NEA Opera Honors: Interview with Lotfi Mansouri

Uploaded by NEAarts on 02.05.2010

Well, Iran, in the time I was born -- and it was very much traditionalist, and I was
kind of in a very interesting family, because my father's family was very conservative,
Islamic -- devout Islamic. My mother's family on the other hand were much more Westernernized.
Most of their family members would go to France and study. And in our house, the second language
was French, after the Farsi, Iranian language. I was the only child. My mother married when
she was very, very young. She was 15 when I was born. And later on, believe it or not,
then before of her father -- it's a very interesting historical part, because the British played
a major role in the Middle East at that time, and they wanted very much of course to control
the oil and all of that stuff, which is still going on to this day. They created Iraq first,
because there was no country of Iraq. They were all tribes. And believe it or not, it
was a British lady who named the place Iraq. Her name was Gertrude Bell, and they put even
a king there and all of that. And they also then worked very hard in Iran, and they got
rid of the old dynasty, which was the Qajars, and they had been ruling the country for about
200 years, and they put in a gentleman from the cavalry as the shah, Reza Shah, and he
added Pahlavi to it and all that stuff. So this is a little background then, because
my maternal grandfather was connected to the last dynasty. And so had to go into hiding,
of course, and he was then protected by the Christian missionaries. And he was grateful
to them that actually when finally he came out and he was safe and all that, he converted
to Christianity, and that then influenced my mother. When I was about five years old,
then my mother converted to Christianity. So it was a very interesting family. It was
my father, who was very, very conservative Islamic, and there was my mother, who became
a Christian. And I was the only child between this kind of thing. So in a way I felt I was
lucky, because I studied the Koran in school, and I went to church on Sundays and studied
the Bible. And I loved the Christian services because there was music in it, because the
Islamic services, as you know, they're very, very serious and incredibly -- you have to
pray five times a day and all that stuff. I just love that kind of more of the European
and the more the Christianity -- the singing and the hymns and all of that. It was wonderful.
So that was a little bit of my background, that I kind of was brought up into this, shall
we say, mixed bag situation, as the only child. So the music in our home -- and in Iran at
the time, of course men were not supposed to have anything to do with the arts, especially
with music and all that. The ladies could. Like my mother played three different instruments.
She played the tar, and she played the violin and all that. But when I was very young and
I loved the music so much, I asked my father -- I loved piano very, very much. So his
attitude was, "You love the piano?" I said, "Oh yes, I love it." He said, "Very good.
I'll get somebody to play for you." So it was a matter you paid. And if you wanted to
insult somebody in those days in Iran, you would call them a dancer, or a musician --
all that. They were all of the lower echelon in the society, so it was not in any sense
that you let your children study. The ladies did it because they would have salons. My
mother -- you know, Friday, it's like Sunday. It's a day of rest in Iran and Islamic countries
-- and my mother always had a salon, and then she would play her tar or she played
her violin. And her side of the family, one uncle was a very well known poet and a writer,
who actually ended up giving a lot of lectures for the -- because then the shah tried very,
very much to modernize Iran, and he Ataturk, who had modernized Turkey, and he used it
a little bit like a model. And so my uncle would go around and give lectures. At that
time, the shah was even trying -- in order to modernize the society, they would not allow
the ladies to wear chadors -- the dark robe. They would tear it away. Which is the exact
opposite today, because now they have the dress codes and the police, that if you don't
have the handkerchief just the right way, you're going to get fined and go toÉso it
was a very, very kind of a exciting period at that time, and the shah was trying to modernize
it in a way. But I did like the Eastern music, like my mother would listen. There was an
Egyptian, very famous Egyptian lady singer named Umm Kulthum. When she died, over a million
people attended her funeral. I always thought she sounded pained. I thought maybe she was
constipated. She was just very, very -- I didn't like it. Then when the Second World
War started, then the Allies came in and they replaced the shah, because the shah had started
playing footsies with the Nazis. So they got rid of him and they put his son, who at that
time was only 18, on the throne. But what was interesting then, Tehran -- was the capital
of Iran -- was then surrounded with four camps. There was the American camp, there was the
Russian camp, the French camp, and the British camp. And I then discovered the Armed Air
Force Radio. I was not allowed to listen to it, so I would sneak down to the living room
when everybody was sound asleep and would put something over my head, and I would listen
to the Armed Forces radio. I would listen to Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and all that
kind of stuff. So that was another bit of an introduction for me. And my mother loved
films very much, and so she would go to films, and she would take me to films. And then of
course I discovered the Western music really through the Hollywood films. Because I always
say -- this is an absolutely true story -- the first time I ever heard "Un bel di,"
the area from Butterfly, was my beloved Deanna Durbin. She sang it in the film called First
Love, the film where she got kissed for the first time, of course. It was heaven for Deanna
to get kissed. And then she said "Un bel di." But I always "Un bel di" was in English, because
she sang it in English. Later on, the first time I heard "Nessun dorma," the aria from
Turandot, the tenor's area, was my beloved Deanna, sang it as a soprano in a film called
His Butler's Sister. So my introduction to the Western music, especially the symphonic
music and the vocal music and all that was through the Hollywood films. And I loved it.
I loved it. And I would then, if I saw a film of Deanna Durbin, and I was a kid -- my voice
hadn't changed yet -- I would go in our garden and I would attempt singing. And then I must
have made awful noises, because then the servant of our neighbor would come in and say, "Would
you please tell Lotfi stop singing. The lady is taking her nap." And so I would stop. And
when the lady would awaken, the servant would come and say, "Lotfi can go on singing now.
The lady's up." So that was a little bit of my -- I kind of listened to Jeannette MacDonald.
The first time I heard the aria "Wolfram" from Tannhauser, was sung -- not by a baritone
-- was sung by Rise Stevens in the film with Nelson Eddy called The Chocolate Soldier.
