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Book review: Operatic disaster is a dish Lotfi Mansouri serves hilarious

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Former Canadian Opera Company general director Lotfi Mansouri (Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle photo).

Theatrical war stories — collapsed sets, missing actors, forgotten lines and erratic behaviour — are the stuff of legend, gossip and endless hilarity, especially when delivered with the quick, deft touch of someone like Lotfi Mansouri, the retired former general director of the Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera.

Four years after his official memoirs (Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey), the consummate showman returns with a collection of anecdotes, True Tales from the Mad, Mad, Mad World of Opera, published by Toronto’s Dundurn Press.

The 184-page paperback contains two-dozen full-length anecdotes that are pretty much guaranteed to cause laughter. These are supplemented by assorted shorter reminiscences of gaffes, misses and near-disasters.

Much of the material reads like outtakes and paraphrases from his original memoir — but the new book is no less funny for it.

Mansouri always gets straight to the point as the lively raconteur that everyone would like to invite for dinner. And he’s not afraid to laugh at himself.

The first chapter is Mansouri’s own disastrous début as Orfeo in Caudio Monteverdi’s opera, back in his student days when he had ambitions to be a professional singer.

The director of more than 500 opera productions laughs at everyone else, too, from politicians (a drunk Boris Yeltsin lunging at Met star Carol Vaness at a White House dinner) to administrators (at the last minute ordering scenery to be placed in front of projections) to drunken leading men (a sloshed Samson wrecks everything but the temple) and divas who should have retired (his anecdote of a useless Orlovsky in a production of Die Fledermaus is side-splitting).

Mansouri doesn’t spare anyone else, either, from critics to the members of his board of directors and the opera guild in San Francisco:

In 1993 my poor wife Midge found herself cornered by a Guild member at the local supermarket. ‘Tell your husband,’ she was told, ‘not to give us opening nights with operas that we can’t even pronounce!’ This fancy lady was upset because  had programmed Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani. The next season I planned something that was recognizable but still didn’t go over well: Verdi’s Macbeth. ‘It’s such a downer,’ one Guild member remarked to me indignantly.

As he did in his main memoir, Mansouri makes an attempt at fairness by collecting a list of favourite collaborators in a final chapter. It didn’t work the first time, and feels even more out of place here.

This volume is all about dish, and Mansouri shouldn’t feel a need to atone for this. Well, perhaps one thing is inexcusable: the awful photo with the camel head on the book’s cover.

You can find all the details, including several sample chapters and e-book downloads to read here.

John Terauds

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