aving turned seventy-nine this past February, Franco Zeffirelli is quite possibly the world's oldest enfant terrible. One of the last great European directors of the postwar era, he has always enjoyed a reputation for glamorous excess and unbridled romanticism, not to mention a genius for self-preservation. He has survived numerous scrapes with death, most famously a car crash in 1969, with none other than Gina Lollobrigida at the wheel, that left him with a disfigured face (repaired through plastic surgery) and a renewed religious devotion that is with him still. Recently he underwent a hip replacement and suffered a near-fatal infection as a side effect, almost losing the ability to walk at all.

Professionally, his conservative stands on theater and politics (he served two terms as a right-wing, pro-life senator in the Italian parliament) continue to be controversial. It's easy for some to dismiss him as the outdated champion of a traditionalist approach to opera, especially in an age of abstract envelope-pushers such as Francesca Zambello, Graham Vick and Robert Wilson. But when he began his career, in the 1950s, Zeffirelli himself shook up the old school, rejuvenating an industry that had become moribund and reactionary. He breathed new life into such shopworn classics as Romeo and Juliet, which he staged at the Old Vic in London with a young Judi Dench, and which he filmed in 1967 to great acclaim with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. The latter's then-notorious nude scene (which involved nothing more than an artfully arranged derriere) seemed to epitomize the youthquake generation.

Zeffirelli's staging of La Traviata with Maria Callas, originating in Dallas in 1958, and their Tosca at Covent Garden, the second act of which was broadcast on television, remain touchstones for opera aficionados and Callas cultists, exposing the coarse glamour that lies at the heart of both pieces. And his 1964 Met production of Falstaff, which is being revived and spruced up this spring, was and is a model of wit and charm.

Over the years, Zeffirelli has had his share of flops: a disastrous Othello at Stratford with John Gielgud; a calamitous Lady of the Camellias on Broadway with Susan Strasberg; his flower-power film about Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. And who can forget the Brooke Shields misfire, Endless Love? Perhaps Zeffirelli's biggest disappointment was his staging of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. He and Barber had major conceptual differences of opinion: Zeffirelli wanted to outdo Aida in grandeur, while the American composer was thinking small, inward. Ultimately the production was undermined by the company's new revolving stage, which broke down during rehearsals. The production was retired by the Met after just eight performances in a single season.

The career of Franco Zeffirelli remains a conundrum. Flamboyant, mercurial, vain and ambitious, Zeffirelli is as famous as the stars he features in his highly personal films. His tastes are too highbrow for Hollywood yet too hoi polloi for the elite. At the Met, Zeffirelli's surname is a synonym for gorgeous overkill. But like so much else about him, even that name is an invention, carefully crafted for maximum effect. (He was the love child of a Florentine merchant named Ottorino Corsi and Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer who died when he was six.)

Zeffirelli remains an object of critical censure. His sets are overpopulated and at times historically incongruous. (Did Violetta really collect what looks like Fiesta Ware?) But Met audiences invariably greet his extravagances with spirited bursts of applause, returning time and again to lose themselves in the outsized fantasies he unfolds. The Café Momus in his Bohème seems as large as the Colosseum. His Tosca is a veritable Perillo tour of Rome, his Carmen a Gypsy circus worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. And as far as Zeffirelli's take on Turandot goes, not even Florenz Ziegfeld could have dreamed up such a sirocco of tinsel and gilt.


hen the opportunity arose to interview Franco Zeffirelli in Rome last December, I jumped at the chance. Prior to leaving, I managed after several fruitless attempts to get Zeffirelli on the phone. In his thick Florentine accent, he made it clear that he had very little time to spend on an interview, what with plans for a new Aida at the Arena di Verona this June, a new Traviata in Busseto this past February and the revamped Falstaff at the Met -- plus a Pagliacci at Covent Garden with Plácido Domingo and a revival of his Tokyo production of Aida, in 2003. He was also deep into editing his new film, Callas Forever, starring Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons. "Come to Cinecittà and see me while I direct the last scene that needs to be shot," he told me. "Then you will have something interesting for your article." I cajoled Zeffirelli into letting me come first to see him at his villa outside Rome.

