Mansouri: Something Closer to the Whole Truth


Lotfi Mansouri:  Photo credit requested.

Lotfi Mansouri: Something Closer to the Whole Truth


Back in July, the former San Francisco Opera General Director published his autobiography, “Lotfi Mansouri, an Operatic Journey.

I found it a guilty pleasure, unable to stop reading about all these familiar events, singers, conductors, director, but finding it a self-centered, unrestrained tell-all orgy.

At times it’s a fascinating adventure story, elsewhere a diatribe ranging from the discourteously candid to the nakedly retaliatory – with numerous grains of revelatory truth, but even more instances of pure personal resentment.

In telling the story of a prominent 60-year career, Mansouri writes of hundreds of the past half-century’s best-known figures in opera, praising and demolishing them, mostly the latter.

Reviews of the book – surprisingly few – have been mostly laudatory, with only a few of its obviously questionable statements being challenged. Until now, no one close enough to the scene weighed in to analyze the autobiography, but now we have an authentic evaluation.

What follows is a response to the book from Michael J. Savage, Managing Director of the San Francisco Opera, from 1994 to 1999.

A former international oil executive, who helped create the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and whose Merlin Petroleum participated in the first discovery of oil in Papua New Guinea, Savage became Managing Director of S.F. Opera, at Mansouri’s invitation. He had a key role in overseeing the major renovation of the War Memorial Opera House which had been damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Former Board Chair of San Francisco Conservatory of Music, since 2000 Savage worked as Executive Director and a board member of both the Napa Valley Opera House and Lincoln Theater in Yountville, overseeing their reconstruction and initial operation.

Savage didn’t volunteer this response, only complied – reluctantly – with requests for “setting the record straight.” Having known him for many years, and realizing that he has no vested interests here, I trust his veracity, but think a caveat is necessary. Based on Savage’s close relationship with Donald Runnicles, his defense of the conductor against Mansouri’s obviously hyperbolic attack may lack a measure of objectivity.

Also, a number of former SFO officials this interview originally included opted out, in spite of the fact that they found the book’s references to them unfair or downright untrue.

Q: What is your over-all impression of Mansouri’s San Francisco career as it’s reflected in this autobiography?

A: How sad that such a brilliant man as Lotfi Mansouri should reveal himself in his memoir “An Operatic Journey” as bitter and disillusioned about his time at San Francisco Opera.

While general director of SF Opera, Mansouri directed some spectacular successes, notably “Lulu” and “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (with Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, both of whom he introduced to the US).

When the company vacated the War Memorial Opera House during its renovation in 1996-97, he had the idea of converting the Civic Auditorium, an unpromising barn of a building, into a manageable performance space with a capacity of 4,000+ and directed a memorable production of Carmen as well as overseeing other successful productions there. In the same period he implemented innovative Broadway-style runs of “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” at the Orpheum and Golden Gate Theaters.

Mansouri commissioned several new works, in one of which he gave the young composer Jake Heggie his first big break – “Dead Man Walking,” which has become an established part of the operatic repertoire.

Lotfi always encouraged young artists, and he (and his wife, Midge) will always be remembered for having introduced supertitles, contributing to the world’s enjoyment and understanding of opera. Lotfi could be warm and generous, a good friend; no matter how busy he was always solicitous about a sick spouse or child.

Q: But that’s not the personality that emerges from the book?

A: No, surprisingly in his book he says he had “an unbelievably dysfunctional staff” and an “inert board of trustees.” Who then ran the place – was it just Lotfi himself? He was more comfortable with those lower in the pecking order than his senior managers, even those he had recruited himself, but the Opera is a complex organization employing several hundred people at the peak of each season and the senior managers are essential to the Opera’s success. He hardly has a good word to say about any of them, but he couldn’t have survived without them.

Q: And he is particularly critical of music director Donald Runnicles.

A: It is exactly in his criticism of his own music director, chosen by himself, that the truth emerges. Mansouri couldn’t tolerate anyone who dared to share even a bit of the spotlight. Yes, he accuses Runnicles of indifference and lack of preparation. But perhaps the truth is he couldn’t stand being eclipsed by his protégé.

Maestro Runnicles is a conductor of the first rank, currently General Musikdirektor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony; he directs his own successful summer festival in the Grand Tetons, while finding time to conduct regularly at the Edinburgh Festival and the Promenade Concerts in London. He is also an outstanding pianist, performing solo concerts.

