He says he’s tired. Director Franco Zeffirelli has just returned home
after three hectic days in London preparing for a play that opens in
March, and now he must politely field questions from an interviewer
calling from California. However, while discussing his latest labor of
love, his voice conveys abundant energy and enthusiasm.
In the film Callas Forever, Zeffirelli tries to
give filmgoers a glimpse into a woman many regard as an icon and an
enigma, but whom he considered a friend.
Maria Callas starred in several lavish operas staged by Zeffirelli. Her
powerful voice and dramatic intensity combined to make her the
most-celebrated operatic soprano of the 1950s. The quality of her voice
declined markedly in the 1960s, and she died in 1977 at the age of 53.
A major studio immediately approached Zeffirelli to make a film about
the fallen idol, he recalls, but he declined. “They were interested in
the gossip aspect of her life, the scandal,” he says. “That is not what
really interested me to tell about Maria Callas. There was something
much more important about the personality of this extraordinary woman
and artist. So I just let it simmer. Then recently I said, wait a
minute, we have to do a film on Maria Callas; otherwise, people will
forget her. She hasn’t left any films; she hasn’t left any really
complete documentation of what she was. So I felt compelled to tell
something about Maria that I know very well. We were very good friends,
with a lot of stormy moments like she always had with all her friends.
But I knew the woman upside-down and inside-out.”
Rather than exploit the more sensational aspects of Callas’ life,
Zeffirelli created a fictional scenario through which to explore her
character. In Callas Forever, an impresario played by Jeremy Irons
tempts Callas with a Faustian proposition in the final months of her
life: a comeback concert with a technological trick, secretly using a
recording of her from her glory years.
“That has proved to be a very good and happy solution
because it gave me the opportunity of telling what the woman was
without going into any biographical problems,” Zeffirelli says.
“Apparently given the results in Italy and France, where it has opened,
it’s really very, very catchy. The audience, especially the fans of
Maria, the people for whom Maria is a kind of giant of art, they’re
The film’s appeal extends beyond opera enthusiasts, Zeffirelli says.
“It’s about opera, naturally, about singing, but it’s about something
else much more serious,” he says. “It’s about how much it cost to
achieve anything in life. Nothing is given us freely. You have to fight
with your teeth and your nails in order to achieve something, in order
to bring forth whatever gift you have received, and it’s a general
statement on creativeness and the price you have to pay for your
success. So it applies particularly in the case of Maria Callas, who
was the greatest voice of the century. But it applies all fields. I
intended to wake up people, young people especially, that nothing is
given freely. You have to fight heartily in order to achieve whatever
you have to say.”
After half a century in film, theater and opera, Zeffirelli hasn’t said
all he has to say. “When I’m making a film, I can sometimes think of
the next stage production and vice versa,” Zeffirelli says. “When I use
the medium of cinema, I’m trying to express myself with all the
possibilities that cinema offers, and when I do opera I have to respect
all the rules that opera requires. I’m approaching every field with the
respect that one should have for that particular art and discipline. So
now I go back to the theater in London doing Pirandello with Joan
Plowright. For me, it’s very natural. When I look at my schedule, I see
an opera here, a show there, a film project. It’s the way I am. I
cannot change it now. I’m sorry. I cannot specialize in one field and
give up the others.”
The 80-year-old Zeffirelli takes pride in past work but directs his
attention to the future. “Never sit back, never look behind,” he says.
“I look forward. I’m looking ahead. What’s next? What do I do today?
What do I do tomorrow? As long as you have the flame of life burning
inside yourself, you have to go look ahead. I’d like to be an example
of confidence, of activity and working, working, working. You cannot
sit back and just look at the medals and the trophies of your career.
You better throw them away.”