On the flight, I boned up on his past by reading his 1986 memoir, Zeffirelli: An Autobiography, which to this day has not been published in Italy. ("Because of the communists," Zeffirelli tells me. "They can be very subtle.") The book is characteristically candid and outrageous, full of dishy asides about the divas and friends he's worked with over the years: Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel. The book is also revealing about his stormy relationship with his early mentor and provider, Luchino Visconti. But I discover with dread that Zeffirelli has a superstitious terror of the number seventeen, that all of his professional and personal disasters have occurred on that day, no matter which month. I glance at my diary in disbelief, since it is the seventeenth of December, and I'm to interview him this afternoon.

To get from the center of the city, where I'm staying, to Zeffirelli's estate, just a stone's throw from the Via Appia Antica, requires a long drive up steep, winding hills, past sheep-dappled fields and thick woods, evoking Respighi's Pines of Rome. The taxi leaves me off at a large gate on which are inscribed the names of dozens of residents. I find Zeffirelli's button, listed as "Villagrande." The doors swing open. A pebble path leads back to a cluster of stucco homes on the right. One building serves as his offices, another as his residence. The gardens, which reveal the taste of their owner, are bedecked with urns bursting with bright flowers, plus a phalanx of preening putti. High hedges guarantee privacy. Half a dozen bedraggled dogs circle me. They are, I am told, Romanian mutts that have been adopted during filming in Bucharest. (With a modest budget of $15 million, the Callas film was cheaper to shoot for nine weeks there than in Paris.)

A crackling fire blazes in the homey dining room. Several people are seated at the table, eating zuppa di verdura and a vast onion omelet, prepared by Vige, the cook, now in her nineties, who has been with Zeffirelli since he was a child. As cheese and fruit are served, I ask a dark, burly fellow seated opposite me what he does there. He turns out to be Zeffirelli's bodyguard. Two others at the table are designers who work in the book-lined workshop attached to the second villa. Beside me is Pippo Pisciotto, a handsome former Navy serviceman who is Zeffirelli's right-hand man and assistant director in his film projects. He lives on the estate and has been devoted to Zeffirelli ever since meeting him after the director's accident in 1969. Also greeting me is Rita Fraser-Pontone, Zeffirelli's English personal assistant.

Fraser-Pontone explains that Zeffirelli is still in bed, having been unable to sleep the night before. Is this the result of today's being the seventeenth? It's already past two, and I know he has another appointment at three. Nearly an hour passes before Zeffirelli makes his entrance. He walks in using a cane and Pippo's shoulder for support. His hair is unpolished silver, his face pale. At first he seems terribly fragile. Yet the mischievous quality I've heard about is still evident, especially in his eyes, which dart about the room approvingly. The constant pounding of workmen, who are adding an extension to the dining room, seems to energize him. He may be frail, but his mind is as sharp as ever, and the charm is still there. "You were not even born yet when I first did Falstaff at the old Met," he says, as he sits at the table. "I wish you could have seen it. It was the closing production. Extraordinary! Lenny Bernstein, Regina Resnik. Colzani, Tucci. Alva." He enunciates each name as if it were all the description each performer needed. "Falstaff came straight from my experience with the Shakespearean theater," he continues. "My career started more or less by being an actor, then a designer. I did a production of Streetcar in Europe with Visconti. And then a spectacular production of Troilus and Cressida in the Boboli Gardens. I became famous overnight in Italy for my production of Italiana in Algeri at La Scala. It was a great opportunity. Then Covent Garden asked me to do Lucia with Sutherland. She was extraordinary. Because of this success they asked me to do Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. That was very successful too. The people at the Old Vic wanted me to do Romeo and Juliet and inject a similar Italian flavor. That put me in a position as a Shakespearean director."

