THE SCENOGRAPHER'S INTERVIEWS
AN CONVERSATION WITH FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI
By Giorgio Tabanelli
Franco Zeffirelli, if you think back to your earliest memories, to the very beginnings of your artistic career, of the people, the places and the circumstances connected with this period, which of them instantly spring to mind?
For someone like me, born in Florence in the early twenties, in a particular period and in a well-to-do society which aspired to great achievements, there already existed an environment which in some way favoured an artistic vocation. In my family there was always a baritone with a beautiful voice ready to show off his gift at the first opportunity. There were also talented people who knew how to paint or draw; in short, there was a desire for art at every level. I recall that, whenever I drew a little sketch, my family would say: “He has the makings of a great artist, it’s not for nothing that in our blood flows that of Leonardo da Vinci”, because my family’s roots are in Vinci. When my father was ailing, and I made my debut at Covent Garden at a Gala in the presence of the Queen of England, he sent me a package containing a large envelope in which were the certificates from the Commune of Vinci proving that one of our forbears was the cousin of Leonardo da Vinci, and my father wrote me a letter telling me: “Tomorrow evening, when you find yourself next to the Queen of England, hold your head up high because if she descends from the Windsor lineage, you descend from Leonardo da Vinci.” This is by way of illustrating how the need for art was so sweetly and pathetically felt. As a child, it was very difficult for me to identify the spark which ignited my vocation as an artist: I was born into art.
To what extent did your family influence your artistic and spiritual formation?
My mother and father loved each other very much though they were both married to other people, so I was born out of wedlock. My mother died when I was six years old. Fortunately, I was adopted by my aunts, who were surrounded by artists and painters. At an early age I became very familiar with all these things: singers, painters, art experts. There were musical events where the greatest voices and the grand conductors performed, and then of course the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence. I began going to the opera at the age of seven or eight and so it’s in my blood.
Perhaps one of the reasons for my success is that I have always known the opera from within, so to speak, and not from without, and from the art of singing and from memorable occasions which these authors have given us.
As a youth, who had most influence on you as regards the development of understanding and intellect?
In Florence I attended the Accademia di Belle Arti, at which there were a great number of important people: there was Rosai who taught there, and Professor Pacini, an extraordinary professor of History of Art, not to mention a great professor of Ornamental Design, Professor Crepet. I spent a lot of time at the Convent of San Marco where there was a youth association to which I belonged and there, too were extraordinary men such as Annigoni, and La Pira [former mayor of Florence], who came to pass the best part of his day there. He taught History of Roman Law in Florence and lived in the convent of San Marco. I learnt English from a woman who had moved to Florence when young, after having lost her father and her fiancé in the war, and she taught in a little room where one could also cook. She taught me English and much else besides. She taught me world ethics, a word which today might sound a little strange…that which is right and that which is wrong, because she was deeply worried about us young lads growing up with a distorted view of the truth. As a boy I was therefore well nourished on these opportunities which set me on the right path. La Pira, for example, said that Fascism, Nazism and Communism were all the same thing, they were the enemies of man, the evil of the century. I learnt to love Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and other great writers of European and American literature. I then passed on to architecture and I worked with men like Michelucci, Gamberini and other great exponents of that field, which served to form my ideas not so much in terms of architecture as in to understand how to construct a definitive image. I generally begin with an idea while thinking about where I want to arrive: I observed how they worked, how they tracked an idea and worked on it. The work of an architect is very precise, as are all those creative professions which have to do with structure.
Which painters have inspired your figurative taste?
I have always been in love with the Renaissance. For me painting begins to explode with Masaccio’s Cacciata dei progenitori or rather Cacciata dal paradiso. This is the beginning of man, painters finally began to depict man in his misery, naked, unfortunate and hopeless, a woman by his side as together they are banished from paradise. It is the strongest emotion created. Then I would say the measure of Brunelleschi’s architecture, Leon Battista Alberti, from which I have always adopted this structuring of visual ideas with a central design. In my set designs there is always a central axis, there’s an obsession with the central line of the stage which, however, is a reference that everyone should adopt, the line to refer to is the axis from which everything starts and on which a scenic construction is structured. So, a reference which is not only pictorial, I would say without limits, without definition but full of emotion. Emotion is then superimposed on the technical structuring of the set, the whole human world in motion within is then superimposed: passions, emotions, choruses, colours, time, grand ideas, but always generated in the mind with a very precise geometric structure.
You were a student of architecture. Plasticity, as well as the pictorial element, is at the root of your training as a scenographer. Would you agree?
