Opera director and pioneer of surtitles;
Born: June 15, 1929; Died: August 30, 2013
Lotfi Mansouri, who has died aged 84, was the controversial originator of the art of operatic surtitles, which rapidly spread worldwide after he pioneered it for a Canadian Opera Company production of Richard Strauss's Elektra in Toronto in 1983. He was also general director of the San Francisco Opera where he appointed the young Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles as music director in 1992.
Surtitles were a simple but revolutionary development whereby an English translation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's intricate German libretto was projected above the stage so that audiences could read exactly what was being sung at every moment of the performance.
Yet for all its usefulness it provoked a torrent of abuse from purists and opera critics who deemed it no more than an irritating distraction, even although cinemas had been successfully employing a similar system of synchronised subtitles (translations printed along the bottom edge of the screen) for decades.
The Iranian-born director, who was enrolled to study medicine at Edinburgh University before moving to California, said he hit on the idea when his wife saw a television performance of the Ring cycle using subtitles and told him she had understood the fine detail of Wagner's operas for the first time. Could the same sort of thing, she asked him, not be done in the opera house?
Instead of pouring scorn on her suggestion, he took her advice and started staging productions by the Canadian Opera - of which he had been director general since 1976 - in that way.
The system took time to perfect, and initially its critics believed they had been proved right in their complaints. Mishaps of synchronisation resulted in verbal witticisms being laughed at by the public before they had actually been delivered on stage. Moreover, in straining to read the words, audiences kept restlessly moving their heads.
When the system reached Britain, the London critics were quick to object, calling it "the plague from Canada" and saying that people should do their homework - in other words read the libretto - before the performance instead of during it. Not even the New York Metropolitan, by devising a system of screens mounted on seat backs that could be turned on or off, was thought to have solved the problem.
A British decision to employ English surtitles even when a work was being sung in English aroused further contempt. Yet, as the readability of projections steadily improved, it became increasingly clear that Mansouri had succeeded in making opera more accessible. As he himself put it, how many people would go to see foreign films without the benefit of subtitles?
Born in Tehran, he was enrolled by his father to study medicine at Edinburgh but moved to California to concentrate on psychiatry - which, he said, was later of infinite help when it came to dealing with opera singers.
By 1960, however, a chance to work at the Zurich Opera showed him where his destiny really lay and by 1963 he had staged Wagner's Die Walkure in San Francisco, where he was later made general director of the San Francisco Opera - and, in turn, he appointed Runnicles as music director in 1992.
When in charge of the Canadian Opera, he personally staged 30 new productions, extended the length of the season, and insisted that sponsors raise their minimum donation from $10 dollars to $100.
"He was," said his Canadian successor Alexander Neef, "one of the opera world's most influential general directors.".
In all, world-wide, he staged as many as 500 opera productions in the course of his career. He is survived by his wife Marjorie and daughter Shireen.
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