Keeping up with Zeffirelli, I realize, is going to be tricky. One minute he's recalling an anecdote about Herbert von Karajan, the next he's yelling instructions at the workmen, or tossing crumbs to the dogs. And all the time he's smoking one cigarette after another.

Zeffirelli owes his interest in Shakespeare to Mary O'Neill, the English lady in Florence who took him under her wing after his mother died. (A character based on O'Neill is portrayed by Joan Plowright in the 1999 Zeffirelli movie Tea With Mussolini.) "From the age of eight to twelve, she taught me everything. She was a point of reference of what was right or wrong, about ethical values. Don't forget I was going to Fascist schools where culture was channeled in certain directions. She kept injecting in me the cult of freedom -- of democracy. That remained in my DNA for the rest of my life."

Falstaff, it emerges, proved fertile ground for Zeffirelli's philosophical chromosomes. "Falstaff was Verdi's last opera, and an amazing achievement," he tells me. "Here was an old man. They are all waiting for his funeral. And he says, 'Wait a minute. Don't rush. I will do something else.' And he ended not only the opera but his entire career with that extraordinary chorus at the end -- 'Everything in the world is a joke.' I consider it a definitive message."

One thing missing this season from the original Falstaff production at the Met will be the original costumes, destroyed in a warehouse fire back in 1973. "The costumes for the original production were designed by me and were made by the fabulous, unique genius in that field, Karinska. They were little short of museum pieces. Now that the Met wants to revive that production, my great friend and superb artist Ann Roth has offered her help to supply the production with new costumes based on my original sketches. The production was created originally for the old Met, and it's already a miracle that it fits perfectly in the new one. The only act that I would conceive in a different fashion would be the third act, with the facilities that the new stage offers today. But even the original can still hold a very valuable approach to the forest of Windsor, even though the possibilities of the old Met were extremely limited."

Does the fact that Zeffirelli is approaching eighty mean that he identifies more readily with Falstaff? "No, I enjoy it tremendously, but I don't have a problem with senility," he laughs. "I'm not an old man who pretends to be young and attractive and do what I did when I was twenty. I think every age is a beautiful flower to offer, as long as you have energy and ideas. I have been hit very badly in the last few years by horrendous problems with my health -- not my health, really, but my bones. My hip got infected. It was a terrible thing. Painful and dangerous. They had to remove my hip. There was a problem with the prosthesis, and I was left for seven hours on the operating table. I had been given so many antibiotics to save my life that it ruined my [ability to maintain my balance]. I don't use a cane now because my leg is not good but because I need to touch something to regain my balance. Otherwise, I'll fall." Zeffirelli is quick to point out that his medical setback hasn't slowed him down. "I'm getting better all the time," he says. "Last year, I needed two canes! I made the Callas film in this condition, and now this new Aida for Verona. I've never been so busy." Indeed, he seems to take it all in stride. "I've survived an infection that would have killed a lion," he states emphatically. "I survived because I had to. I had to do this film of Callas. But I'm used to surviving. I was a survivor during the war. Three times I found myself in front of firing squads. Each time I got away. Then there was my car accident. It was a turning point in my life. I lost my mother when I was six. I felt very alone. I had to fight. Behind my shoulders, always, the wall."

Certainly there have been times when his career has resembled a battleground. How does he counter critics who consider him old-fashioned? "I am not the kind of director who likes to change dates and period in classical pieces. It's an exercise in futility in the end, with very thin results. You have to respect the vision of the composer." An exception to that rule is Pagliacci: he did a noted production with Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo that was updated to Fascist Italy in 1935. It was filmed for television and won an Emmy award, which is propped upon the windowsill in the dining room. "You can do that with Leoncavallo, because that story came right out of the newspapers. His father was a judge and served on the actual case. There are still traveling troupes like that outside Naples. But you can't possibly take Trovatore and set it in America in 1860. What is the point? It's much more clever and shrewd and astute to respect the original, because by serving the author, you also serve your own production and your image.

