a well-known one?

LM:    Yes, as long as you can communicate it to the audience.  You want the audience to get more out of it.  There must be a reason, not a gimmick.  I hate gimmicks. 

BD:    How much leeway do you give your guest directors in your house?

LM:    Having been in the position of having managements try to get me to change things in various houses, I try not to subject my guests to that kind of thing.  If I believe in their talent when I engage them, they have to have their freedom to do what they can.  If something is totally disastrous, they won’t come back.   

BD:    How much do you, as a stage-director, get involved in the designing of the sets?

LM:    In a new production you start very closely to get two minds with one spirit – the spirit of the work – and you have to agree on the concept of the work and the color pattern. 

BD:    Do you begin plotting actions by what you see coming to the drawing board?

LM:    You have to work everything out together.  Usually you work two or three years ahead.  The stage director has a visual concept.  I have colors in mind.  I don’t want Hamlet in pastels, but rather in somber colors.  I don’t want Elisir in somber colors, but bright and sunny.  Those are extremes, but it is very important for the designer and director to agree on a concept. 

BD:    When you work this far ahead, is it best to know what singers you will have – at least in the principal roles?

LM:    Oh yes.  If you’re worked with them before, you know there are certain things they can and cannot do.  You shouldn’t ask for things that make them look bad.

BD:    Are you then forcing things on different singers who are performing those roles in later years?

LM:    I had that experience in Zurich where I was for 6 six years.  My production of Carmen ran for 7 seven years, and when I came back that last year I didn’t recognize it.  Every new Carmen wanted this or that; it’s not carbon copies.  There are certain boundaries of the production, but each artist is going to have different strengths and weakness.

BD:    Would you ever try to set up a series to sell to the yuppie crowd and stage it differently?

LM:    I do that in the summer festivals – we do abridged operas and I get theater directors to do them.  We do it in a tent, with minimal props.

BD:    Do you advertize, then, on rock stations?

LM:    We advertize on radio and we serve wine and beer, so the whole formality is completely shattered.  There are 750 seats in the tent, and it’s packed every night.  They sit there and see an hour and ten minute version of Bohème or a 60 sixty minute version of Don Pasquale.

BD:    What is the ultimate point, then?

LM:    To convince them that opera is a fabulous art form, and then next time come to see the full version at the O’Keefe Center.

BD:    Are they disappointed, then, with the real thing?

LM:    We tell them this is an abridged, re-worked version, just a sample.  A Reader’s Digest version, but hopefully, after that they will want the full version.  You want to tempt them.  Many come, and having seen the abridged version, are prepared to see the full version.  They were familiar with the story and the characters, and the full version just filled in the details for them.

BD:    Is there any place in the operatic world for participatory opera?

LM:    I haven’t seen it yet.  Opera is such a formal art form – even a bit of improvisation doesn’t work too well. 

BD:    I remember a Faust where the audience voted at the last intermission whether Marguerite lived or died.

LM:    It could work for one piece, but you couldn’t make a rule out of it.  Experimentation is wonderful, but I don’t think it will end up being the only way to do a work.

BD:    Are voices today stronger than they were 20 twenty years ago? 

LM:    I find the voices are better trained.  They’re used as better instruments and the kids are better musicians.  The danger today is that the kids approach everything on a superficial, glossy aspect.  They’re so good and so well-prepared that they seldom dig deep.  They don’t take the trouble; they jump from company to company.  They’re very proficient; they can get up and sing this and sing that, so they end up by getting away with it easily rather than having artistic ambitions to find out the difference in the three gioias in
Sempre Libera, and how they, as an artist, want to interpret them.  You get a lot of wonderful artists with no depth.

BD:    Do you try to give them more depth?

LM:    I try to stimulate them to think, to show them doors they haven’t opened yet, and show them possibilities. 

BD:    Is there any correlation with this for the audience?  Is it more superficial today?

LM:    The superficial thing has the best success.  You have a good high note and hold it, and the audience loves it rather than a delicate little recitative.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

LM:    Absolutely, recession or no recession. 

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

LM:    I am happy to do so.

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at Mansouris apartment in Chicago on May 11, 1982.  A portion was transcribed and published in Nit & Wit Magazine in November, 1986.  The complete conversation was re-edited for this website posting in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.