So that really was my introduction to Western music. And I loved it. I just was addicted
to it. Then of course in the Ô40s, of you remember, Hollywood had fantastic composers,
because all of them had run away from the Nazis -- Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz
Waxman. So you listen to these soundtracks, and you would hear Strauss and you would hear
a Schoenberg, and you would hear all the development of the music from Europe through these incredible
composers. So that really was my kind of introduction to the Western music of that -- that's how
I fell in love with it.They were a custom in our family that once you finished high
school in Tehran, the parents would decide what they wanted you to do, and they would
send them either to Europe or United States. A lot of my cousins went to Europe and United
States, and my father, just a year before I finished high school, then he decided that
I was going to university. But he, of course, from the day I was born, he had decided I
was going to become a doctor. Because in the family, either you were a lawyer or an architect
or a doctor. There was no questions. So he had registered me in the University of Edinburgh
in Scotland, because he didn't believe in American education, and he felt the American
education was too light and fluffy and all that stuff. He believed that was much more
serious. But of course, yours truly did not want to go to Scotland, because one of my
dearest friends also -- two of my friends that we grew up -- because I attended then
as a teenager -- a lot of my friends in Tehran were either Armenians or the White Russians.
Because after the revolution, quite a bit of the Russians migrated to Tehran, and we
had quite a culture of the Russians. So one of my friends -- his name was Ray Aghayan,
was coming to California. He ended up by being a very well known costume designer. He did
Broadway with Lauren Bacall. He did films in Hollywood for 20th Century Fox. Ray Aghayan.
He discovered Bob Mackie, the designer. On and on and on. So he was coming here, and
I was determined that I wanted to come to California. So then I worked on my mother
to work on my father. And so they decided that I would then -- UCLA would be the --
because I wanted to come to UCLA because it was so close to Hollywood. So that's how
then I ended up at UCLA, but as a pre-med, and not in any way having to anything with
the arts, because that was not to spoken, as far as my father was concerned. That's
how I ended up then at UCLA as a pre-med. But before going to UCLA, I had to take one
semester of Los Angeles High school, because my English was very poor at that time, and
before getting to the university, with all the chemistry and physics and all that stuff,
I had to know English much better. So I then went to the LA High, which was an interesting
experience, because I was the only one who was dressed in a suit and a tie at LA High.
And of course very slowly then the tie came off and the jacket went, and all that stuff.
So slowly the Americanization of Lotfi Mansouri started.Well, yes, I did that. Because I was
a very bad pre-med student. I was not interested. As a matter of fact, my foreign student advisor
called me one time to his office. We had a wonderful organization for foreign students
in UCLA in those days. Wonderful. And he said, "Mr. Mansouri, you really cannot only go to
the classes you like. You also have to go to all the classes you're assigned to." Because
I did not like the chemistry class, so I just didn't go. I would jokingly say, "I never
got past Bunsen burner, which was on page 13." So I said, "No, I don't." So that's how
-- but then the interesting thing was then, because then I told my foreign student advisor,
I said, "But you see, my problem is because I've got physics, I've got chemistry, I've
got zoology -- all these things -- and my English is not that good. So by the time I
translate everything, it takes me hours and hours. It's very difficult, because I have
too much homework. I'm having major problems." And he was very kind. He said, "Well, why
don't you then, in order to have a full load, why don't you take a class for two units that
has no homework." And I said, "Is there such a class?" He said, "Yes. Why don't you go
and take a choir?" I said, "Well, I can't sing. I've never sung." So he said, "All right,
the first semester, you take a voice class, and then the second semester you get in the
chorus. This way you have two sessions, each of them two units, and you don't have homework."
So I took a voice class, and the very first aria that -- because the teacher then kind
of took me over the scale, and then he kept going, and I was going la-la-la all over the
place. And all of the sudden he stopped and said, "You know, you just sang a high C."
I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, "You're a tenor." And so he gave me
-- my first area he gave me was "Che gelida manina," Rodolfo's aria. So I decided that
it was time for me to start studying piano. And where I lived, fortunately we had a very
nice piano teacher. And so I started taking piano lessons. And that's how slowly then
I just discovered the world of music and the world of singing, and that really was my beginning
into that. And as you know, being a tenor, tenors were very much sought after. There
were no that many tenors. And one time, I was warming up in one of the practice rooms,
and a young gentleman came in and said, "You're a tenor." I said, "I think so." And said,
"Our tenor just got drafted, and we need you. Can you do this thing?" And believe it or
not, that's then where I met Carol Burnett, because we were going to -- they were doing
these gigs, and it was Carol and myself and this accompanist. And we started doing this
club stuff, and we each got five dollars, which was big time -- big time -- in those
days. So that was another way of starting into the so-called -- in theater and show
business. So that was just kind of the very slow beginning, and little by little of course
then my concentration was really more on music and on performance than on my pre-meds.Well,
the thing was, my father becoming aware of all this, because he was sending the check,
of course. I was being subsidized. And my mother came for a visit, and my mother stayed
quite a lot time. She loved traveling. She said she was coming here for six months; she
stayed three years. And of course this was the three years of my transition from pre-med.
And then she said that my father said, "You really have to come home." And so she started
to go home, back to Iran, and on the way she started to see a cousin of mine in Paris,
who was not well. She said she was going to stay for a couple of months. She stayed another
year. So by the time she got to Tehran, then she told my father, "Lotfi is not going to
become a doctor." And so my father -- I guess he thought he was really doing the right thing.
So he -- I was getting checks every month, and it was coming through the foreign student
department. And for about four months or so, I didn't get my checks. And then on the fifth
month then I got a letter from my father with a one-way ticket flight back to Iran, that
if I use this, I can pay all my debts, and I go home. Because he was very disappointed
in me. And that was quite a blow for me. In life, you always come into kind of a crossroad,
and I remember that night very, very well. And so I had to really decide. I had to decide
what did I want to do? If I went back to Iran, what was going to happen to me? Because, you
know. So I decided that really was not going to be my future. So I made a decision to break.
