Forever Forward


On the eve of his lifetime achievement award,
Franco Zeffirelli refuses to rest on his laurels.

By Keith Bush

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 very grateful.”

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.”