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Volume 12 - Issue 4 - December 2006

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Recently in town

Recently in town ..."Wow, what an opera!"An interview with Lotfi MansouriBY PAMELA MARGLESLotfi Mansouri came to town recently to give a masterclass at theUniversity of Toronto's Faculty of Music, and to receive a RubyAward from Opera Canada Magazine. Mansouri spent thirteen yearsin Toronto as general director of the Canadian Opera Company. Duringthat time he set up the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble and theCOC Orchestra. He got the ball rolling for the new opera house, andsaw through the building of the Tanenbaum Opera Centre. He luredtop stars like Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Sbderstrom, and TatianaTroyanos to Toronto. He even thought up Surtitles. It's safe to say theCOC would not be where it is today without him.I met with Mansouri at his hotel just as his wife, Marjorie,was leaving to have lunch with friends. They both recalled withfondness living in North York and Cabbagetown. Although theystayed on in San Francisco after Mansouri retired from the SanFrancisco Opera in 2002, they maintain their strong ties withToronto. 'We still have a lot of connections here, with all the friends,all the lovely people who mean a great deal to us,' says Mansouri.'So when we come here, it's like coming home.' Their daughterremained in Canada, and works as a doctor in Yellowknife.Mansouri radiates unbounded enthusiasm and good humour.He recalls how he was here last spring to direct Berg's Wozzeck.'I started my work here in 1977 with Wozzeck. It's one of myfavourite operas. I've learned in my career that you always do yourvery, very demanding pieces in your honeymoon period with theboard of directors, because later they get very conservative andcareful. One of the newspaper critics wrote, "Mansouri smiles atthe brink of disaster," because they didn't think you could sell sixWozzecks. But we sold them all.'Mansouri directed Wozzeck again in 1990 during his lastseason here. It was this production, with sets and costumes byMichael Levine, who designed the recent Ring Cycle, that wasrevived last season. It turned out to be the final opera performed bythe COC in the Hummingbird Centre.'I never liked that place, even though I worked in it for 13 years.It was just not right for opera. So it was very ironic that I got a chance todo the very last performance there. Afterwards I said to the company,"Do I lead the torch parade? Let's put the flames to this dump!" We hadworked for years to build an opera house. We had the land, we had thearchitect, Moshe Safdie - and then the government pulled the plug.''That was one of the major reasons why I left Toronto. WhenI got the invitation from San Francisco Opera to be their generaldirector, I realized I wanted to finish my career in a real operahouse. But I would have loved to have stayed here and seen the newhouse built. Finally Toronto has the house that it deserves. It's a bigsuccess - it's excellent.'When he first came here thirty years ago, he found Toronto ratherprovincial, and very Anglo-Saxon. 'Then, all of the sudden, thingsstarted to explode and the city became wonderfully exciting. It was avery good time to be here and I enjoyed it. I felt like we were in oneof those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films, the let's-put-on-ashow-in-a-barnkind of thing. We just did it. 'Mansouri left his native Iran for Los Angeles to study medicine,or so his devout Muslim father thought. He was actually dreaming ofHollywood. 'I had grown up on Hollywood movies. I'm still a bigfilm fan .' He started a career in opera as 'a very bad tenor'. And hedid work in a couple of movies, directing the operatic segments in thePavarotti feature Yes Giorgio, and in Norman Jewison's Moonstruck.One of his triumphs as a director here was Bellini's Normawith the greatest Norma of her day, Joan Sutherland, and the equallyunforgettable Adalgisa of Tatiana Troyanos. 'Norma was the firsttime that I brought Joan here. And Tatiana, wasn't she superb? Thetension, the excitement!' Norma had never been done here, eventhough it is a mainstay of the bel canto repertoire. 'As a general directorof a repertory company, I felt that my responsibility was to introduce theentire gamut of the repertoire. ' So they went from the baroque, withMonteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, right up to Britten's Deathin Venice, which had been written just ten years earlier.'We always had one operetta every year. If the more esotericcritics thought Fledermaus was too fluffy, I would say, "Then don'tcome. People who like it can come."''Many times I put on stuff that I didn't particularly care for. Youdon't do it for yourself, you do it for your audience. If you were runninga restaurant, you wouldn't only serve what you liked. You see what Imean? You're not a hot dog stand serving just hot dogs. I even inviteddirectors I might not agree with philosophically, but whose work ourcommunity and the audience needed to see.''I was very fortunate because as a young man I had worked withthe best conductors. At the Zurich opera I had Otto Klemperer. Hedrove me nuts, but he was a genius. I did Massenet with the greatestFrench conductor, Ernest Ansermet. This man was a god. But he wasvery sweet, a gentleman. He had studied with Claude Debussy, so whenwe did Pe/leas, he would say, "Oh, Claude m'a dit. .. ". When Ansermetdid French repertoire it was so passionate and exciting. WhenFrench repertoire is done pastel, it becomes wishy-washy. It needspassion - it's tricky.''I had always wanted to do War and Peace, which is a monstrousopera. So in San Francisco, again in my honeymoon period, I said tomyself, "Lotfi, do it in your first year or two, before the board gets toowise." Someone told me about this young Russian conductor, ValeryGergiev. I took him to supper in London. In five minutes I was inlove with him, so I brought him to America for the first time. He was, ofcourse, brilliant. But my musicians don't like him because he makesthem nervous. He makes demands, so they can't just mail it in.'I mention to Mansouri that Gergiev is going to conduct theToronto Symphony next February. 'When I first came, the TorontoSymphony played for the COC . They were so arrogant. They actuallythought the opera experience would weaken them. I said, "Excuse me,but would you say that about the Vienna Philharmonic?" Any time Iwanted TSO conductor Andrew Davis for an opera, the manager,Walter Homburger, wouldn't allow it. I finally did get Andrew for theCOC - as one of the guest artists in the second act of Fledermaus! Idressed him up, and he sang, "I am the very model of a modern Major­General". We would have to pay for the entire Toronto Symphony evenif we were doing Mozart.' So Mansouri set up a separate COC orchestra,which actually worked out to be much cheaper.Soon after, he started the COC Ensemble. 'I was a product of aworkshop ensemble myself at UCLA. When I went to work withHerbert Graf, who was my mentor, we started a similar studio inZurich, and then in Geneva. I gave each COC ensemble member atwo-year contract so they could concentrate on their careers, like asmall European house. I gave them roles, covers, and even their ownproductions. Stuart Hamilton, a wonderful coach, and so knowledgeable,was the first music director. Ben Heppner was one of the masters inMeistersinger, and ended up being one of the very best Walters.'12 WWW. THEWHOlENOTE.COM D EC EMBER 1 200 6 - FEBRUARY 7 2007