I felt I was so drawn to what I was doing that I felt that if I went, it was like committing
suicide. So I then, through some friends, they arranged that I turned in my ticket.
I got some money for it, paid some of my debts, and then I went independent. I started then
for the first -- until I left Iran, I really didn't know how to tie my shoelaces, because
you always had servants and all that stuff. I then did every kind of work you could imagine.
I worked in grocery stores, I cleaned bathrooms, I bartended, I -- anything you could imagine
for money. And that's how it was. And then slowly then everything moved towards theater
and music. So that was really the transition.I did, yeah. And then I had some wonderful
-- this particular time in LA was a fantastic time, because a great many gifted artists
from the Central Europe and all that had run away from the Nazis and all that. We had Thomas
Mann. I went to school with Schoenberg's daughter. I mean, everybody. All of them. There was
Bruno Walter was there. Otto Klemperer was there. I mean, all that. And I was very fortunate.
I ended up with a fantastic teacher. It was Fritz Zweig. Dr. Zweig had been a conductor
in Berlin, a colleague of Klemperer. His wife's name was Tillie DeGarmo, professional. She
was a soprano within Vienna Staadtsoper. So had sang "Sophie" with Lotte Lehmann and all
that. So through these people then, I met incredible people. I had no idea who they
were at that time -- no idea. Now I look back. I say, "Oh my god, I had lunch with Alma Mahler."
And these -- they were all their friends. And so through Mr. Zweig then, he had me audition
for Lotte Lehmann. And so I got a scholarship to Santa Barbara at the Music Academy of the
West. And again, as a tenor, then I got to sing with everybody. As a matter of fact,
Grace Bumbry and I were in the same class, and we even sang together. And later on, Madame
Lehmann also gave me a scholarship that even in the winters, where she had like about 20
ladies -- she had sopranos and mezzos, but no men, and I was the only one. So I would
go up every week for one day and I would -- I was like a prop. If somebody was studying
Carmen, I would do Don Jose. If somebody was studying Elsa, I would be Lohengrin -- all
that. But then I learned the repertoire when I learned it with Lehmann.I believe very much
in kismet, I think were I was brought up. Kismet -- destiny. I always think that the
primary things in our lives is really somehow preordained, and that's kismet. But what we
do with the chances, then that's up to us. So I was doing a performance once, a horrible
piece for children, and I fell on the stage, and my arm came out of the socket and all
that. So I was in a cast and etcetera. So Dr. Popper [ph? ], who was running the opera
workshop, just to kind of keep me busy, and kind of get rid of me a little bit, because
I would never stop, he said, "Would you like to direct the prologue to Ariadne?" I say,
"Hey, why not?" Because I couldn't perform anyway. So I took over directing the prologue
to Ariadne, which is a brilliant one-act piece. And my Zerbinetta at the time was Marni Nixon,
who then went on and became -- you know, Marni and I worked together, you know. So we had
wonderful, gifted people. And so I directed -- my very first thing was I directed the
prologue to Ariadne with Marni as Zerbinetta and some wonderful people in it. And I just
loved it. I thought it was fantastic. And meanwhile, another gentleman who was running
the city college opera workshop had seen my work -- I had also directed some scenes --
and he actually was the first one who gave me my very first professional job and my very
first time that I got paid directing anything. And my first production to direct was Cosi
Fan Tutte, at the city opera, with some wonderful young singers. They went to Europe, made careers.
Ella Laid was an African-American soprano, lovely. So that's how it all started. So from
then on then, I just loved the idea of directing, and I did everything. I directed for the city
college, UCLA, Marymount College -- just all over the place.Well, Dr. Graf was unbelievable.
I mean, he was -- I owe my career to him. He was my artistic father. He became my mentor.
And the way we got together -- it was an interesting story -- because this was -- I had been in
Santa Barbara with Madame Lehmann in '58 -- summer of '58. Grace Bumbry was there and
Benita Valente was there and all that. Then I had other plans for summer of '59. I wanted
to have other experiences. Because by this time, I had been an associate professor then.
I did UCLA opera workshop. They put me on staff. So I was now in charge of all the dramatics
of the UCLA opera workshop. And I wanted to do other things theatrically, and I didn't
want to go to Santa Barbara. And then the managing director of Santa Barbara before
'59 called me up and said, "Lotfi, Madame Lehmann has a sabbatical, and she's not going
to be here this summer. We have a gentleman named Herbert Graf from Metropolitan Opera
-- he's coming -- and we want to offer you to -- he's going to do Magic Flute, so we
want you to prepare the scenes for his public classes. We want you to sing Monastatos, and
assist him on doing the production of Magic Flute. And I very reluctantly accepted. All
for 500 dollars. And I said, "Sure, I'll do that." And that first week or so, I wasn't
sure. And then all of the sudden this man -- his understanding, his depth of knowledge,
his languages and all that. So we became very, very close at that time. And he was very sweet,
very unpretentious. Later on -- this man, when he was six years old, he was analyzed
by Sigmund Freud, because his father was a very good friend of Sigmund Freud, and as
a child he was analyzed. His godfather was Gustav Mahler. I mean, this man was unbelievable.
And for me to have had the luck of running into him and being accepted by him practically
as a son -- he had a son, but hadn't worked out very well. And so then -- and when we
finished the summer of '59, he was flying out from LA, and I asked him, "Is there anything
you'd like to see in LA?" By that time I had little connections in Hollywood because I
had even played Caruso for a TV film. And so, "Would you like to go to a Hollywood studio."
