Yesterday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, David Gockley, General Director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), had the sad duty of interrupting a rehearsal for Mefistofele to announce the death of Lotfi Mansouri at the age of 84 after a brief illness with pancreatic cancer. Gockley then issued the following statement:
I had the pleasure and honor to know Lotfi for forty-eight years, as teacher, director, colleague and friend. His larger-than-life personality, broad sense of humor and boundless enthusiasm for his work endeared him to everyone. His knowledge of the repertoire and stagecraft were daunting, and it benefitted every organization he was associated with. While he adored Midge and Shireen in his immediate family, Lotfi was a nurturing father to his many “operatic children” around the world. All of us will miss him dearly.
Mansouri made his SFO debut during the 1963 season direction productions of Dialogues des Carmélites, Die Walküre, La Sonnambula, La Sonnambula, La Traviata, Mefistofele, and Samson et Dalila. His staging of Mefistofele would later be captured on video and broadcast on PBS. In 1988 he became General Director, the company’s fourth, and held that position until 2001.
However, rather than fleshing out the prodigious list of his achievements with SFO, I feel it appropriate to reflect on a much closer encounter I had with Mansouri. This was in June of 2011 when, accepting an invitation from his former assistant, Yefim Maizel, he led a master class for the Opera Academy of California Summer Program for Emerging Students. I documented my impressions of that session on this site in a piece entitled “Layers of interpretation in Lotfi Mansouri’s master class;” and those impressions are worth reviewing.
Mansouri’s coaching approach was unique from the very beginning. He did not want a session to be simply a matter of the student singing and the coach advising. He took a more Socratic approach, probing the student with questions before the singing began. These served the purpose of establishing the “big picture” in which the selected aria was embedded, thus compensating for the fact that the aria would be sung out of context.
Mansouri’s layered approach then involved establishing the connections between aria and context. Here is a quick summary:
- Text: For Mansouri this was the “foundation” layer. All matters of interpretation needed to be grounded on what the words said and what they meant. As a result, he was a stickler for insisting that a singer could not perform those words without understanding them, regardless of their language. Linguistic preparation was as important as musical preparation, and Mansouri could be merciless with students who could not give a word-by-word account of what they were singing.
- Music: Having established what the words meant, the coaching could then proceed to pursuing how music served to communicate that meaning to the audience.
- Psychology: That meaning, however, is not merely an abstract interpretation of the words. Rather, those words are being sung by a personality. An opera performance is populated not by singers but by characters, each of whom reveals such a personality through motivated actions. The words and music are there to provide the audience with insights into those motives to insure that the actions to not seem merely arbitrary (if not downright silly).
I am not suggesting that Mansouri was unique in adopting this approach to opera production, but I shall always remember the clarity with which he could communicate his point of view to those of us not involved with all the complexities of actually making an engaging opera performance.