Obituary: Lotfi Mansouri / Opera director pioneered supertitles

Died Aug. 30, 2013

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Lotfi Mansouri, the Iranian-born opera director and manager who ran the San Francisco Opera and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and pioneered the use of synchronous translations in performances, died Friday at his home in San Francisco. He was 84.

The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, the San Francisco Opera announced in a statement.

Mr. Mansouri, a spirited and innovative artist and showman, led the San Francisco company as general director from 1988 until 2001. Though it was facing rough times financially in 1993, he commissioned a new work, Conrad Susa's "The Dangerous Liaisons." In 1996, he staged a celebrated revival of Stewart Wallace's "Harvey Milk" after that opera had received unfavorable reviews in New York.

Before that, he spent 12 years as general director of the Canadian Opera Company.

"His knowledge of the repertoire and stagecraft were daunting, and it benefited every organization he was associated with," David Gockley, now the general director of the San Francisco Opera, said in a statement.

Lotfollah Mansouri, known as Lotfi, was born in 1929 in Tehran and initially left Iran to study medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. But he was drawn to music instead. In the 1960s, he lived in Switzerland, where he served as stage director at the opera houses in Zurich and Geneva while also directing productions at prominent houses in Europe and the United States.

In 1976, he became director general of the Canadian Opera Company, directing 30 new productions and extending the performance season.

His legacy as an innovator in the opera world was solidified in January 1983. During a production of Richard Strauss's "Elektra" for the Canadian Opera, he introduced a simultaneous English translation of the libretto on a horizontal video screen above the proscenium. The system became popularly known as supertitles.

For the first time, opera audiences without knowledge of, say, German could understand and follow librettos by Strauss and Wagner. Traditionalists criticized the new technology, calling it a distraction from the music and a marketing gimmick.

But Beverly Sills, who ran the New York City Opera at the time, quickly introduced a similar titling system at the New York State Theater in September 1983.

Today, supertitles or other forms of synchronous translation are used in many of the world's most prestigious houses. In 1995, the Metropolitan Opera in New York introduced Met Titles, a system of screens mounted on seat backs that can be turned on or off.

Mr. Mansouri is survived by his wife, Marjorie, known as Midge, and their daughter, Dr. Shireen Mansouri.

In a statement, Alexander Neef, the Canadian Opera's current general director said, "There is no question he was one of opera's most influential general directors; whether it be his passion for promoting young performers, his zeal for attracting new audiences to the art form, or his undeniable love of opera and all its idiosyncrasies."

After the U.S. Senate voted in 1989 to bar the National Endowment of the Arts from using federal money to "promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials," including "sadomasochism, homoeroticism" and the exploitation of children, Mr. Mansouri, arguing against the Senate's vote, wrote in an opinion article for The New York Times that several of the most venerable operas could be in danger of falling under those restrictions. "Die Walkure," he noted, "depicts sexual activities, including incest," and "Salome" depicts necrophilia and denigrates religion.

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