He said, "No, I want to go to Disneyland." So I took him to Disneyland, and he took all
the rides -- all the rides -- and I even had a sign printed for him, the "Wanted" sign,
"Herbert Graf. Reward: 5000 dollars." Like the Old West. So then he left. He left. Then
I got a call later on -- I think it was about October or so -- I got a letter from him,
from Dr. Graf from New York. "Lotfi, I have just been appointed the general director of
the Zurich opera and would like for you to come and join me as a stage director." I was
just flabbergasted. My god. I mean, go to Zurich at the opera house with him. And as
luck would have it, then all of the sudden I got a call -- then Mr. Bing was interested,
had heard about some of my work and he was interested. And Dr. Graf being so wonderful
and understanding, so I call Dr. Graf. I said -- because you know Graf had been at the
Met for 23 years. I called Dr. Graf and he said, "No, Lotfi, go to New York. Have an
interview. Then call me and tell me what your decision is." And so I didn't -- big time,
Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Rudolph Bing. So I went there for my interview. And of course
he was very, very grand, as you can imagine. It was like having the visit with the pope.
And so I went in, and then he told me, "Yes, Mr. Mansouri, we'd like you to come here as
assistant stage director." And I very diplomatically and sheepishly said, "Well, Mr. Bing, when
would I have any possibility of doing a production of my own?" And he very grandly said, "Oh,
Mr. Mansouri, we're engaging you as assistant director. There's no talk of a production."
So I went back home and my wife and I talked. Because at that time, between my wife and
I, I think we were doing very well. I was working at three different universities and
all these gigs, and all that kind of stuff, and my wife was an assistant editor of a magazine.
And Dr. Graf wanting me in Zurich, he was kind of squeezing me in, so there wasn't that
much money. And the Met contract was actually, financially, much, much better. It was, like,
ten times better than what I was getting. But my wife and I discussed it. I said, "No."
So I said, "We're going to Zurich." And I called Dr. Graf and I said, "No, I'm going
to come." And it was the greatest decision I ever made. So that was it. That's how I
ended up in Zurich as a resident stage director.Well, I tell you what, because Dr. Graf was so generous
to me. My first season, I got to do three new productions -- big stuff. Samson and Delilah,
Traviata, new productions -- everything. Then what he did was amazing. I was this young
nobody. He pared me with Otto Klemperer. I directed Fidelio with Klemperer conducting.
He paired me with Gavatsain [ph? ], who was the music director of -- I mean, he gave me
opportunities. An incredible artist, wonderful -- James McCracken. You know, Realize Delacard.
They were some of the greatest. This nobody from Tehran, Iran. And so I really then --
I did everything. I did from soup to nuts. I did big stuff. I did Meyerbeer, the Prophete
with James McCracken. Then I did Carnival -- the premier of the American musical Carnival.
David Merrick came for the opening night and all that kind of stuff. So I did everything.
I did Wozzeck. I did Lulu. I did Samson and Delilah, Traviata. I got a chance to do everything.
And then later on, he got into trouble. The board, I think they were a little bit scared.
It was the changes and all that. So he quit Zurich, and he left, and I continued on. The
new director kept me. And then about two, three years, Dr. Graf called me. "Lotfi, I
just signed to be the general director of Geneva Grand Theatre. Would you like to come
and join me?" "Would I?" So that's how I went to Geneva. And then in Geneva then, I became
the director of productions. So I was like what they called in French chef maitre en
scene. So that would be like . So there again, I ended by doing some marvelous
stuff. He gave me again incredible artists -- where Gwyneth Jones did her very first
Tosca. She did her very first Desdemona with yours truly directing, and all that kind of
stuff. So I developed a vast repertoire. And also Dr. Graf was very generous. In a sense,
I started then guesting. I started in San Francisco. Mr. Adler came and saw the Prophete
in Zurich. And then the first couple of years in San Francisco, each season Mr. Adler gave
me six productions; six operas from soups to nuts. My first very time with Joan Sutherland
was here. We did Sonnambula, and I fell in love with her. And I'm still in love with
her. Marvelous. I did Tebaldi, Corelli -- all that kind of stuff. So it was then --
and then I continued on in Geneva then. And then unfortunately Dr. Graf then had cancer,
and he died. And then the gentleman who came after Dr. Graf didn't like me, of course,
because I was so associated with the past. You know, what always happens when a new general
director comes. And in a way, it was one of the best things that happened to me, because
I was so comfortable in Geneva, I could still be still in Geneva.Well, yes, because in 1971,
Shah, who was the son of the first shah, Pahlevi, he was very much in the process of modernizing
Iran. And in 1971, he kind of fabricated a 2500-year anniversary of Iran as a society,
and Persia and all that stuff. And he gave an incredible party in Persepolis, where they
made these fantastic tents where it was all catered by Maxim's of Paris, and it was unbelievable.
Prince Philip and the -- and they built an opera house -- a beautiful opera house --
built by the same architect that built the opera house in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper.
A visitor showed up in Geneva, that, "Mr. Mansouri, there's this big celebration we
would like you to come to Iran." At that time I was very nervous, because I had not had
any relationship with my father and all that. The whole thing really shook me. Did I want
to go back, and etcetera. I decided, no, I didn't want to go back. So I made an excuse,
and I said, "No, I'm under contract in Geneva. Dr. Graf got me assignments," etcetera. But
of course these guys were very smart, so they went and talked to Dr. Graf. And Dr. Graf,
thinking that I wanted to go, said, "Oh, of course he can go." Anyway, so I then went
back. I went back and I did -- and they treated me really royally. They treated me -- it was
a wonderful house. They had five different orchestras. They had the symphonic orchestra,
the opera orchestra, the ballet orchestra, the ethnic orchestra, the chamber ensemble.