Space on stage, as at the cinema, has to be observed very carefully. A remote detail has the value of a protagonist in close-up. But, when I prepare for filming or for a stage production, I work on the characters, on the emotions, I’m attentive to what one character or another feels. I’m very attentive to the power of close-ups: yes, composition is important, then there are frames, scenes, the sense of spectacularity, they are all necessary, but in the end what presses me most of all is to be good at directing a close-up because that’s where an actor or actress tells me who they are.
In the years when you were a student you performed at Radio Firenze and in student theatre groups. How important has acting been for you and for what reason did you give it up?
More or less everyone has had this experience and by this I don’t mean to consider myself a bit of a genius. I could act because I was good-looking, vain, I had a desire to express myself, a desire to be the centre of attention, to stand out and I even did well because I won a competition for Florentine amateur dramatics. I won first prize and performed in several productions. There was a time in which I was determined to be an actor. Of course my father went mad with anger when I told him and he broke a set of plates on my head. But that was the path to take because I did an audition with Visconti as an actor and he included me in his company of 1946, where all the great actors were: Morelli, Stoppa, Benassi, Gassman, De Lullo. I began to make myself known and Visconti realised that I was quite good as an actor, but what interested him more was that he considered me a born scenographer. I had very strong structures and he always tried to dissuade me from being an actor. He wanted me to be his assistant, then he gave me this amazing job when I represented him in Italy at the first European edition of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennesse Williams. I did a concept sketch which Visconti rejected in the first instance, then after two months it was accepted. I realised that that was my talent, working as assistant to the director and scenographer. Then he gave me another great opportunity, designing the sets for a huge production in Florence at the Maggio Musicale, Troilus and Cressida, a colossal production, with great Italian actors. Then in 1951-1952, after I had assisted him in the cinema I also worked as assistant with De Sica, Antonioni and Pietrangeli. Then he had me do the sets for The Three Sisters by Chekhov, a fantastic show with an exceptional cast. Everyone started talking about this new scenographer and in the meantime I got an opportunity to work at the Scala as I had met Callas in Rome and in 1953 I was called to do the scenery for L’italiana in Algeri directed by Pavolini. Seeing that the show was very successful, the following year the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini called me to do Cenerentola, which was a huge success and this was the first time I did the direction, scenery and costumes, which back then was something unprecedented.
Taking on three tasks at the same time was an absolute novelty and I had all the necessary requirements to be scenographer, costume director and director. And I realised that one becomes a director through a global vision of a show, which is a figurative view, a definite image which is assisted by the cooperation and understanding of the singer, the actor and others involved. But the global vision is represented by the scenographer.
With Visconti in 1948, you worked on the staging of Rosalinda (As You Like It) by Shakespeare. The scenery and costumes were designed by Salvador Dalì. How did Visconti get the idea of involving a surrealist painter and what kind of relationship was there between you?
He would do things which were revolutionary. In Florence at the Maggio Musicale there had been some experience designing sets by easel painters such as De Chirico, Sironi, Carrà. It wasn’t a total novelty but it was something new for prose theatre. And I felt the need to revisit Shakespeare in an unusual key by using the genius of Dalì in an ingenious way because, as we know, he was an ingenious character. How much that solution was consistent with the show and with the theatre remains to be seen because – apart from the backdrops for the ballets – Dalì had never done scenery for the theatre and he didn’t have the faintest idea. He would invent costumes to get an idea, and the eighteenth century he portrayed, completely fractured, was wonderful. And the new idea was wind, this forest was supposed to be swept by wind and the wonderful costumes were also supposed to be ruffled by the wind. We attempted to carry out his instruction to the letter with the use of fans but the actors standing still on the stage risked falling ill with bronchitis. So no fans and so – I enjoyed myself very much because Dalì was a really brilliant man – I invented a system of invisible threads which would pull on the hems of the clothes, of the women’s costumes and it made a certain impression to see this simulation of wind. Apart from this, I used something I had learnt while working as an assistant set designer. I was assistant set designer for the Florentine Maggio Musicale and there we saw the great technique of Nicola Benois and the great scenographers and I was fascinated by the painting of scenery on voile which was normally used in opera and so I suggested that the transformations of this forest in an abstract world created by Dalì should take place through successive transparent effects, on different scrims and it worked fine and for me it was fun though a huge responsibility because I was between Visconti and Dalì. Visconti would get angry with me because he would say that he couldn’t hold Dalì at bay and Dalì would do the same with me because he said that I only obeyed what Visconti said; so I really found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea but I survived and was extremely happy because this experience had taught me a great deal.
Was Dalì eccentric?
