When director Olivier Tambosi’s production of Manon Lescaut first arrived in San Francisco in 2006, critics hailed it as “the best Puccini in years.” Now, 13 years later, the acclaimed production returns, with role debuts for two of opera’s most formidable stars: soprano Lianna Haroutounian and tenor Brian Jagde.

A week into rehearsals for the revival, Tambosi sat down with San Francisco Opera to discuss how he developed his career as a director — tailoring works for stages as grand as the Metropolitan Opera and London’s Royal Opera — and why he’s drawn to Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s earliest success.

The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was your first experience with opera? When did you first encounter it?

OLIVIER TAMBOSI: I grew up in a family where classical music, we didn’t have it at home. Of course my grandparents and parents knew about opera because it was a generation when even not-opera-going people had a basic knowledge about opera. Let’s say [this was] in Austria in the 1960s, 1970s. This has changed in the meantime. But there was no classic influence on me.

I remember falling for Ludwig von Beethoven and becoming a fan of his symphonic work when I was very young — eight or something. I started collecting his symphonies and asked, for my birthday or for other occasions, if they could give me a recording of the Sixth Symphony or the Fifth Symphony. With time, I had all of them.

I had just a strong feeling against his Ninth Symphony, the last movement, when they start to sing. Because singing was not so much my thing when I was in this very young age. This came only later.

I fell for opera later when I was 12 or 13. There was a TV production of The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner, with Donald McIntyre in the main role of the Flying Dutchman. I remember that I saw this on TV and was completely fascinated — by the music, by the story, by the way Wagner intertwined music and story and singing and orchestra in his so-called Gesamtkunstwerk.

So I became a fervent Wagnerian at the age of 12 and stayed that way until age 25 or something. Being a Wagnerian at first meant being against Italian opera, because this was too banal. It was not my thing.

Over the years, I got interested in everything. When I left school at 18 and started to study at the university, I was already interested in all kinds of music, be it rock music and pop music and classic music and opera and symphony and chamber music. This is an incredibly rich field. There is so much. One life is not enough to get to know it all.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you’re young and you’re passionate, sometimes you want to transform that passion into a career…

TAMBOSI: No, not at all. I had no idea of a career. This was a pure, personal interest. At this age of 12, 13, 14, 15, I never thought I could make a profession out of this. And I didn’t consider it.

But I started to be a missionary among my fellow pupils at school and convinced some of them to come to the opera house with me. Or when we invited each other to our homes to spend afternoons together, I played them my music. They played me theirs. I made a good missionary and I brought many people to opera.

We came from a kind of poor family, so only when I was 17 or 16, we got a piano at home, and I started to take piano lessons. But I was way too impatient to really start from scratch. I wanted to play Beethoven and Wagner immediately, which was of course not possible.

For a professional career in music, I was hesitating. I also had the fear: I don’t want to destroy this beloved hobby, this love — this love I have for opera and symphony. I didn’t want to endanger this by connecting it with money earning or a profession. Somehow at this time, it was enough for me to cherish it as a personal, fulfilling pleasure. So I started studies of philosophy and theology…

If you wanted to study opera directing, you had to do an exam admission. You had to audition for it. So after two years of philosophy, I decided to apply at the academy of performing arts. I auditioned and they took me. And then I developed in this career…

It’s a lot of luck. I teach myself at a university in Austria. I give the students the advice, ‘Even if you are really fantastic, and if you have the best musical abilities, then still it’s not set that you’ll make a career.’

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was your moment of luck, that moment when you were finally noticed?

TAMBOSI: I studied opera directing, as far as you can study that, for three or four years in the Vienna Academy for Music and Performing Arts. Normally, after you have studied this, you have a paper that says now you are an opera director. But then you need to apply to other famous directors to be their assistant. Some of them are then assistants for 10 years.

Not for a single minute was I someone’s assistant. But after finishing my studies, I started to play on stage in a performance in Vienna, and so I made experiences as a singing actor, which was exciting for me. Now that I work with singing actors, I know how it feels to sing and act at the same time on the stage.