And the shah was desperately trying to modernize Iran -- very, very strongly. But unfortunately,
he was kind of force-feeding this process rather than educating. Because opera -- nobody
knew. So my very first production then I did for them was Carmen. Of course every opera
I directed there, it was the very first time in Iran. They had never done it. And money
was no object. And Iran in the early Ô70s was like the time Alaska must have been in
gold rush. I mean, every company was there wanting to get contracts and building this
and building that. It was absolutely incredible. I mean, as a matter of fact, for us to bring
famous singers from Europe, we had to rent hotel rooms for the year, because the hotels,
like Intercontinental, Sheraton, Hilton, they were all so booked that sometimes people would
sleep in the lobbies. It was a gold rush atmosphere. It was incredible. And they treated me absolutely
incredibly, I mean I must say. But it was also very dangerous. Very dangerous. Because
I went there on my American passport, and the airport, they took my American passport
away and they said, "You're Iranian." That's a very long story. Anyway, finally, I had
to get my Iranian passport first before I could get my American passport. The whole
thing was rather traumatic.Q: But you did become the artistic advisor..,culture, yes?
Yeah. What it was, then they wanted then me to become the director, and move to Tehran.
And at that time, my daughter was about six years old, and my wife -- and thinking of
living Geneva, Switzerland and going to Tehran, all that, it just -- I said, "No, no." So
I did an incredible amount of, shall we say, tap routines, how I could diplomatically
-- because my father was still -- and I did make up with my father, and he was a wonderful,
wonderful old man, and we had a fabulous reunion. I saw my grandmother, the whole family. But
the thing was, so I kept staying -- so finally I talked to the ministry of culture, who,
by the way, happened to have been the brother-in-law of the shah, was married to his sister. I
convinced him that I really could serve them more if I continued in Europe, and I would
be an advisor. So then I became an advisor. And then every year I would go there and do
productions. And the stage had turntables and elevators. It was just incredible.Everything
-- their chorus -- the entire chorus, they were Armenians. Because Iranians had no history
of really Western music and all that. The orchestra, they were all East European people.
They were all retired from Poland and Yugoslavia and all that, and would come there and they
were earning very good -- money was no object. When I did Aida there, I got two regiments
of the military for the triumphal scene. I had fantastic -- Tito Gobi, Beverly Sills.
I did Falstaff with Giuseppe Teday. I mean, some of the greatest, greatest talents. Money
was no object.Well, they probably were mostly Europeans. I mean, they were all the French,
the Germans, the British. There were some of the -- and then of course then, then they
also started an incredible festival at Persepolis. Persepolis, there's these runes, in the south
of Iran in the summer. And all of the sudden they had this incredible modern music, like
Stockhausen. And I would say, very diplomatically, "Wouldn't you like to start maybe with Mozart
or Beethoven?" And the gentleman in charge says, "Lotfi, they wouldn't know the difference."
So I said, "Okay." So it was a wild time. It was crazy. And I was a nervous wreck. Every
time I would go home in Geneva, it was like coming from under from pressure. I would take
about four to six weeks to kind of collect myself again. And then at the same time I
would go there, and of course had the family and then the -- and then of
course, then I was caught, because from one side I was with the ruling class. From the
other side, because I had been in Europe and America, and lot of the people who were not
happy, they would seek me out and they would want -- and I was just caught between these
two poles, which made it very difficult for me, because from one side I would be having
lunch at the minister of finance's house, and I would be offered a car and a driver
and all that kind of stuff. And then from the other side, there were these people that
-- some of the Armenians, who were really mistreated. And they were Christians and etcetera,
and then they would take me to a clandestine lunch. "Lotfi, can you help me?" So on, so
on, so on, so on. So I wanted to get out of there, because it was very complicated emotionally
and politically for me. It was a very complicated situation.Well, I think the transition for
me -- everything was really -- I was very fortunate. All of my transitions were gradual.
It was not anything sudden. Because from a singer, for example, going to a director.
Then from a director, then going much more of a professional and becoming more of an
international. Because I did a lot of work in Italy. I did a lot of work in Germany,
in different houses and etcetera. And then when Dr. Graf then was very sick with cancer
in Geneva then, I would end up as a director of production, then would take over some of
the responsibilities, and etcetera. And then when the gentleman who was nominated after
Dr. Graf -- his name was Jean-Claude Ribert -- when he came, of course he couldn't stand
me, and all of the sudden all of my major productions were taken away. And I was getting
all the leftover operettas and all that kind of stuff, and here I was directing at La Scale
with Luciano Pavarotti, and then I will go back, and he would give me a leftover Land
of Smiles, of that -- so it became very uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. From one side, my family
life was very comfortable. We had a beautiful house in the country. I could see the Alps,
a lake. My daughter was going to the village school. She was speaking perfect French. So
that part was idyllic. Professionally, it was a nightmare. And so I said, "Time to move.
It's really time to reallyÉ" And then in happened that the gentleman who was retiring
in Toronto as the general director of Canadian Opera Company had seen me at different functions
and had seen some of my work. So he then called me one time, very, very confidentially, that
he was going to retire. Would I be interested if my name would be put up as a possible replacement?
At that time, I didn't even know where Toronto was. I knew Vancouver because I had worked
in Vancouver. And at that time, "Hey, any ball in the air, I'll take it." So I said,
"Sure, put my name up." And they put my name. They had apparently 129 names. Then finally
they went to nine serious, and then I went through the whole process of interviewing,
and I could always tell how it was moving, because the first time I flew to Toronto,
by hotel room was 18 dollars, I think, at night. The last time I was there, it was 260
dollars. So I knew they were getting a little serious about me. So then finally the choice
was between two people, and then they decided on me. And that's how then I moved there.
It was a perfect move.Well, I was very fortunate in Toronto. Again, it's kismet, because Canada
was going through a whole growing-up process, because until then, Montreal had been the
city in Canada, because of the French and the culture and all that stuff. Then all of
the sudden Montreal had started this kind of -- the separatist movement and all that
stuff, and of course the banks and all, they started getting a little nervous about this.
