Franco Zeffirelli (born 1923) is best know for his extravagantly staged operas and films that bring the classics to the masses. His interests also span into the political arena. He was elected to the Italian senate in 1994 and 1996 representing Catania, Sicily.
Franco Zeffirelli has proven himself as a talented director of operas, plays and feature films. He has found the most success in the opera house. Though critics haven't always been in favor of his flamboyant staging, his audiences have been bedazzled by it. In fact, his elaborate set designs have often been thought to upstage the music. Zeffirelli has also brought classics such as Romeo and Juliet (1968), Hamlet (1990) and Jane Eyre (1996) to the silver screen so that the average movie-goer can understand them. While some claim that he oversimplifies the classics, Zeffirelli feels that he popularizes them instead. Even in the world of politics, Zeffirelli has looked out for the common people. William Murray in Los Angeles Magazine, noted that Zeffirelli has "secured jobs, money and other help" for his constituents in Catania, "one of the poorest, most Mafia-ridden cities in Sicily."
A Boy with No Name
Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923 in the outskirts of Florence, Italy. He was the result of an affair between Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk dealer. Since both were married, Alaide was unable to use her surname or Corsi's for her child. She came up with "Zeffiretti" which are the "little breezes" mentioned in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte of which she was quite fond. However, it was misspelled in the register and became Zeffirelli. Alaide placed her newborn with a peasant family for two years before bringing him to live with her after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, she succumbed to tuberculosis and a six-year-old Zeffirelli was sent to live with his father's cousin, Lide, whom he called "Aunt Lide."
As a child, Zeffirelli's earliest experiences of theater were the traveling actors who visited the peasant village where he spent his summers. He also enjoyed building toy theaters and scenery for his puppets. The first opera he saw was Die Walkre which he didn't understand. The music and scenery, though, captivated the young boy. Another early influence was the Catholic Club at his school. The club performed religious and historical plays at various churches. He also went to see movies quite often and knew who all the stars were and the gossip about them.
The War Years
Mussolini marched on Rome the year before Zeffirelli was born and Fascism was all around him. During World War II, Zeffirelli began studying architecture at the University of Florence. By the time most of his friends had been conscripted, he chose to join the partisans in the hills of Italy. After escaping the Italian Fascists and reaching the Allied lines, he ended up as a guide and interpreter for the First Battalion of the Scots Guards. It was with the Scots that his interest in theater was renewed. He helped organize a theatric performance with soldiers in drag. By the time he returned to Florence, Zeffirelli was a different person. He went to live with his father and after seeing Laurence Olivier's Henry V he decided to pursue a career in theater.
Count Luchino Visconti
The biggest break of Zeffirelli's career was his acquaintance with Count Luchino Visconti. According to Andrea Lee in The New Yorker, meeting Visconti "was the opening of the crucial collaboration of Zeffirelli's life, an artistic and sentimental relationship that would be equaled in intensity only by his passionate friendship with Maria Callas. It also marked an immense step up in the world." He met Visconti while working as a scene-painter and from there his career took off. He spent nearly 9 years with Visconti and worked for his Morelli-Stoppa theatrical company. Lee further noted that "[i]n Visconti, who divided his talents between cinema, opera, and theatre, Zeffirelli had an example of the restless eclecticism that in time became his own trademark." He also adopted Visconti's penchant for detailed research and hands-on demonstrations of how he wanted a scene acted out.
On Stage and Screen
Zeffirelli's career took off in the 1950s as a scene designer for Italian productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Troilus and Cressida. From 1958 on, Zeffirelli has demonstrated the flexibility of going from opera to theater to film and back again all over the world. In one decade, he brought out: Lucia di Lammermoor (1959) with Joan Sutherland; Romeo and Juliet (1960) at the Old Vic; Othello (1961) with John Gielgud at Stratford; Tosca (1964) at Covent Garden; Norma (1964) at the Paris Opera; Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; and a film version of Romeo and Juliet (1968).
"Opera a la Zeffirelli is the greatest show on earth," claims Murray. His sets tend to be very large in scale and he often has literally crowds of performers on stage at once. He's even been known to use numerous live animals. Bernard Holland in the New York Times had this to say about Zeffirelli's productions at the Metropolitan Opera, "The Met-with its huge stage, its magnificent stage equipment and crew, and its pocket of wealthy patrons hungry to gild the status quo-has become for him an irresistible playground and a marriage made in heaven." With regard to a performance of Puccini's Turandot, Holland commented that "[s]omewhere in the house that night an opera, and a rich and stageworthy one at that, was going on. It really didn't matter, though. All the glitter and grandiosity descending over it made certain that music wouldn't get in the way of an evening's entertainment."
