Franco Zeffirelli, 1923–2019
The opera and film director who embraced grandeur
For Franco Zeffirelli, too much was never quite enough. The Italian director won popular acclaim for his extravagant opera productions: His 1963 staging of Verdi’s Aida at Milan’s La Scala required 600 singers and dancers, 10 horses, and a set adorned with colossal sphinxes. Critics took offense at such flamboyance, not that Zeffirelli cared. “It is true, I embellish,” he said. “A spectacle is a good investment.” A 50-year mainstay at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Zeffirelli was just as successful behind the camera, receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1968’s Romeo and Juliet and scoring a global hit with the 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. “It’s like being a sultan with three wives,” he said of his flitting between stage, film, and TV. “When you’re having sex, you think, ‘Next time I have to try the other one.’”
“From his earliest days, he seemed to belong to the opera,” said The Washington Post. He was born in Florence to a married woman and her lover and “received neither parent’s surname.” His mother called him Zeffiretti, a word for “little breezes” she’d heard in Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, and a city official misspelled it “Zeffirelli.” An orphan by age 6, he was raised by relatives of his father and studied architecture at the University of Florence. His education was interrupted by World War II, during which Zeffirelli fought alongside partisan forces. Captured by Mussolini’s Fascists, he avoided execution when his interrogator turned out to be an unknown half-brother. When the war ended, he resumed his studies but was inspired to pursue a career in theater after seeing Laurence Olivier’s Henry V at the cinema.
In the late 1940s, director Luchino Visconti spotted Zeffirelli, “blond and blue-eyed, working as a stagehand in Florence,” said The New York Times. Visconti gave him his big break in 1949, hiring Zeffirelli as set designer for his stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, after which the two began a “tumultuous love affair.” Zeffirelli was soon directing plays and operas, and in 1964 created a lush production of Tosca for Maria Callas that became the soprano’s “farewell to the London stage,” said the Financial Times. In film, he made his first mark with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the following year’s Romeo and Juliet—featuring unusually young leads—made him an international icon.
By the late 1970s, Zeffirelli’s extravagant style had, ironically, become “too restrained for the increasingly gaudy times,” said The Times (U.K.). His Hollywood weepies The Champ (1979) and Endless Love (1981) flopped, and he turned his attention to filming operatic productions for the video market. Zeffirelli kept directing into his 80s, driven by his desire “to make something of his life,” he said of himself in the third person, to prove “he’s not a bastard.”