So Toronto, which had been a rather provincial, very Anglo-Saxon town when I went there, all
of the sudden started to explode. It just grew. And I was very lucky, because then the
Canadian Opera Company then grew with the city. When I got there, we were doing four
productions a year. We ended up by doing eight, nine productions. When I started there, it
was only in the fall till October. By the time I left there, we were all-year. I did
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. I did the first Meistersinger in Canada. I did Death in Venice,
and Peter Grimes. Everything was like the first time there. And then of course I was
very fortunate. By this time, I had made very good connections in the profession, so I had
Dame Joan Sutherland coming there to do Norma, and I could then put that -- if you wanted
Dame Joan, you had to buy the subscription. And so we did a lot of this marketing kind
of stuff. And Joan was wonderful, very generous. I talked her into doing her first Anna Bolena.
So we did a whole new production of Anna Bolena. We started having telecast. Then I had the
great pleasure of talking her into doing her one and only Ophelia in Hamlet. She had recorded
it, but we did Hamlet, of Thomas. And she did Ophelia. So having Joan Sutherland, having
some major, major star -- I had Tatiana Troyanos doing -- I adore that woman. Wonderful artist.
So by bringing then major artists and all that, our audience grew.Well, my master plan
is always tomorrow. It's always tomorrow, and to always do better. I don't sit down
-- I'm not an architect. I don't draw the designs. I have emotions, and then I have
feelings, and I want to go with that. I felt that city was ready for a full-year opera
company, and I was very lucky. I ended by having wonderful partners. We expanded our
spring season because there was a wonderful theater called Royal Alexandra, and we put
an incredible -- what I did there -- actually, what I did in San Francisco -- we did a season
of only two operas. We did Carmen and Tarandot, 16 performances each with three different
casts. Eight performances a week. And that was the model I used when I did the Boheme
here in San Francisco, where we did four weeks of Boheme, eight performances a week, three
different casts, but always with great artists. Like the Bohemes, with Patricia Racette as
Mimi, with Marcello Giordani as Rodolfo. John Rilley as Colline, and all that. So that's
how I did it there. But it's not -- I don't sit down and theorize. Theory, I find it dry.
I find acting, doing is much, much more -- you get more done. But talking and taking
hypotheses and doing -- that's not me. It never has been.Well, yes. When I started them,
I called them surtitles, because of the subtitles. But then when -- the story is really -- and
I owe a little bit of that to my wife, because -- and also as a stage director. Because
here I was working like hell to motivate every nuance of every line, the characterization,
and the audience didn't know what the hell they were talking about. And so then it was
not a matter -- and then that's why opera in the past had been -- you know the old saying,
they say, "Park and bark." Just stand there, and sing. And most of the time it was kind
of a concert in costumes. Because whereas actually, when you look at opera, how it started
the way we know it, in Florence, it was opera per musica -- work with music. Music theater.
So I always felt that opera is the greatest art form created by the human mind. It's the
totally of it. It's the music, theater -- everything. So we were watching the Ring
on television, my wife and I -- the Patrice Chereau. Wonderful production. And my wife
is not a Wagnerian. She's never really cared about Wagner that much. And so she said --
because on television there's the titles. She said, in the middle of Wagner, she said,
"You know Lotfi, this is not as dumb as I thought it was." All of the sudden the lamp
-- doing! I said, "If they do it on television" -- and I love foreign films, so I go to the
French filmsÉ "If they do it in the cinema, why cannot we not do it in the theater?" As
a stage director, I want the audience to get all the psychological and emotional nuances.
And the very first -- and the reason I wanted to do it very much -- actually, my goal was
-- one of my very favorite operas is L'incoronazione di Poppea, which is very Shakespearian. It's
a wonderful piece with a lot of characters and all that. But the text is so vital. So
vital. And I wanted the audience to know the drama, what was going on. But before that,
I decided to test this process. We had a production of Elektra that I was directing. That's how
it all started. And then of course I got blasted. Critics -- there was an editorial or something
in the opera magazine from England. They called it "The plague from Canada." I had vulgarized
opera. I had done this, and all that. All the critics all of the sudden came on my back
that I had really -- but I didn't give a damn, because all of the sudden the audience was
involved. It wasn't just listening to pretty tunes; it was understanding that these great
composers -- Strauss, Puccini, Puccini, it was Belasco. Strauss, Hofmannsthal. They are
wonderful, wonderful texts. And so the audience should really know what's going on, not just
in general line, but that all the psychological depths that is in a piece like Poppea or is
in Elektra or Rosenkavalier -- on and on and on. So that's really how it all started.I
think that -- it was very funny, because a lot of the critics at first did not like the
titles. And I always said kind of a little naughty -- I thought that the reason was because
all of the sudden everybody was going to know what they knew. So their task was getting
a little complicated. So they were at first being very, very kind of, "Oh, mon dieu! To
do this, to vulgarize opera like this!" Excuse me. The audience is beginning to understand
the details, the relationships, the psychological nuances, the motivations and all that. And
I think that down the line, in a way, when the audience -- because Beverly Sills went
on the television actually once when she was interviewing me. She said that 20 to 30 percent
it was increased in her audience since the titles, because people were not afraid of
opera anymore. All of the sudden they didn't think it was stupid. It wasn't which baby
got burnt in Travatore -- all that stuff -- that these were wonderful stories. They
were psychologically motivated, the relationships, the fabulously three-dimensional characters.
And then when the audience then starting accepting it, I think the critics had to accept it,
in a way. But at the beginning of it -- then all of the sudden, "Oh, mon dieu," one of
their tools was taken away from them. So I felt that they were -- and also one of the
things that I must -- some of the things about the critics is also right. Because now the
titles have become such a fixture, now the quality of the titles must be very, very important.
