Director / Manager Lotfi
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
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
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?
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
BD: 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
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
with Wagner, and after that I tried to stay away from it. I felt
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
BD: You could zoom
in for close-ups…
LM: 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
BD: It’s a
LM: Very much like
BD: Does it work
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
BD: We’ve been
trying to get a season in the Civic Theater, but with no
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?
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
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
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
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
would rather not translate Hofmannsthal.
BD: It seems like
the ones that don’t translate are the intimate
nuances depend on the nuances of language.
I’m not saying that you can’t translate it; you can, but you will
BD: So it’s a
balance of give and take, and in that case you lose
more than you gain?
LM: I hate to
generalize. We just did Jenůfa
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
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
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,
BD: Are there
operas where the music detracts rather than adds to
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
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
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
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
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
the truth, I don’t want to do it again for a very long
BD: Is he justly
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.
But I do things that stretch me, rather than yet
another Bohème or yet
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
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
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
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
LM: So far,
no. Knock on wood…
BD: Where is opera
LM: 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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
– 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
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
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
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
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.
been held out or stretched or cut or spliced.
BD: Are they too
certainly not authentic from a live
performance standpoint. I’ve been involved in recordings for TV
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
BD: Will film
bring the public closer to the opera, or drive them
away from the theater?
LM: 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.
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
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 can’t
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
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
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?
especially if they’ve worked with me earlier.
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
BD: Is that
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?
LM: Some do. Some
get up and walk out, and some new
people will come to Lulu.
After people left Lulu,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
recession or no recession.
BD: Thank you for
coming back to Chicago.
LM: I am happy to
--- --- --- ---
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at Mansouri’s
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.
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
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.