Runnicles has conducted at the Bayreuth Festival, the holy of Wagner holies, and has led the Vienna State Opera in the “Ring” Cycle so often that he keeps an apartment there. Mansouri reserves some of his most scathing criticisms for Runnicles’ unsuitability as conductor of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” a view the most demanding Viennese audiences evidently do not share. It would be hard to find somebody sharing Mansouri’s opinion: Strauss, along with Wagner, is at the heart of Runnicles’ repertoire.

Q: What do you think of Mansouri’s charge of “intellectual laziness”?

A: It is ludicrous. Runnicles is thorough and meticulous in his preparation for every piece he performs. Mansouri says he never saw Runnicles pick up a book. Given his schedule, it is amazing he has any time at all for reading, but I know him to be an avid reader with wide-ranging interests, not just musical.

His performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony at the Promenade concerts in the Royal Albert Hall in London Proms this summer (conducting his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) was reviewed as “an immense performance of an immense symphony.”

Runnicles conducts regularly at the Proms, a favorite feature of the London musical scene. At this summer’s festival he also led a sublime performance of music by Vaughan Williams and Elgar which I attended, along with 5,500 others, many of whom had slept out on the sidewalk in order to get in.

Q: And Runnicles’ record here?

A: In his 18 years as music director at San Francisco Opera, Runnicles conducted dozens of successful productions including two notable “Ring” Cycles, Messiaen’s St. Francois d’Assise (a US premiere), Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Bay Area opera lovers must be puzzled by Mansouri’s diatribe against such a respected and well loved conductor who has brought so much joy to the musical world. Mansouri’s criticisms seem vicious and petty.

Mansouri’s intolerance of anyone who shared the limelight even in the most minor way, did not stop at Runnicles. During his tenure as general director at San Francisco Opera many other top managers were pushed aside or encouraged to leave. Rarely would he address the targets directly; that was left to others, sometimes senior board members, whom he also disdained behind their backs. He could do little about the composition of the board but the staff were a different matter – and anyone getting too close to a perceived “enemy” became a target.

Q: Who were some of the others “eased aside”?

A: – John Priest, the Opera’s technical director for nearly 30 years, and widely-respected, was eased into a short-term role on the opera house renovation and when that was finished, was pushed out. His replacement, hand-picked by Lotfi, was Patrick Markle, who also went through the cycle of favorite and then villain.

– Gerard Howland, resident designer, “he’s my adopted son” Lotfi announced and was a huge favorite until he fell from grace without warning and wasn’t seen at the Opera House again.

– Adrian Trickey, my predecessor as managing director, was encouraged to leave after a brief honeymoon.

– Bill Conner, development director, was pressured to leave; his replacement was also soon shown the revolving door.

And there were others who would prefer not to be named. All of these were talented people who collectively devoted many decades of valuable and dedicated service to the Opera. Time after time, Lotfi demonstrated his inability to sustain a stable and harmonious relationship with his top managers. Were they all wrong, and only he right?

Q: How was your own relationship with Mansouri?

A: In my own case which was typical, I had a few years of an extremely warm and close association, Lotfi expressing horror when I thought of accepting a top job elsewhere and pleading with me not to leave. But in due course the relationship cooled and then soured. When it did, Reid Dennis, the Opera’s former chairman, told me that the atmosphere between Lotfi and myself was starting to affect the other members of the management team. He said that “from his behavior, it is Lotfi who should be going, however, he is needed to direct shows.” Moreover he was protected by a contract.

In any event I shall always be grateful to Lotfi who gave me (an oil man!) the chance to join this wonderful company. In many ways these were the happiest years of my working life. Donald Runnicles has become a lifelong friend as well as many other talented colleagues in the opera world.

From his own account, Mansouri’s years in Switzerland and Canada were largely unclouded by discord. Perhaps it was the trauma of closing the opera house in 1996 that marked a turning point.

After that, Lotfi seemed to become more self-centered and paranoid, not even able to find a favorable word for other San Francisco arts leaders who might compete for attention, such as Michael Tilson Thomas, or Arthur Jacobus at the Ballet (the latter not mentioned in his book but a focus for Lotfi’s dislike, even for such slights as once failing to say good-morning!)

Lotfi’s comments reveal more about himself than his victims. His memoir is an often sad footnote to the life of a man who would have been remembered fondly by many, including those he privately scorned, if only he’d had the wisdom to keep it to himself.

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