"People like my productions because they are what the author wanted the thing to be, plus all the knowledge and the know-how and feeling and taste of others of today. There is a great cultural confusion around the world today. When a piece is faithful to the very essence of what the opera spectacle must be, it can be entertaining, shocking, larger than life! Directors find it is much easier to do their own creation, parallel or discordant to the opera, because it is very difficult to prove what those authors had in mind and put it on correctly. It requires great knowledge and preparation and wisdom. And not many directors have that. So fine. I am a traditionalist, so what?"

In fact, Zeffirelli last year did an Aida in the tiny jewel of a theater in Busseto that was a true departure. Part of the Verdi centenary celebration, it was cast with three young American unknowns in the leads. A simple set, no overdone costumes -- only a handful of extras. The focus was on the humanity of the characters, not the sets. Zeffirelli takes me into his studio and shows me photos of the production, as well as a coffee-table book commemorating the event, photographed by his good friend Gianfranco Lelj. But right next to this, as if there to dramatize the schizoid character of Zeffirelli's oeuvre, is a maquette of the set he has just finished for the Aida in Verona this June. Nothing could be so diametrically opposed to his Busseto concept. The scenes take place inside a mammoth gold pyramid that dominates the stage. Ignoring the fact that pyramids were tombs rather than palaces, one has to wonder how anyone can accommodate the various scenes of this monumental opera in such a confined space. But with the glee of a boy playing with his miniature railroad, Zeffirelli spins the pyramid around, revealing that each side of the structure houses a different scene. The doors slide back and forth in eerie ways like something out of The Mummy. "How many supers will there be?" I ask. "About 450," he says.

Pippo arrives and reminds Zeffirelli that he was due at the editing room over a half hour ago. During the car ride back into Rome, Zeffirelli opens up about singers. "Domingo is still number one," he says. "His voice is a miracle. I love singers. I admire them. I must say that I always choose to work with singers I know I am going to love. In the end, if we don't get along, which happens very rarely, it is my fault." Several names spring to my mind -- notably Angela Gheorghiu, with whom Zeffirelli had a much publicized contretemps over a blond wig she was forced to wear as Micaela in Carmen, and Waltraud Meier, who had a less than stellar success in the title role. "The production only caught fire with the second cast, with Denyce Graves, who was wonderful. It's incredible how much the presence of a personality can affect the whole thing. Everybody sang better. When there is not that kind of respect at the top, the whole production disintegrates or gets dull."

We stop at an office building near the Rome Opera House where Zeffirelli is meeting with his film editor. Somehow the fact that today is the seventeenth hasn't dawned on the maestro. "It's been fun talking with you," I say as I get out of the car. "Come back to my house on Saturday," he says, "and I'll tell you about Callas."


hen I return on Saturday, Zeffirelli seems zestful. He tells me he's been appointed "by special decree, to be special adviser to the minister of culture and the world of visual arts in Italy." His friendship with the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has paid off. But the demands of the new position worry him. "I will have lots of problems reorganizing the theater, opera, concerts and ballet," he says. "And it certainly needs reorganization. What the communists left behind them was a wasteland!"

But all that will have to wait until he wraps his Callas film. There is something touching in his inability to exorcise Callas's presence in his professional life. "I was blessed by fate and destiny to be associated with Maria Callas in several formidable experiences," Zeffirelli says, dipping into a gigantic bowl of minestrone and drinking some gelatin-based concoction to strengthen his bones. "We started with a light one, Turco [in Italia] at La Scala, and she was divine. It was the first time and the last time [she sang that opera]. She didn't like the character. Then we did the famous Traviata in Dallas, which remains only a memory. There is no document. The pity of it. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film was that I am very irritated by the fact that people see Callas just as a musical icon. They don't realize the woman that was behind it -- how much suffering she experienced, what kind of strenuous fights, hunger and humiliation she had to go through. For being a singer is not just a golden gift from God. You have to fight and work hard for years and years, and starve.

