A Fond Farewell To An Opera Icon

By Briane Nasimok

(TORONTO, ON) – On Saturday August 31, Lofti Mansouri, former General Director of the Canadian Opera Company lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

The news garnered a lot of press in the opera world. But here in Toronto it was buried on page two of the Toronto Star so the Entertainment Section could be filled with news of what upcoming events at TIFF, like the arrival of Gwyneth Paltrow’s shoes.

For those of you who have followed my exploits in the Square and I think I know all three of you by name, you are aware that my first career – other than being an audience member at CBC broadcasts – was with the COC, beginning as an extra and then rising to the title of Canada’s Foremost Operatic Mute.

Lofti was the one who brought that career to a close when, after what I reckon to be 387 mute performances – he finally let me sing. For that and many reasons, he was a brave man!

His predecessor, Dr Herman Geiger Torel, gave me my first big break by elevating me from being a spear-carrier, to the title of “King of the Extras”, production assistant, and then assistant stage manager on the North American tour. While managing the stage, I spent the better part of three years first as the Other Servant in “Cosi Fan Tutte”, and then as Head Waiter in “La Boheme”.

But Papa, as he was affectionately known, didn’t think I had the chops to sing and, truthfully, he might have been right; although I did try to prove him wrong.

While I was in my third year at the University of Toronto, and producing and performing in the musical “Little Me” at Hart House Theatre, I invited him to the show. He came and even brought his wife.

After the performance they both met with the cast at the edge of the stage and Papa, pulling no punches, as he was known to do, proclaimed for all to hear, “King Farouk (his affectionate nickname for me), you sing loud but lousy!”

After 25 seasons at the helm of the opera company, Dr Torel was “retired”. The Board had searched a number of candidates and recommended Lotfi’s appointment. Torel approved the move. Once Torel’s final season was up and running, on his way to giving a lecture, Papa suffered a heart attack and died. He was one of the first of many established creative forces to give me an opportunity to explore my talent and I think of him often.

Lotfi was born in 1929 to a fairly well off Iranian family in 1929 and received his university education at UCLA, with a degree in psychology. His interest in opera, at first, was in performing, and he had a “passable” tenor voice; something I could never be accused of having.

Mansouri soon moved to directing, and after years in Europe, Toronto was to be his big break in North America. Coming from the Geneva opera to his new position, he had a profound effect on the North American Opera scene.

Lofti was responsible for developing the “surtitles” concept in the opera world; projecting the libretto that the performers were singing onto screens above the stage, so patrons who didn’t speak the language could read the actual text.

I believe I met Lotfi for the first time during my last year of touring. We were introduced by my best friend in the company, John LeBerg, the production stage manager, who had been a keen supporter of my muting. When Lofti took the helm, I had left the ranks of stage management to pursue a stand up comedy career. It was anything but lucrative.

There was one key, non-singing role, during his first opera season, in “The Daughter of the Regiment”, and Lofti easily talked me into playing that character. I was the “loutish” son of the Duchess of Crakentorp, who was to be married off to the lead, Marie, at the conclusion of the opera. She, of course, loved another. Louting, it seems, was something at which I was exceptionally good.

Even though Lofti was not directing the show, he cast me and spent a good deal of time watching rehearsals, and it was during those times that we hit it off quite well. Lotfi exuded warmth and charm and had a fantastic sense of humour and a great smile.

During rehearsals, the director Bruce Donnell suggested that when my mother, played on most occasions by Anna Russell, asked for her castanets to perform a special aria, I was to say, “Here they are” and hand them to her. I didn’t want to break my string of non-singing at that time, so during the first seven shows I just silently stuck the props out and walked them over to Mama. However, CBC radio was recording our last matinee performance and at rehearsal they had contracts for anyone who spoke or sang.

I spoke up and let them know that I had a very important line. So they signed me up and I got a much better recompense than the three dollars I usually got for my performance. That final matinee I surprised everyone on stage when I loudly proclaimed, “Here Mama, here are you castanets!’

I imagined I would be getting a cool $150 for my radio appearance but, before that happened, I received a note from the performers’ union, ACTRA, letting me know that with that contract, my apprentice status had run out and I must now join the organization at the cost of $225. There was an opportunity to become a writer member for $175, so I took that option.

