Lotfi Mansouri’s death earlier this week is not the end of an era. His time had already passed long ago. But his death is still a fit time to ask “how important was Lotfi Mansouri”?
One answers that question differently as a Canadian. The Canadian Opera Company before Mansouri was a series of question marks and possibilities.
During his time with the COC big name talent was more willing to take the plunge, to come here to perform. As a result the optics gradually changed, both abroad (for the artists considering coming) and in Toronto (for audiences noticing the talent).
However much one may associate Mansouri with glitz & glamour, his key achievements were administrative ones that secured the future. Perhaps they would all have been addressed sooner or later, but his stewardship strengthened the COC’s place in Toronto, at a time when the ecology was changing.
The Toronto Symphony –who had worked in partnership with the COC and who were cut loose with the creation of the COC’s own orchestra—seemed to be the most important cultural organization in Toronto at the time of Mansouri’s arrival in the 1970s. One can’t point to a single factor. The TSO’s move to Roy Thompson Hall was a huge disappointment, even after a further renovation to improve the acoustics of the new hall. In the past quarter century, when opera steadily grew in Toronto, the symphony not only lost its hold but maybe lost its way, as the competition in this city became increasingly diverse & sophisticated. At the same time Tafelmusik was gradually carving off a chunk of the available audience, while in addition they had a collaborator onstage in Opera Atelier. To survive in this market one needed not only to know what one’s mission was, but to articulate it and market it clearly to find an audience.
The COC has been a leader during this period, both under Mansouri’s leadership and after. Their Ensemble Studio, modeled on the Merola program in San Francisco, changed the relationship to the pool of talent. Internal organizational moves such as the building of the Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Centre consolidated the company.
There’s one aspect of Mansouri’s career, however, that makes news of his passing of world-wide importance. Whether you call them “surtitles” (the copyrighted name the COC came up with), “supertitles” or “subtitles” doesn’t matter. It’s a simple idea that has been adopted all over the world, changing the way people experience opera. It used to be that one either did one’s homework –listening to the work, learning the libretto, reading the synopsis—or one sat in comparative ignorance during the performance. Now? Opera has become more inclusive because one simply shows up and understands what’s going on.
People split hairs about the titles themselves. Some purists dislike them, some resent the laughter that they sometimes elicit, although over the years titles are being written better to avoid the problem. If I have a beef –and it’s minor—it’s that the titles I see in Toronto work a bit differently than what you get at the Met in NYC. Here, they always seem to presuppose that you know where the text begins to repeat, where the da capo part goes back to the beginning. If you watch the first verse you’ll see text. When the singers repeat, you’re out of luck. Pardon me, title-writers, but if I knew where the titles were repeating, I wouldn’t need titles in the first place. Why are repeats an occasion for a blank space up top? Please keep the titles coming. It means that if I look away from the text and spend a moment watching a singer, I miss the text for the repeated passage.
But I digress.
Lotfi Mansouri’s importance? In Toronto, he helped establish the COC as the pre-eminent performing arts organization in the country. And his greatest achievement with the COC –surtitles—have been imitated all over the world, arguably the single most important innovation in the opera world over the past few decades.