Lotfi Mansouri who left indelible marks on opera in Toronto and San Francisco, died at his home in the northern California city on Friday from pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Mansouri, who took over the Canadian Opera Company while it was still called the Canadian Opera Association in 1976. It received its present name the following year, and Mansouri laid the foundations for the internationally respected presenter it is today.
It was under his leadership that the company acquired a derelict Victorian gas facility on Toronto’s Front St. It was turned into the company’s offices, rehearsal studios, workshop and performance spaces, now known as the Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, a space that also houses the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.
It was under Mansouri’s leadership that the Canadian Opera Company established a permanent chorus and orchestra — of which later general director Richard Bradshaw became chief conductor in 1988. Mansouri was also key to attracting famous names, including Joan Sutherland, to the Toronto stage in the early 1980s.
He fought long and hard for a purpose-built opera and ballet house at Bay and Wellesley Sts — and when that project was cancelled in 1988 after a final design was ready to go, Mansouri took off for San Francisco Opera, where he worked as general director until 2001.
Mansouri’s extra little gift to operagoers everywhere was the Surtitle, first seen in Toronto at what was then known as the O’Keefe Centre, in 1983.
For anyone who knew him, he also left vivid memories of a ready laugh, jovial disposition and ready anecdote that hid a bulldog determination to do what he thought was right. That included setting up young artist programmes before they became an integral part of the arts in North America.
The young artist programme in Toronto, known as the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio since its founding in 1980, became a creative hothouse that made possible the international careers of people like Ben Heppner and Isabel Bayrakdarian.
Mansouri was also an ardent proponent of new opera, insisting that new librettists and composers had to be engaged in the process in order to keep the artform fresh. During his time in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company had a composer-in-residence, and there was talk of having a librettist-in-residence as well.
“Lotfi Mansouri was a legend. There is no question he was one of opera’s most influential general directors; whether it be his passion for promoting young performers, his zeal for attracting new audiences to the art form, or his undeniable love of opera and all its idiosyncrasies,” current Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef wrote in a statement on Saturday morning. “The international prestige that this company now enjoys is due in no small part to his strong leadership and tireless efforts. I am personally very grateful for his friendship and the advice he shared with me ever since I joined the COC.”
Two of Mansouri’s most successful new-opera projects bore fruit not in Toronto, but while working at San Francisco Opera: André Previn’s 1998 work, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2000.
Mansouri was born in Tehran in 1929 and initially trained as a singer in Los Angeles (after arriving there to study medicine at his father’s insistence), but realised he had a greater gift as a director and, later, as an administrator (although he continued to direct opera and musical theatre until very recently).
His work as a director took him to the best opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He also did some operatic work for film, including overseeing some of the music in Moonstruck and working with Luciano Pavarotti in Yes, Giorgio! (a catastrophe he related in colourful detail in his memoir).
The director was unstoppable and seemingly ageless until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of months ago.
He wrote two books. The first, published three years ago, was his official memoir: Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey. The second was a loose collection of anecdotes published last year by Toronto’s Dundurn Press: True Tales From the Mad, Mad Mad World of Opera.
Mansouri knew absolutely everyone in the business and worked with many of the finest singers of our time. He was also a fine director who was looked down upon by some because he didn’t work with high concepts or alternative viewpoints, but with straightforward stagings based on the text, the music and their performance traditions.
His last stint as opera director in Toronto was in the spring of 2006, when his powerful production of Alban Berg’s modern classic, Wozzeck, was the last work presented by the Canadian Opera Company before moving to its new home at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Mansouri is survived by his wife Marjorie Thompson and daughter Shireen. They have requested that memorial donations be made either to the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio or San Francisco Opera’s Merola young artist programme.