'Artists needthe guidance ofpeople they can trustto say, "No, no, no,you can't do that!"In the past, agentswere really impresarios.They didn'tjust make bookings,like today, theycreated careers.They put the artistsin the right situa-Joan Sutherland with Mansouritions with the right conductor.'Mansouri does try to advise young singers when he is directingor doing masterclasses. 'But, you see, they have to listen to you. Youcannot dictate to them. Also, artists must develop their own discernmentand their own ears.'He talks regretfully about singers who damage their voices,usually by singing roles that are too heavy for them. 'When I work withyoung singers I want to sensitize them to the fact that you want a lastingcareer. Look at Mirella Freni - she's 73 and she's still singing. AlfredoKraus sang until his early 70's. He was invited to do Don Jose hundredsof times. He always turned it down. He knew what was his repertoire,stuck to it, did a magnificent job and had an extended career. Butnowadays singers get impatient and want to do everything. Sadly, theyshorten their careers. The voice is very delicate. A unique artist likePlacido Domingo can do just about everything, but he's one in a million.''For the number of people in this country, there are a lot ofgreat singers. Canada is a land of immigrants. A lot of people comefrom Italy and eastern Europe, all those places, and they bring thatculture and tradition with them. It's fabulous.''Judy Forst is a model singer. I love Maureen Forrester. LouisQuilico was absolutely one of the best baritones. There are very goodsingers of the younger generation, like Ben, of course. John Fanning isa lovely artist. Richard Margison is a nice beefy spinto tenor. JohnRelyea has the voice, and the intelligence, to be the new Sam Ramey.They all just have to be careful.''The COC Ensemble was set up strictly for Canadians, which itshould be when you get a government grant. But the Merola program inSan Francisco is truly international, with Spanish singers, Russians, a lotof young Canadians. Here, I was always accused of not using enoughCanadians - perhaps because I was not a Canadian myself. But I usedmany more Canadian artists of any time before or even after me.'Then there are the Canadian singers who got away. 'I couldnever get Teresa Stratas. She is one of those great artists who coulddo anything. But she is a very complicated person. She came here forthe party for my tenth anniversary with the COC. I was dying to workwith her here. But like a fish, she just slipped out of my hands.''I invited Jon Vickers here every season, and I was alwaysturned down. He thought Toronto audiences just weren't ready for him- they weren't intelligent enough. But he would go to Guelph for NikiGoldschmidt. I offered him anything. I had directed him elsewhere, andhe was a handful , but he was a giant - and very exciting.'Many ofMansouri's innovations at the COC now seem obvious,like scheduling Sunday matinees. 'That became one of our best subscriptions.People started taking buses in from Buffalo, Hamilton, Kingston.'Then there are the CBC telecasts, which grew naturally out of the radiobroadcasts, in which he had made Stuart Hamilton quizmaster. But othermoves seem truly daunting, like creating the Tanenbaum Opera Centre,the administrative building on Front Street, which opened in 1985. 'I gotthe money from Tanenbaum, we bought the building, and then we got thegovernment. It's absolutely the envy of every opera company, becauseyou've got your administrative offices, your workshops, a theatre,everything under one roof - and it was originally a canning factory!'But when it came to commissioning new operas, Mansouri'slegacy is flimsier, especially when compared to the commissions he laterpulled off in San Francisco, like John Adams' The Death of Klinghojfer,Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire and Jake Reggie's Dead ManEXPERTS, MAKERS AND DEALERS INFINE INSTRUMENTSBased i~tJon three generations of expenence and znternationalreputation, 1ve continudfy strive to fulfill the exacing rnprirementsof pla_yers, teachers and progressing students alike.4l'' 'Pianos: Toronto'sStemway Gallery and .-..... ' :Cl\.estoration Centre, ~,c. , .featuring the enure hne I io[ Steinway designedpianosStrings: Violins,violas, cellos, andbows fromstudent level lorare masterworks.Professionally setup rentals, repairsand valuauonsare alsoavailable.Sheet Mu.;;ic & Books:Canada's largest sheetmusic selection for allinstruments and voices.Guitars: A uniqueselection handcraftedfrom Canada, theUS and Europe.MusiKids: Anentire departmentdedicatedto rnspiringchildren withrnusic.1hS TEINWAY & SONStSStAwww.remenyi.comDnv..-ntown: 210 Bloor St West Toronto 416.961.311 1North Store and Steinway Restoration Centre:145516thAve ,'!6 Richmond Hill 905.881.3'100i@'>.J )CONTINUES NEXT PAGEDECE MBER 1 2006 - F EBRUARY 7 2007 WWW. THEWHOLEN OTE.COM 13

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