It only cost me fifty bucks to finally speak in an opera.

That following May, even though I was now a “professional” actor/writer, I returned to my classical routes. At the end of the COC’s national tour of the “Barber of Seville”, the opera was scheduled for a three week run at the Royal Alexandra theatre. Michele Strano, who had played one of the servants, Ambrogio, on the tour, was unable to continue in the role in Toronto and Lofti offered me the part, which included two lines of sung dialogue.

”Did you call sir?” (yawn) “I’m tired.”

And pay at a soloist rate!

He invited me to see the final show of the tour, to get a look at the staging, when it played in Hamilton a few days before our rehearsal period began. I jumped onto the touring bus to join the cast and orchestra for the performance and waited in the musicians’ dressing room with my touring friends, until show time. But at five minutes to eight, there still was no cue given to go into the pit.

John LeBerg entered and announced that the conductor had run into a little problem on the highway and would be late; by up to 30 minutes. At the same moment he and I both had an idea. I would go out and entertain the crowd until Tim Vernon arrived. By this time my comedy career had led me to the role of television warm-up and we knew this was something I could easily handle.

As we rushed to where Lofti was waiting, he came to us, with the same thought. Five minutes later there I was, entertaining the opera audience, recreating some of my more famous roles, telling opera stories, playing stump the orchestra and answering questions.

Finally one young woman asked, “When is the opera starting?” I replied, “We’ll take a ten minute intermission and then The Barber will begin.” In the Hamilton paper the next day, I got as good a review as the opera; maybe better.

Performing at the Royal Alex definitely was the pinnacle of my operatic career, made even more delicious as I had been an usher at the theatre when I was in high school. Before the performance, I would entertain the current staff of ushers in my dressing room and, for the next few years after that, they snuck me into the theatre when there were empty seats.

I returned to the ranks of the mutes so I could work with Lofti again, finally getting a credited role at the O’Keefe Centre. My character, Leopold, in “Der Rosenkavalier” was that of the loutish servant of Baron Ochs and was the best I had to date. I had a lot of stage time and Lofti let me explore my physical comic timing until he would finally suggested, “Enough!”

After the season in Toronto, the company took “Joan of Arc” to Ottawa and I went along to fill in for one of the extras, finally concluding my string as Canada’s Foremost operatic Mute. A year later he invited me to be an assistant director when he remounted “The Merry Widow”.

I saw Lofti a couple of times in Toronto after that, and then he moved to San Francisco, where we met up, at his new base of operations. Pavarotti was singing in “Aida” at the San Francisco Opera and the tickets were sold out. Anyway, I believe I have never bought a ticket to see an opera in my life. With my friend Patrick Kroboth, who occasionally plays with the opera orchestra, we snuck into the dress rehearsal, each carrying viola cases, pretending to be part of the band.

I was there scot-free as no one in the company knew I didn’t belong. Well only one other person, but what were the chances of bumping into him?

Pretty good!

Seeing me backstage, Lofti asked me what I was doing there and I of course I said I came by to see him. So we set up an appointment for the next day and had a lovely meeting. I had an idea about adapting operatic works for kids and Lofti said I could add his name to the project to give it some needed credibility. Unfortunately no one wanted to fund it.

My final meeting with Lofti happened a couple of years ago when he came back to Toronto to launch his 2010 memoir Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey. Lofti was giving a reading at the Four Seasons Centre, the new opera house that he had been instrumental in getting started, and I was among the large crowd to hear him read excerpts.

Afterwards, as he was chatting with the COC’s new General Director Alexander Neff, I came up to Lofti to say hello. He recognized me and beamed and introduced me as the, “Best opera mute he had ever worked with.”

Recently I heard from John Leberg that Lofti was not doing well, so I quickly wrote a letter of thanks, but before I could mail it, he died. Now that I have finished this I will rewrite the note and send it to his widow.

Usually we never take time to acknowledge and thank those people who have added something precious to our lives.

Thank you Lofti!

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About the Author

Ian Shalapata
Ian Shalapata
Ian Shalapata is the owner and publisher of Square Media Group. He covers politics, the police beat, community events, the arts, sports, and everything in between. His imagery and freelance contributions have appeared in select publications and for organizations in Canada and the United States. Contact Ian with story ideas.