There are few stories in opera as colorful and improbable as the life of Lotfi Mansouri, who died Friday of pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Mansouri became general manager of the San Francisco Opera just a year before the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the War Memorial, leaving it to him to save the eventually homeless company.
The extremely difficult task was handled by a man whose own life was full of impossible challenges, from the very beginning when he was thought to have been stillborn, given up for dead.
Appearing lifeless on a sweltering day in Iran in 1929, the baby was placed on a block of ice before burial, and there revived miraculously; he was named Lotfollah - "kindness of God."
San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley announced Mansouri's death to the company from the War Memorial Opera House stage during a rehearsal for the season-opening "Mefistofele," a production originally created under Mansouri's directorship. Gockley said, in part: "I had the pleasure and honor to know Lotfi for 48 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 [wife] and Shireen [daughter] in his immediate family, Lotfi was a nurturing father to his many 'operatic children' around the world. All of us will miss him dearly."
From the "dusty streets of Teheran," he recalled in his autobiography, "Lotfi Mansouri: an Operatic Journey," where he first encountered opera — at the movies, where he heard Deanna Durbin sing "Nessun dorma" — Mansouri made his way to Los Angeles to study.
But before then, as he wrote in his "Operatic Journey," he made his stage debut in kindergarten, playing the Grand Vizier in a cast with Princess Fatemeh Pahlavi, the future Shah's half-sister.
"Unfortunately, the crown prince himself attended our little performance... and I got so nervous that I wet my pants and started crying onstage. From that moment, I developed a lifelong sympathy for singers' nerves."
Mansouri graduated with a degree in psychology in 1953 from UCLA, where his classmates included Arnold Schoenberg's daughter; he had lunch with Alma Mahler, the composer's widow; he started the friendship of a lifetime with Carol Burnett; and he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in the 1940s.
He was a super in "Otello" during one of the company's many visits to the Shrine Auditorium. Later, he worked as an usher, and — a few years and many globe-circling adventures later — became the San Francisco company's fourth general director.
Unweiled in 2009, Mansouri's bust is now in the lobby of the War Memorial, along with those of his predecessors: Gaetano Merola (1923-1953), Kurt Herbert Adler (1953-1981), and Terence A. McEwen (1982-1988).
During the 1989 quake, he dove under the desk in his office - a desk "with a marble top," he recalled later those fateful 15 seconds. Performances soon resumed, but eventually the War Memorial had to be rebuilt and made seismically safe.
Raising the needed $86 million (when that was "real money") was just the beginning of Mansouri's saga of the survival, or better yet, the flourishing of the only major opera company ever to conduct regular seasons without its home. FEMA contributed $50 million, The City's War Memorial complex $10 million, and the rest was raised from private donations.
In 1996-1997, not only were a dozen S.F. Opera productions given in the Civic Auditorium, the Orpheum, and elsewhere, but Mansouri's "Broadway Bohème" brought in new and younger audiences. The average age of audience in those two years dropped from 54 to 31 — an amazing accomplishment. He was also responsible for commissioning new operas, including works by John Adams and Jake Heggie.
Mansouri, who earlier ran opera houses in Zürich, Geneva and Toronto, made his mark in the history of opera at the latter: at the Canadian Opera Company, he introduced and then championed, even against heated opposition by traditionalists, the now-familiar Supertitles, for simultaneous English translation of operas, a move responsible for creating new audiences in this country, eventually spreading around the world.
He has worked with the past half-century’s best-known singers, conductors, and administrators everywhere, visiting his native Iran, and being feted there, even after the Islamic revolution.
Early in his career, he acted and sang in a made-for-TV movie, "The Day I Met Caruso," playing Caruso himself. His Hollywood career continued many years later when he was involved in the Pavarotti movie disaster "Yes, Giorgio," which, Mansouri said, cost $19 million to make and grossed $1 million. He went on to direct the memorable opera scenes in the far more successful "Moonstruck," with Cher and Nicolas Cage.
Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, the Mansouri family requests that donations be made to San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program at www.merola.org and/or to Canadian Opera Company’s COC Ensemble Studio at www.coc.ca.