Swell Epoque

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The Belle Epoque was a “lovely period in human civilization,” says Lotfi Mansouri. In contrast, our own humble times are “the age of ugly.”

Twenty-first-century din will be temporarily transformed into a glittering era of pulchritude Saturday night when Los Angeles Opera debuts “The Merry Widow.” Director Mansouri created the grand production in 2001 as his farewell to the San Francisco Opera, and now unveils it for Los Angeles.

FineArtsLA spoke with Mansouri about his frothy production of the “Dom Pérignon of champagne operettas.”

FALA: How did this production originate? Is it the same production you did with San Francisco Opera?

LM: It is. I had been the general director of San Francisco Opera for 14 years, and had done over 70 productions with them. I was thinking of an appropriate way to exit in the 2001-2002 season, and decided to exit waltzing.

It was the right kind of production: Light with no sentimentality, none of the schmaltz you get with farewells, so I picked it and gave myself my favorite designers, including Michael Yeargan, who designed absolutely stunning sets. That’s how it generated. It was invited to Houston, and then LA Opera.

FALA: Why not create a new production?

LM: With the sets and costumes, it’s so expensive. “Merry Widow” is not an easy piece. It’s a classic operetta with many artists in primary and secondary roles, ballet and so much in it. It’s quite an outlay of finance in order to renew in this style and opulence. So it’s nice for San Francisco and Los Angeles to share. It’s also rather interesting for me because I started here in LA, and was actually the director of the very first Los Angeles Opera in 1959.

FALA: Does this particular opera demand a lavish treatment? It doesn’t seem like a piece that would translate well into a modern setting. Does it require a grand approach?

LM: Absolutely, and period specific. If you try to update it, you lose the whole premise. you lose the charm and style of the period. You know the film “Gigi”? It would be like trying to update “Gigi” by putting it into some kind of modern disco. It just wouldn’t work because the charm and beauty of “Gigi” is the period and the marvelous sets like Maxim’s, which is also in “Merry Widow.” There are certain pieces that are period specific, and when you take them out of it they lose their very essence.

FALA: How do you characterize this opera? What’s special about it, and what are the themes you take from it?

LM: The whole message is something all humans can relate to: There’s only one thingmansouri.jpg that makes life worth living, that’s more important than things like money, and it’s love. Who doesn’t want that? To me that’s the message.

FALA: Not to suggest that opera must incorporate heavy themes or have a contemporary relevance, but is this piece a particularly guilty pleasure?

LM: I compare opera to a very rich banquet. It has opulence, but at the other end can be rock opera. There’s such incredible variety. I wouldn’t consider “Merry Widow” a guilty pleasure. If you want the most wonderful bottle of champagne, do you consider it a guilty pleasure? You aspire to it.

FALA: You’ve mentioned that this English version of “The Merry Widow” has an almost Noel Coward quality to the dialogue. Why the decision to do it in English?

LM: You want the audience to participate in all the intrigues. I’m actually the one who started supertitles. I did it first in Canada because I wanted to prove that opera stories are fantastic, they’re based on Shakespeare and fantastic librettos. For this one you have the titles when they’re singing, but for the dialogue you don’t need them. You want to involve people, have them catch the nuances, the relationships, the humor.

FALA: How does your direction seek to bring out what’s in the libretto?

LM: The best comedy is based on truth, so you don’t try to gag it up. It’s all about human emotions, intrigues, hypocrisy and politics. In my direction I try to bring everything out without underlining. My greatest joy is for the audience to not notice my work because they are so involved in the piece. If they think about the director while they’re watching it, then I’ve failed.

FALA: The Belle Époque is a fascinating period — on the brink of Modernism and World War I. What charm does this period have for you?

LM: People then aspired to style and beauty. Nowadays we live in the age of ugly.

FALA: No argument there.

LM: Look at the way teenagers dress: It’s so sad. Very attractive young people, but to me they just look terrible with their pants falling off. I admire the Belle Époque because they strove for beauty and appreciated beauty in everything. It’s a very lovely period in human civilization.

FALA: Tell me about the cast and how your direction sought to bring out their particular styles and strengths.

LM: As a stage director you always have a kind of basic concept and you go after a certain style. But of course the details change depending on who your stars are, because they have certain qualities you want to underline. Susan Graham is a magnificent singer, and she has her own natural charm. She has an American freshness and honesty, and you try to let her feel that, not force her into a characterization she’s not comfortable with.

FALA: Anything else you’d like to tell us about this production?

LM: Have a nice glass of champagne before the show.

FALA: Or several.



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