Zeffirelli's name is linked most often with the operas, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana, and I Pagliacci. His 1958 staging of La Traviata in Dallas, Texas with Maria Callas as Violetta marked Zeffirelli as an up-and-coming international director. Often when Zeffirelli has been asked to direct an opera that he has done before, he will make changes to the time period or the setting. With I Pagliacci, he changed the time from 1870 to 1938 in one production and the setting from Calabria to the outskirts of a city like Naples in another. His fondness for opera can be seen in his carefully dictated quote to Murray that, "opera is a river that carries you forward."
Zeffirelli's films have not enjoyed as much critical success as his operas, yet they still appeal to the audiences. His 1977 five-part television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth shows the kind of ambitious undertaking Zeffirelli can achieve. This modern classic is broadcast in Italy and around the world every Easter. His film about St. Francis, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, was disliked by the critics but has seen cult-like popularity in the Philippines and Brazil due to its religious content.
In an interview with John Tibbetts in Literature Film Quarterly, Zeffirelli shed some light on perhaps another reason for the lack of critical acclaim received by his films when he said, "I think culture-especially opera and Shakespeare-must be available to as many people as possible. It irritates me that some people want art to be as 'difficult' as possible, an elitest [sic] kind of thing. I want to give these things back to the people." This can clearly be seen in his treatment of the films he has based on English classic literature such as Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet.
Zeffirelli's practice of researching the subject to the smallest detail has helped bring these films to the general audience. In Romeo and Juliet, he used two very young performers in the lead roles who more closely matched the age of Shakespeare's characters. When criticized about the ages of Glenn Close and Mel Gibson as being unrealistic for a mother and son in Hamlet, Zeffirelli responded that it was common at that time for girls to marry at 13 and start having children. He has also done a film version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The book had been a favorite of his since he was ten years old and Mary O'Neal introduced him to it while tutoring him in English. Ian Blair reported in The Standard-Times that Zeffirelli said his biggest challenge with the film was "not to impose the eye of an Italian on it."
Zeffirelli has been an outspoken rightist for some 40 years. He ran for parliament in Florence in 1983 and lost. He had run as a favor for the Christian Democratic Party which feared the Communist Party might make some gains. Zeffirelli also had an ulterior motive for running. In his autobiography, Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, he admits, "I genuinely thought I could use the post to realize a long-standing dream: to use my cultural connections and make Florence the European capital for the performing arts … [and] access to political power was essential for anyone trying to bring this about."
In 1994, Zeffirelli ran for a seat in the Italian senate representing the city of Catania in Sicily. With 63 percent of the vote, he was elected as a candidate for the rightist party, Forza Italia. He ran for re-election and won again in 1996. With regard to his activities as a senator, he told Lee that "he sensibly assigns others to cover areas he is unfamiliar with, and tries to take charge of things with which he has direct experience-culture, historic preservation, education, and the environment, including, in particular, animal rights."
Zeffirelli's political views tend to be on the conservative side. Even though he has not been known to attend mass regularly, he is a staunch supporter of the Vatican. Perhaps the only area in which the Pope and Zeffirelli don't agree is artistic preference. In a Vatican list of 45 films deemed to have worthy religious content, none of Zeffirelli's films are mentioned. Belinda Luscombe reported in Time that Zeffirelli felt his films "have brought about many more conversions then all those cited."
Even in his seventies, Zeffirelli is always on the lookout for a new endeavor, be it film or opera. "The more you work, the more you accumulate energy," he told Marion Hart in Entertainment Weekly. He has written a script for a film version of Madame Butterfly and is looking to cast Cher in the leading role of the film Tea with Mussolini which is based on a chapter from his autobiography. With regard to his future, Blair quoted Zeffirelli as saying, "I feel like an airport with all these projects circling around waiting to land. Some get lost in space, others land safely."
Further Reading on Franco Zeffirelli
Zeffirelli, Franco, Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, April, 26, 1996.
Hartford Courant, February 1, 1998.
Literature Film Quarterly, April-June, 1994.
Los Angeles Magazine, September 1996.
New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1994.
New York Times, October 5, 1997.
New Yorker, April 22, 1996.
Time, March 25, 1996.
Victoria, June 1996.
Blair, Ian, "Zeffirelli's 'Eyre' love affair," The Standard Times, (April 7, 1996) http://www.s-t.com (March 21, 1998).
"Franco Zeffirelli," http://www.unitel.classicalmusic.com(March 15, 1998).