Well, he was Dalì! He was an extraordinary amanuensis, he had a very special hand. He would put you there and teach you or he would paint and he had this inner world that was inventive and extrovert and then he had this fixed idea of the egg. According to him an egg had the perfect form; in fact, in all the scenes of Rosalinda there was an egg hung on a cord.
Which was a reference to the famous painting by Piero della Francesca, La pala dei Montefeltro, known as La pala di Brera.
Precisely… which is the famous painting of Brera. And the egg symbolically represents the perfection of the Renaissance: and that image fascinated him.
In 1948, as assistant director to Visconti, you were involved in the realisation of one of the masterpieces of Italian Neorealism: La terra trema. Wasn’t Neorealism in essence a different approach to reality as seen through the cine-camera?
Well, initially it was meant to be a correct relationship with reality, a true relationship with reality, different from convention, how can I put it? We take convention back to what cinema can give. And there had been some very strong attempts, Man of Aran by Flaherty, Russian cinema, imbued with this desire to portray life, this longing for absolute realism which is why Italian realism came about in its own way. La terra trema was a remarkable film but it was a great drama in black and white rather like a story seen on television today, that kind of daily realism composed of misery in reality. Rossellini had begun with La nave bianca, De Sica with I bambini ci guardano, this new trend had already begun its first stirrings. Then with the Liberation, there was an opening up of ideas, the people, the theories of Zavattini – “the poor are ahead” – and Visconti represented a different trend, he didn’t have good relations with all the rest… Then with Zavattini he did Bellissima, a marvellous film with Anna Magnani and then he went back to his vein of great filmed performances, like Senso… a completely crazy idea, the work of a madman, marvellous but insane: the music was marvellous and also the costumes, settings; and it was the last time I worked with him, I then went on to work at the Scala.
Speaking of La terra trema the critic Luigi Chiarini spoke of the “aesthetics of rags”.
Yes, it was the beauty of the human message on materials. So every generation leaves us with a mark, an invention, a trace of a colour. In that film I dealt with the dialogue and the clothing so I would rummage in the cases of these poor fishermen and look for the most meaningful and colourful things: jackets, trousers, of a hundred years before, patched up jerseys, incredible, made and remade, worthy of a museum – it’s a shame they weren’t preserved – and they had a lot of effect because they weren’t the patches of Expressionism – the poor man full of patches with a ruined hat, or such like, it was a veritable way of depicting reality, as really experienced and worn out by the life of men and women who had worn those clothes.
What did this cinematographic experience give you from the point of view of your approach to life, to reality?
I would say everything. Then I moved on to my own point of view, I realised that reality can be grasped very well, making it then also become plain, it can be made to become the highest expression of intellectual and cultural activity; alone it isn’t actually enough. I remember one case: Visconti absolutely wanted everyone in the film to be authentic, the boys to be fishermen, the grandfather to be a cultivator of vines and olives, the priest to be the priest of Acitrezza, the marshal of the Carabinieri to be the marshal of the Carabinieri of Acitrezza.
So a full concurrence between reality and fiction?
Yes, only that the marshal of the Carabinieri in Malavoglia makes the girl Lucia pregnant and so when you get to these situations, to the marshal of Acitrezza, married and with children, who has to woo Lucia, there we had some impossible obstacles to overcome: doubles, substitutions… because the truth is always difficult to grasp in its entirety.
You were influenced by Visconti’s method of working and then you progressively broke away from him. In what period did this process of personal development reach maturity?
I couldn’t define it exactly; I could even say that I have never completely broken away from Visconti because thanks to him and to the world he placed at my disposal I had a good grounding; the acquaintances I was able to make in those five years during which I worked with him in two disciplines – not in opera – in cinema and in theatre because Visconti had never considered opera. It occurred to him three years after I had made my debut at the Scala – which was in 1954. So he too wanted to come to the Scala and he made his great entrée but there arose problems of alliance: those who were for him and those who were for the pupil, who was the teacher and who was the pupil. Visconti had shaped me a little into the qualities that the personality of a director must possess: prestige, courtesy, character, power, even violence –if it is sometimes necessary – and above all to give those who rely on you the feeling that they are in good hands. I believe I reached a humanistic dimension – I would say human rather than humanistic – in my work. That is, I have always viewed my relationship to work as a relationship of love, based on affection and mutual trust, not as a paternal authority that I could impose, also because I neither had the age nor was my character paternal but rather fraternal, yes, and even that of a lover.
I shared this affection most of all with women. Exceptional women who placed their trust in me. They really needed someone who cared about them, who looked after them, whom they could trust, difficult women like Elisabeth TaylAnna Magnani, Callas.