You do not translate Barber of Seville the same way you do Wozzeck, that every opera
must have its own stylistic translation. And the timing is now technically must be now
much, much better, to not anticipate the jokes, the punch lines, and all that. So I think
that titles now have to be more refined. They must have a very, very strong intellectual
-- absolutely quality -- literary quality. And it must complement the piece that it's
serving, and you can't just translate words. And also the stage directors must take a role
in that themselves to be very careful that the nuance of the translation -- it is a dramatic
nuance they want emotionally. Except not do what Peter Sellers did. Peter Sellers actually
used the titles by having the characters say what he wanted them to say, not what the text
said. That's a little exaggerated. But it's the nuance, because words are so rich. So
I think the stage directors must really take part in working the titles, and in the atmosphere
and the mood and the dramatic context of the piece they're directing.They were not. They
were not. The wonderful part of it was though, I wanted to do it for new audiences. I mean,
the opera fans came anyway, because we had a fabulous cast, but I wanted to tell people
that, "Take a chance. Take a risk." And I loved it, because we got -- of the Boheme
-- we sold 45 thousand tickets for these four weeks, which is incredible. And what
was wonderful -- one of the stories I've used many, many times -- and then I would always
say, after the end of the performance, I wanted to see the reaction of these new people. And
one of the happiest reactions I had -- a very, very nice-looking -- a handsome couple in
their kind of Armani chic and all that -- they came, "So, Mr. Mansouri, was this the
original Broadway cast?" So I mean, you know. And then later on of course Baz Luhrmann did
his Broadway Boheme. But we did -- and then after that, I also did Butterfly. We ran it
also, with wonderful people -- Cathy Malfitano, and all that. So I felt that opera should
be accessible. And then later on then, we went back into the house, because my very
first year as general director, we had a major earthquake. It was a wonderful beginning.
And so the house we renovated, then we went back to the house, I extended our season,
and I added four weeks in January, and a lot of the new people came, and we sold out. And
I repeated -- like for example, I had done Marriage of Figaro in the fall with Bryn Terfel
and others. So in January, I put it in with Anna Netrebko as Susanna and John Rilley as
Figaro. I got a couple of letters said, "Why don't you give us the stars?" I said, "Nah.
They got to go to the Met to hear these guys." But then they sold old. But I did all the
popular stuff. I did the Figaro. I did Tosca and all that. And so we expanded the season.
And then of course I had -- my goal in San Francisco was to have a spread season. Because
usually it was only in the fall, and sometimes some festival in June. So the very last time
that I accomplished it really was just about the year before I retired. Now you start in
September and you go till the end of June. So that was a...Because I find the operatic
repertoire is so rich. That's why I say it's an incredible banquet. I mean, you have caviar
on one side and you got pate a choux on the other side, and in between, anything you want.
And another repertoire, which I loved, which we had not done that much here, was really
the Russian repertoire. So I was very fortunate that I ran into Valery Gergiev. I brought
him -- that was his first American position -- debut, actually -- was San Francisco opera.
And he of course loved the Russian repertoire, and he realized how much I loved it. And so
with his collaboration, we did some wonderful -- first of all, we did War and Peace, which
was incredible. We had a fabulous cast for that. Then we did Ruslan and Ludmila, of Glinka,
who was the father of the Russian opera, and that's how Anna Netrebko came here. I brought
her here when she was 23 years old. And then we Tsar's Bride. And of course one advantage
a general director has, I can give myself the best casts. So I did The Tsar's Bride,
of Rimsky-Korsakov -- Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina, and Dimitri Hvorovstovsky. Not bad.
And of course, we added a lot of -- we did the Fiery Angel, we did the Betrothal in a
Monastery. Then on the other side, I also loved the French repertoire. So then I added
Herodiade for Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo. There was some Verdi that had never been done.
I did Attila. That had never been done here. We did Vepres Siciliennes, which had never
been done here. So besides of course modern things -- I'm a big fan of Werner Henze, with
Das Verratene Meer, from him. I love Britain. I did Death in Venice. So we mixed and --
we did the Bohemes and Butterflies and Barbers and all that. But then I tried to also expand
the repertoire between kind of the repertoire that we had never done, like the Russian repertoire,
which had never been done, and then the other repertoire -- unknown Verdi. I did Daphne
of Strauss for the first time. I really added to it. Rossini -- we had never done William
Tell. So we did the William Tell, which is a brilliant piece. I don't understand why
the Met doesn't do it. It's a brilliant piece. We did William Tell, we did Ermione of Rossini.
Even we did -- Lucio Cilla of Mozart had never been done. So I tried to -- the well known
composers, the less known, and unknown. Just kind of do a mix to say -- because there's
incredible gamut and it's wonderful. There's such richness, and I wanted to tell everybody,
"Look, it's not just Butterfly and Boheme all the time, or Carmen. Look at this. This
is all wonderful.When I started my work at San Francisco Opera as general director, my
dream was I would commission one new work a year. Because I felt the San Francisco opera,
with the tradition and with the wonderful qualities, with Merola, who started at Mr.
Adler, who was fantastic, and Terry McEwen. It was an excellent tradition here. Excellent.
And many operas were done in the United States first in San Francisco -- Frau Ohne Schatten.
You know, a lot of major operas. And so I felt that I wanted to start one -- but of
course that was really like a pipe dream. Because commissioning, it's so complicated,
and it's so time-consuming. So I started -- the specific vision was really with that
feeling that I wanted one opera, a new opera, a year. So we ended up -- one of the first
ones then was The Death of Klinghoffer, which was originally -- Gerard Mortier was going
to do it when he was at Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels. And we felt that -- yeah --
and I love John Adams, and I love his music, and I thought, "My god." And that story and
everything like that. So I said, "Sure, I'd like to partner with that." And that's how
that started. Then of course I wanted many other -- you see the list I had of -- and
also what I wanted to establish was -- because I felt that opera in America had suffered
a little bit by being very Eurocentric. Everybody thought it was very much of a European art
form and all that, was elitist and all that. I thought it was nonsense. I felt that America
should have its own voice and its own literature and all that. You have such fabulous plays
in United States, the wonderful playwrights -- Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams --
all the people. So I had a whole stack of plays that I felt would be wonderful if I
could find the right composer for each one of these. So the Streetcar had been one of
course for years I wanted. The very first composer I ever approached for that was when
I was in -- I approached Leonard Bernstein. I was working in Vienna, and I thought he'd
be ideal, with his lyricism and the jazz and all that stuff. So that's how it all started,
that I had these plays that I felt that they would make -- and then of course we did the
Klinghoffer. I wanted very much -- Streetcar was one of my dreams. I felt that Blanche
Dubois could rival Lucia, could rival Violetta, if you had the right composer. And that's
how -- there was -- I've got another list. I mean, if Peter Gelb has read it or anybody,
I'll give them my plays. All Americans -- a wonderful American thing. The Dangerous
Liaisons, I saw the play, and I was just bowled over. And I thought, "Oh my god, this is fabulous."