"People don't realize what a perfectionist Maria Callas was," Zeffirelli continues. "I witnessed it the night she did Sonnambula at La Scala in 1955. It was the most extraordinary evening at the opera, ever. Bernstein conducted. Callas sang. Visconti directed. Piero Tosi did the sets and costumes. It was beyond this world." Afterwards, they celebrated at her hotel until the wee hours of the morning. "After everyone had left, she begged me to stay. She didn't want to be left alone, by herself. Her husband appeared in his bathrobe, like Don Pasquale, asking 'What is this noise?' Then he went back to bed. So it was just the two of us. I was very tired, drained. I wanted to go home. But suddenly, there she was by the fire, with her back to me, and I saw that she was sobbing. I went over and took her hand. And she said, 'It will never be like this again, Franchino. I cannot go beyond this. And I am not prepared not to be perfect from now on.' From that moment on, there began to mature in her mind an [idea to] escape from this trap. And it happened four years later with Onassis."

He pauses. "He did everything to demolish our relationship. I had wanted to do a film of Tosca with Karajan and Callas, but Onassis screwed it up. At first he tried to conquer me." "How so?" I ask gingerly, not sure I want to know. Zeffirelli holds my gaze. "In every way.

"The problem with Callas was not the decadence of the voice," he continues, "but the fact that she had stopped studying. When she entered this type of golden paradise of Onassis, she decided that her career as a singer was no good. When Onassis came and bewitched her completely, she had this illusion of being First Lady of Greece, so she gave up practicing. A singer is like an athlete. You have to exercise every day. She stopped doing that. She started smoking and being up late at night, leading a completely opposite life from one a singer should follow."

Zeffirelli's career was taking off just as Callas's was collapsing. It led to tensions between them. "After the fall of her illusion with Onassis, then the real crisis came. She was convinced by [an] impresario, Larry Kelly in Dallas, to do some concerts with di Stefano. Everywhere they went, they had a big success, but she was disgusted and switched to directing. Before directing Vespri Siciliani at Turin with di Stefano, she came here for advice. She was sitting right there. With Anna Magnani. I was worried how the evening would go. The two women did not know each other well. But Maria was so adorable. So humble. She said to Magnani, 'You have been such an inspiration to me.' Little by little they became such friends that I wasn't able to say a word.

"Then one day I was rehearsing with Joan Plowright in London a play by de Filippo. And that afternoon Larry Olivier came to me and told me, 'I've got some very sad news. Our friend Maria is dead.' She had had a stroke that morning. I couldn't believe it." Zeffirelli pauses. Even now, more than a quarter of a century later, the moment still haunts him.

The idea of making a film of her life began at that point. "People offered me immediately to do a film. They were thinking of Onassis and Kennedy and Callas, but that was too painful and outrageous for me to do. Then Arianna Stassinopoulos's book came out. Rights to her book were acquired, and I was asked if I wanted to do it. I thought a moment about it. Edward Albee had been approached but decided not to do it. I was not interested. It was too recent. Callas was still there. Then I began to have an idea how to tell this story from a different angle -- not strictly biographical. I imagined this possibility, this plan that some friends would devise to bring her back. Of using the voice of Maria from the glorious golden years in Carmen. She recorded it but never performed it." In the film, co-written with Martin Sherman, who wrote Bent, Callas makes a kind of Faustian bargain in order to recapture her former glory.