Why were they happy to work with me?
Because they felt reassured by my firmness, not only by that professional firmness. In short when one places one’s trust in Franco – they might have thought – he stages a good production, he dresses me well, he illuminates well, he directs me well as an actress but above all he loves me, he gives me affection, a genuine affection, which is what these personalities need. Men admit it less because a man in some way is prouder; women give themselves to you completely because their disposition is to be loved, to seek love and to give love.
In 1954 you staged Cenerentola by Rossini for the Scala with Giulietta Simionato. The conductor was Carlo Maria Giulini. It was the first opera for which you were director, set and costume designer.
How did the critics and audience receive your directorial debut in opera?
Very well, very well, it was an enormous success. I still remember Visconti coming to the dress rehearsal and he was moved; he liked the show very much. Those early years at the Scala were very happy ones. Following this success, in 1955 I did Elisir d’amore with Giuseppe Di Stefano and Rosanna Cartieri directed by Gavazzeni and then with Callas I did Il turco in Italia, and we remained close, together we went to America in 1958 and we did a really extraordinary Traviata at the Civic Opera in Dallas which has remained unforgettable.
With Maria Callas your understanding on an artistic level was remarkable. How was it on a human level?
But with Maria it was hard to have easy relations on a human plane, it was like dealing with an earthquake because she was always suspicious. She was a woman who experienced her relationships with people in a problematic way and to get to where she got to it was necessary to be an extremely sensitive, extremely unpredictable woman. Undoubtedly she possessed qualities and characteristics which aren’t part of the common norm but there was always, in all of Maria’s exuberance, in all her flying off the edge, there was always a reason. It may have been an exaggerated or excessive reaction but there was a reason why a reaction was triggered in her. So with Maria you needed to be for one thing absolutely loyal because she had a kind of “Greek sense”, a constant suspicion of being betrayed. She was betrayed, robbed by her husbands, she didn’t have children, friends did all kinds of things to her and she was left alone and died when she was only 53. This was the tragedy of Maria Callas whom I think I quite faithfully documented in my film.
In the seventies, in London, you produced two works by Eduardo De Filippo: Sabato, Domenica e Lunedì (1973) with Laurence Olivier. What can you tell us of your friendships with Laurence Olivier and Eduardo De Filippo?
I can say that my relationship with Olivier was one of great cordiality and I am still a friend of his wife. Laurence was the dearest person I have ever met in showbusiness and this goes back to the seventies when they used to come to my house in Positano. Olivier and I began working together in 1965 and, after Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, we did one of the most wonderful performances ever seen and that was Much Ado About Nothing, a truly memorable
Shakespearian play with a cast of great actors who enjoyed themselves like mad. Unfortunately, no record remains and there too I managed to stir up general madness where everyone was happy to be there from the youngest to the oldest: from Maggie Smith to Albert Finney, from Robert Stephens to Frank Finlay and Lynn Redgrave; just about everyone was there. They had a wonderful time and I enjoyed making them have fun. And the audience in turn enjoyed itself: it really was a lot of fun.
And with Eduardo De Filippo?
It was a marriage of convenience, perhaps. I have never thoroughly analysed Eduardo’s character and I don’t think he analysed mine, he was a huge opportunist as every actor should rightly be, particularly a Neopolitan. He would never trust anyone, he chose his course according to the wind, but a very pleasant man, an extraordinary genius. Geniuses are never pleasant people, geniuses are a bad race, with the few I met I recognised them as such because they were swines.
For example von Karajan was a swine, in his own way, Kleibert another swine in his own way. Very hard people, not easy, then when you establish the relationship and they throw off their masks in some way, you find some remarkable and wonderful people who are geniuses. However all the determination of a genius is always a very uncomfortable determination, I don’t think there has ever existed a “comfortable” genius as a person. Think of Beethoven, Mozart, Leonardo, Michelangelo: they were all awful hyenas to live with, but within there was this supernatural quality which made them unique.
You have worked with renowned conductors: from Carlo Maria Giulini to Gianadrea Gavazzeni, from Tullio Serafini to Nino Rescigno, from von Karajan to Bernstein and many others. With which conductor did you form a personal relationship which you still recall with affection?