It reminded me a little bit -- I said it's the dark side of Cosi Fan Tutte. It's all
about human relationships and all that. And I said, "Oh Mozart, where are you when I need
you?" So that's how Dangerous Liaisons started, that I felt those character -- Valmont and
-- and what was great about that, and I always felt that the old days they used to do operas
was they would write it for artists. Verdi would write for a special soprano. So I had
the luxury -- I gave myself the luxury -- of having the cast first. So when I thought
of Dangerous Liaisons, I thought of Renee Fleming as Madame Torville. I thought, "Michelle
Pfeiffer, Renee Fleming. Perfect pairing." And von Stade, who I adore, as the elegant
Madame la Marquise. And I thought Tom Hammons would be ideal as Valmont, as a kind of a
Don Giovanni -- that type of thing. So I did -- and I loved them because they trusted
me. They accepted it without having seen the music. And they were wonderful in it. They
were absolutely -- I mean, all three of them. And then of course the rest of the cast was
fantastic. I had Julie Forest; I had Johanna Meyer, Mary Mills, and on and on and on. So
it was every one of them was a kind of a dream for me, that I wanted to pick a special play.
So the next one I wanted to do, I was dying to do, Death of a Salesman. So if anybody
wants to start it, that's an American King Lear. I mean, that could be -- with the right
-- right -- composer -- so that's how it all started.Well, I find the greatest development,
I felt -- because what I think is wonderful, in the artistic endeavor, art must always
be developing. Art should never stop developing. Opera developed before my time, and opera's
going to develop after my time. And I've loved the evolution of opera in America, because
I think what has happened, which I think it's a wonderful sign for the art form, Americans
are finally finding their own voice in opera. They're finally realizing -- it's not Eurocentric
anymore. It's all of -- and some of the best artists in the world of opera today are Americans.
They're trained by these fabulous young artist programs -- the opera companies in Chicago,
San Francisco, Santa Fe -- on and on and on. So there's been a great improvement in opera
as music theater, and I think that's for me -- and the greatest thing for me has been
that Americans now are accepting opera also as a form of their own expression. Look at
all the new American operas that are being written. The Somerset Maugham Letter being
premiered in Santa Fe this summer with Pat Racette, and then all of that. Opera doesn't
have to have that Made in Europe stamp anymore.And the audiences now have become aware of opera
as a total music theater. They love beautiful singing right now. But just singing is not
enough now. I mean, the days of the, as I said, park and bark are gone. There's still
a little bit of that left over, but it is -- they want music theater. They want music
theater. They want their Flemings. They want the Natalie Dessay, and they want these wonderful
artists, who not only sing beautifully and musically -- they have fabulous, developed
voices -- but they make those notes mean something. It's out of service of an emotion. It's in
service of drama, of character, of relationships. And this is a development that I find very
gratifying as an old, old person in the opera in the United States. And I see the future
of opera very, very positive and optimistic. Because I think now -- look at all the technical
developments that's happening. My dream was to talk George Lucas to come and do a Ring
of Nibelungen, or something like that, with all the computer-generated graphics. You know,
all that stuff. I mean, I find the future of opera very, very exciting in the United
States. So that's my feeling about the future of the opera, and what I've seen in my lifetime
here.Oh, Marilyn Horne and I go back over 50 years, from LA. We had the same teachers.
She's an incredible lady. She hasn't changed that much. She's exactly the way she used
to be 50 years ago. And I remember her very well. As I say, we'd always go for the auditions,
and she always would win, and I would always fail. And I've loved her and I've worked with
her. I've directed. Of course I directed her in Norma with Joan Sutherland and all that.
And we've been very good colleagues, and she does a fantastic foundation, where she sees
the future of the song recitals and all that, and she's a superb coach. My god, she's an
incredible -- she understands the vocal techniques better than just about anybody, I think. Oh
no, we go back quite a few years.Well, I had been a great fan of John Adams, not only just
as The Death of Klinghoffer -- of course they also did his Doctor Atomic. I even one time
I even offered him another composition, which at that time I don't think he had the time
or anything to do. I think he should do many more operas. I really think he should. Because
he's got the talent, he's got the facility, and he writes beautifully for the voice. I
just feel, "John, do more operas."Julius is a remarkable man, because Julius -- can you
imagine what this man has done in his lifetime? Look at what he did at the City Opera. All
the new works he presented. All the new works. The Strauss -- all the -- unbelievable. A
lot of people forget what Julius has done, because he just does it. The last time I worked
with Julius actually was a few years ago. We were both doing a rather complicated production
of Merry Widow in Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires. And shall we say that organization was not
very organized? But he coped beautifully. We had Frederica von Stade, of course, as
the widow, and Tom Allen. The best way I can describe Julius, he describes what is a protocol.
He's a professional to the nth degree. In everything. Music, theater -- anything. Well,
Frank is a colleague, of course, because I engaged him to do productions for me in Toronto,
and he really was one of the first ones who really thought of opera as music theater.
I mean, you look at the productions he did at the City Opera -- Village Romeo and Juliet,
and all -- they're very, very innovative, with the projections and all that. So he really
is one of the innovators in the field of opera, as a stage director. He really -- from the
beginning, he said, "Opera is music theater." And he had the musical knowledge and the theatrical
knowledge that he just kind of brought all together as one package.