But Zeffirelli faced another hurdle. "The other reason I delayed making the film ... was the question -- who was going to play her? At first, we thought of Anjelica Huston, Glenn Close or Judy Davis. And for a while I fancied doing it with Teresa Stratas, who has so much in common with Callas. She's Greek, a soprano of a certain quality, and she even looks like her, although she is tiny. She was wise enough to say, 'Franco, let us not force the impossible. I will never do it.' So I found myself with a project in motion but no lead." The dilemma was solved when Zeffirelli hit on the idea of casting Fanny Ardant, the beautiful French actress who had played Callas in France in the play Master Class. "The moment I met her," he says, "I knew she was absolutely right. I immediately fell in love with her."


wo days later, at Cinecittà for an 11 a.m. call, I get to meet Fanny Ardant, who clearly would be a glamorous presence even if she weren't made up to look exactly like Callas, right down to the funny glasses. "Callas was looking for the absolute in everything," she tells me. "She sought the absolute in the music she was singing, and she sought it in love. That is my foundation in playing her." It's a role many actresses would shy away from, but Ardant finds that she trusts Zeffirelli's vision. "He's passionate and enthusiastic, curious and alive. He has so much energy. He is not just resting on his knowledge. He helped me to realize that I didn't need to 'be' Maria but only to act as a go-between of what her life has to tell us -- that you must live life fully at this very moment, for everything comes to an end. It can never last."

Jeremy Irons is there too, outfitted rather oddly with a long fake pony tail. His character is a composite of many of Callas's close friends (and no doubt Zeffirelli) who begged her to return to the stage. Also on set is the rest of the cast: a handsome young actor who plays Irons's chauffeur; the director of the Carmen film that Callas has been lured back into making; the film's editor and his assistant. The scene revolves around a moment when Callas is brought in to the editing booth to see parts of the film for the first time. Zeffirelli cries out "Allora, action!" and the camera starts rolling. Lines are delivered. The scene unfolds. They redo the scene dozens of times, painstakingly refilming each line from a different angle. Fanny Ardant imbues the character of Callas with an aura of quiet dignity and sensuality that is uncanny. The camera zooms in for a close-up, and the video screen in front of Zeffirelli suddenly fills up with nothing but the image of Ardant's eyes. They are Callas's eyes. She's listening to herself singing the Habanera. As she takes in the strange, dark beauty of her voice, her eyes slowly fill with tears. It is the voice of years past. She can never regain it. She is doomed. I glance at Zeffirelli to see his reaction to this powerful moment. He yells, "Cut! Let's do it again!"

As the scene is repeated again and again, I recall something Jeremy Irons said to me earlier that morning. "This film is Zeffirelli's personal crusade. He was such a huge admirer of Callas, and he always regretted not being able to help her more during her last year. Making this movie is his way of saying 'I'm sorry' and 'Thank you' at the same time."


BROOKS PETERS is a freelance writer based in New York. His most recent article for opera news was "Diminuendo," a report on music education in America, in December 2001.


photo credits: © Beatriz Schiller 2002 (Turandot); © Colette Masson/Kipa 2002 (watches a Traviata rehearsal); Opera News Archives (Zeffirelli alone in Rome), E. Piccagliani/Teatro alla Scala (with Visconti), © Gary Renaud 2002 (Antony and Cleopatra), Louis Melançon photo/Opera News Archives (Falstaff); © Beatriz Schiller 2002 (Tosca both)

OPERA NEWS, April 2002 Copyright © 2002 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.


Critics may sneer, but Franco Zeffirelli has remained true
to his extravagant style. This season, he returns to the Met to refurbish
his much-loved 1964 production of Falstaff.


Above: Eva Marton (Turandot), Hugues Cuénod (Emperor Altoum) and Plácido Domingo (Calaf) in Zeffirelli's lavish 1987 Metropolitan Opera Turandot; Opposite: the director watches a Traviata rehearsal

From left: in Rome, shortly before his1964 Met debut; with his mentor, Luchino Visconti, at La Scala;

Zeffirelli's production of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, with Belén Amparan, Justino Diaz and Leontyne Price, opened the Met's Lincoln Center home in 1966, left; Zeffirelli, Leonard Bernstein and the cast of Falstaff at the Old met, 1964, below

There is something touching in his inability to exorcise Callas's presence.

Zeffirelli's 1985 Met Tosca starred Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia, above in Act I,
and Hildegard Behrens and Plácido Domingo, at left in Act II rehearsal with the director

"I always choose to work with singers I know I am going to love."