And then, immediately, I gathered friends around me — conductors, pianists, singers — to form my own independent opera group in Vienna. We even found an empty theater: It was built in 1907, standing alone in Vienna. There was nothing in it. We occupied it. We started to play opera there. So I was not only opera director; at the same time I was artistic, general manager of an opera group. I could decide who sings. I could decide which operas we would perform…

When I was 23, I went to New York with a friend. We were sitting in front of the Metropolitan Opera. I had tickets to see tonight’s ballet performance and to be, for the first time in my life, in the Metropolitan Opera.

I gave the tickets to my friend and said, ‘No, you find someone else to go with you. I feel it could bring me bad luck to go into there, just as audience. Actually, I want to go into the Met when they call me.’ This was very arrogant, but it was not meant to be arrogant. It was also not superstitious, but it just came to my mind to say this.

Even if you are a wonderful and fantastic director, it’s not certain that you will ever in your life direct at the Metropolitan Opera. You can do a wonderful career elsewhere. Only a few people have the chance to come to these really, really fantastic, top companies like San Francisco, the Met, Covent Garden, whatever. And it happened to me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talked about having experience as a singing actor yourself. Why did you not choose that career path?

TAMBOSI: The voice is not what I want it to be! [Laughs] I love to be a director, but I would so much prefer to be a fantastic tenor and to sing a very lyrical part on one day, like Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, and then two days after, I’d sing Otello with such a huge voice and a very dramatic performance. This would be an absolute dream of mine.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What first attracted you to Manon Lescaut?

TAMBOSI: I remember my first connection with Manon Lescaut was to hear the aria of the tenor, “Pazzo son,” from the third act, and I remember this was Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Aureliano Pertile, two famous tenors of the 1920s. I was fascinated by this aria. It was the first little bit that I got to know from it.

My first complete recording was the first complete recording with Francesco Merli, in the tenor part. Lovely. Later when I saw it on stage, it was something that attracted me because it’s so crazy. Puccini is in his beginnings. On one hand, he wants to do something similar to what Wagner did in Tristan und Isolde

They have this incredible love duet where the borders between the two personalities, he loses them. They float in some crazy nirvana of love. They leave everyday society and everyday life behind them. They escape in some other world. And they have reason to escape, because in the society that the opera shows, especially from a female point of view, self-definition and self-realization is not possible for a woman.

When Manon Lescaut enters the stage, one of the first things we hear from her is, “Il mio fato si chiama: voler del padre mio.” My destiny is called the will of my father. So it’s the father, it’s the brother, the lovers, who decide her steps. Whenever she steps out of that and makes a step for herself, which she does continuously, she gets at least the fulfillment of breaking these prison-like rules, but she gets deeper and deeper in the path that leads to misery…

Now Puccini, in order to be different from Massenet [the composer of the earlier Manon], did something really crazy: In his four-act opera, it’s like four different operas. It’s like if there are four different women that we meet. Of course it’s still Manon Lescaut, but we see here the different stages of her journey. And in between passes time…

I said this today to the tenor, Brian [Jagde]: The relationship with Manon is interesting because you don’t know exactly beside whom you’ll wake up in the morning. What will it be today? So it’s exciting.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve got two lead performers, Lianna Haroutounian and Brian Jagde, who are making their role debuts. What is it like to get these people into the skins of their characters?

TAMBOSI: Lianna, I met her only for this production, but when I heard that she will sing [Manon Lescaut], I immediately checked her on YouTube. I love the voice, I love the voice, and I love the personality. So it’s of course fantastic.

Brian, I know him from his very beginnings, when in 2010 he made the small part of Janek in The Makropulos Case here in San Francisco. It’s fantastic to meet him again now. He has totally changed. He’s like another person. He’s a star…

I don’t want to pull strings on puppets. I’m not into puppet playing. Being director is more like teamwork for me than like god pulling strings. In my way of work, when I meet the singer, we see what is possible. The score, the notes, the music, the words, my ideas, this is just ink on paper. This is nothing. I need to find something in the singer and activate this, if it’s not activated already. When people like Lianna and Brian come to rehearsal, they are already activated. They want to contribute, to be creative, to create something.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What magic is in Manon Lescaut? Why should audiences see it?

TAMBOSI: It’s the emotional intensity. The really exciting thing about the young Puccini in this opera is the incredible emotional intensity. The emotions are more intense and bigger than life. For some reason that I cannot explain, it’s like magic. With good singers, good actors, and hopefully a good director, you can reach an intensity which is not even possible on the movie screen.