With Serafini, who taught me a great deal. I owe much to Visconti, but when one has to do with operatic music I realise that I owe everything to Tullio Serafini, who made me understand the significance of opera, the attitude that one has to adopt when dealing with this extraordinary instrument. With him I staged seven or eight productions in the 50s and 60s. I remember the early times, in Genoa, Palermo, Venice, and in London at Covent Garden. There is an episode that I like to recount: we were staging Linda di Chamouni in Palermo. The opera takes place in Savoy, there are shepherds and she falls in love with a shepherd, but there is a rich gentleman who… we arrive at the concertato finale of the second act and at a certain point I hear the voice of Serafini: “Zeffirelli, where’s Zeffirelli?…” I make myself visible and he cries: “Where is the tenor, Zeffirelli?” and I: “He’s there.” Swift the reply: “How have you dressed him?” And I: “He’s a shepherd so I have dressed him as you would a shepherd.” Serafini yells: “He is not a shepherd, Zeffirelli, he is a tenor, and if I don’t see him as such I can’t hear him.” The tenor was dressed in black and so I changed his apparel: a little red jacket, light-coloured trousers with a stripe, a feather… at the end, in the concertato one heard only him. A tenor must be a thing apart, must sing in a different manner, and so you must visibly define him in a different manner. This was a lesson learnt.
In 1976 for television you produced Gesù di Nazareth. The critic Carlo Bo caught the value of your proposal in two essential elements: Christian iconography and the Word of Christ. Were these in essence your intentions?
Precisely. Christian iconography in that it was a programme that was seen – it is estimated – by two and half billion people, perhaps more. So if I had had to make an art film in black and white I would probably have chosen a completely different iconography, for the chosen few. I tried to create a version of the Gospels as I think one imagines the story of Jesus: a Hebrew of a fanatical people, of the spiritualised, where God’s word was almost unutterable for all the awe there was towards divinity which was venerated, ever ready with spiritualistic displays: prophets, blood, sacrifice. So probably Christian iconography over the centuries has softened all those contours, it has idealised and, let’s say, spiritualised them. Having to create a fresco of large proportions, intended then for mixed and not necessarily acculturated mass audiences, it was necessary to use a language intelligible to everyone which however would not betray a higher cultural quality.
Currently you are working on a project for a film on St. Francis in which the saint of Assisi makes a great gesture of peace: a meeting with the Muslim Turkish sultan. Francis implores his brothers to go through the streets of Galilee to attend to Muslim lepers. It seems that the central point of the film and that of the current international condition is that of forgiveness and love. Is this correct?
I have shelved this project. Particularly because the project long close to my heart has finally come my way, that of the Renaissance in Florence: The Florentines. This is the film I’m about to make. A great film which I’ve been thinking of for 25 years. We have finally succeeded in creating the premise for a big production, it’s a wonderful project which fills me with enthusiasm.
I had already started the project for St. Francis, but now I have to give it a lot of thought, I need the positions of Islam to be clarified, before taking such a strong position, involving the Saint of Assisi, because it’s not so certain that he wanted to give himself up to Islam, as could result from the reading of certain acts of mortification. Instead, he wanted to convert Islam, by adopting humility, charity, fraternity among peoples, giving an absolute example of virtue, altruism. This is true and it would be valid even today, but I think that today there are other means involved in which to stimulate a dialogue with Islam.
In conclusion, what is the outcome of your human and artistic experience?
The outcome… it’s a strong word. The outcome is the hope that my intuitions have been proved true, exact. This energy that drives us and moves everything, from the smallest to the greatest, I believe it is the terrain on which we must land, from which we come and to which we return. And then I don’t have memory or thought of death: it’s none other than the end of material life. However, the energy that has driven us, I really do ask myself and with more and more awareness, whether it really isn’t a certainty. It has to be a certainty. Because this energy that drives every thing created, not only ourselves as we are creatures pre-eminently of the creation, but everything, every thing, from the smallest manifestation of life… it’s an uninterrupted flow of energy, of spirit-call it what you will, that it is God, that it is good, that it is love-because the whole of creation is love, which then becomes cruelty in contact with matter. When a flower germinates, when a child is born it’s love then, in contact with matter, chaos breaks out, animals are slaughtered, forests are destroyed, we hurt one another, it is matter that leads us to these diabolical conflicts.
But the spirit, which created us and accompanies us, is this energy. The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that we cannot reject this option which is increasingly obvious, which exists and is demonstrated continuously in every fact of our lives, in every emotion, in every attachment, in every surprise. There’s no day that doesn’t hold a revelation for you. So many encounters, so many revelations. You meet a person whom you didn’t know who tells you something you didn’t know, it’s a continuous thriving of this energy which manifests itself in a thousand ways. So I still hope to work with matter doing things on earth but I shall leave it peacefully if this conviction stays with me and does not abandon me.
© The Scenographer 2017