This is a book review I wrote for the newsletter of the Toronto Wagner Society.
Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey
Lotfi Mansouri with Donald Arthur
The grin on the cover looks the same as ever. Can this familiar figure really be in his 80s?
You’ve probably noticed Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey in the Opera Shop in the Four Seasons Centre lobby.
It’s both a pleasure and a shock to read the story of Mansouri, one of the most important builders of opera in Toronto. The pleasure is in reconnecting with those wonderful moments I had almost forgotten as well as discovering so much I never suspected about this icon. And it’s something of a shock to read so many tales of conflict.
The book is a chronicle of cultural history, a reminder of how much the operatic world has changed since the 70s and 80s. In the short time-span of this book we see Mansouri as the innovative newcomer, ascending to more responsible and powerful roles in the opera world, and then his move to the sidelines. What seemed effortless on the exterior was achieved at a cost. The man who once seemed to be synonymous with opera at least in Toronto (as well as a few forays into Hollywood as well), now appears to be himself a disgruntled observer from the sidelines, out of step with a world of young talent and Regietheater.
The book is indeed a magical tale of transformation, opportunities and unlikely outcomes. Mansouri’s remarkable life is a matter of public record, yet the drama beneath the smiling surface took me by surprise. Perhaps that’s one of the connotations of the subtitle “an operatic journey”: that his life is as colourful as a good libretto.
This is not the first memoir from Mansouri, but it’s far more comprehensive than his earlier Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Life, not just because that book appeared in the 1980s before Mansouri left the COC for San Francisco. Perhaps the key difference is that this time Mansouri has enlisted the aid of Donald Arthur. You may recall Arthur as a guest at the Toronto Wagner Society in 2007, and know his previous work as the writer who collaborated on memoirs from Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay.
Having read all three memoirs, one can see that Arthur seems to be a positive influence. Nevermind that the writing has an eloquence reminiscent of Arthur’s own charming speaking voice, that he uses to great effect in his other career as a voice-over artist in Europe. The resulting prose is at times exquisite, a huge improvement over the relatively stilted writing in Mansouri’s earlier book:
My first professional operatic appearance and my first employment by the San Francisco Opera involved carrying a spear in a performance of Otello featuring the great Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay. My fee was one dollar, but I was becoming aware of the almighty power of make-believe. On my way to the stage, I saw a tall guy with blond hair whose face bore a remarkable resemblance to my own—I needed a second to realize I had been walking past a mirror.
Just as with Hotter & Varnay, Arthur encourages Mansouri to trace his artistic influences and development. We encounter far more than just biographical incidents, names and dates. Arthur seems to bring out the best in his subjects, showing us their dreams and objectives, even when they fail. Whereas Mansouri’s time with the COC was mostly a triumphant ascent, his experience at the San Francisco Opera is far more problematic, political, troubled. The fact that we are not always reading a happy whitewash of events lends credence to the story-telling, even if the honesty is at times painful to behold.
It’s especially satisfying to read about the years Mansouri spent with the COC, to hear him mention familiar names from that era such as Geiger-Torel, Leberg, Tanenbaum, Southam, Bernardi. While it’s probably true that the COC would have eventually established its own orchestra, improved its marketing and management, the change was positively revolutionary. If you imagine the COC without an orchestra, without surtitles, without its ensemble studio and current endowment, you are in effect imagining the COC without its current success.
There is one other unavoidable element to this volume, something that I suspect may be the most delightful aspect of all. Mansouri made many friends and more than a few enemies. Some memoirs take the high road, only saying kind things about people, but this is not that kind of book. I was surprised at some of the targets, such as Renate Scotto and Otto Klemperer. I would be a liar if I didn’t also say that this is one of the chief delights of the book. Mansouri has known a great many celebrities from around the world, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly; or is that Arthur peeking through?
Mansouri has led an amazing life, wonderfully captured in this elegantly written volume. The book is especially important to Canadian opera fans curious about how we got to where we are now. You must read this book, whether for what you can learn or purely for the fun of it.