Franco Zeffirelli



by Alice Lechner
April 14, 2023


Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was an Italian film director, producer, screenwriter, and stage director. He was born on February 12th, 1923, in Florence, Italy, and passed away on June 15th, 2019 in Rome, at the age of 96.

His mother died when he was just six years old, and he grew up under the auspices of the English expatriate community and was particularly involved with the so-called Scorpioni, who inspired his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini (1999). Despite his difficult upbringing, he showed an early talent for the arts, particularly for drawing and painting.

During World War II, Zeffirelli served in the Italian army and was captured by the British in North Africa. He spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt, where he organized theatrical productions for his fellow prisoners.

After the war, Zeffirelli studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, where he developed his skills as a set designer and stage director. Later, he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. While working for a scene painter in Florence, he was introduced to Luchino Visconti, who hired him as an assistant director for the film La Terra trema, which was released in 1948. He also worked with directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.

Film career

He began his film career in the 1960s and went on to direct a wide range of films over the course of several decades. He made his directorial debut in 1967 with the film The Taming of the Shrew, starring Elizabeth Tylor and Richard Burton.

One of Zeffirelli’s most famous films is his adaptation of Willian Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette (1968), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. The film was a commercial and critical success, earning four Academy Award nominations and winning two of them, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.

Zeffirelli also directed a number of other literary adaptations, including Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Endless Love (1981), and Jane Eyre (1996). He was known for his attention to detail and his ability to create visually stunning films that brought classic stories to life.

Opera career

Besides his career in the cinematographic industry, Zeffirelli was well-known for his work as an opera director and producer. He directed numerous productions for major opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, and the Royal Opera House.

His first works as a director were buffo operas by Gioachino Rossini. Later, he became friends with Maria Callas and they worked together on a production of La Traviata in Dallas. The two first met in 1954, when he was working as a set designer for the Teatro alla Scala and she was one of the theatre’s leading sopranos. Of particular note is his 1964 Tosca at the Royal Opera House with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. In the same year, he created Callas’ last Norma at the Paris Opera. It is said that their professional relationship was often fraught with tension and conflict. Despite their tumultuous relationship, Zeffirelli was one of the few people allowed to visit Callas during her self-imposed exile in Paris in the 1970s.

Zeffirelli also collaborated with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland. They first worked together in 1959 on a production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House. Over the year, Zeffirelli and Sutherland collaborated on a number of other productions including Norma, La Traviata and Aida.

Some of Zeffirelli’s most famous opera productions include his staging of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered in 1981 and became one of the most beloved productions in the company’s history. He also directed a famous production of Tosca at the same opera house in 1985, which featured lavish sets and costumes and was broadcast around the world.

Other notable productions of Zeffirelli include: Carmen (2006, Royal Opera House), Don Giovanni (1991, Teatro alla Scala), Turandot (1987, MET) and Aida (2006, Arena di Verona).

His productions often featured elaborate sets and costumes, as well as innovative use of lighting and special effects.

Zeffirelli’s contribution to the world of opera is widely recognized, and he received numerous awards and honors for his work, including the Italian Order of Merit and the Order of the British Empire. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s influence

Franco Zeffirelli was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci and was inspired by his work throughout his career. 

One of Zeffirelli’s most famous works inspired by da Vinci is his production of La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli, which was first staged at the Teatro alla Scala in 1988. Zeffirelli’s staging featured a giant replica of da Vinci’s painting Il Cenacolo as a backdrop for the final act, creating a powerful visual reference to one of the most iconic works of Renaissance art. 

The film Romeo and Juliet featured numerous visual references to da Vinci’s work, too. For example, the balcony scene takes place in a courtyard with a fountain that is reminiscent of the water features in da Vinci’s drawings of the Villa Melzi gardens in Bellagio.

In addition to his use of da Vinci’s work as a source of inspiration for his own productions, Zeffirelli was also an accomplished artist and painter. He created a series of paintings based on da Vinci’s drawings of the human body, which were exhibited at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence in 2013.

Tea with Mussolini

Tea with Mussolini is a 1999 film directed by Zeffirelli, which is partly based on his own childhood experiences growing up in Italy. The film tells the story of a group of expatriate British and American women living in Florence on the eve of World War II, and their struggles to maintain their way of life in the face of political upheaval and social change. Zeffirelli drew on his own memories of growing up in Florence during the 1930s and 1940s to create the film’s vivid and authentic atmosphere. In addition to its impressive visuals, Tea with Mussolini is also notable for its strong performances by the ensemble cast of talented actresses, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Cher. 

Jesus of Nazareth

Zeffirelli’s Biblical television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) won both national and international acclaim and is still frequently shown at Christmas and Easter in many countries. The miniseries was a massive undertaking, with a budget of over $18 million and a cast of over 5.000 actors and extras. Zeffirelli spent several years researching and preparing for this project, and his attention to detail and commitment to historical accuracy are evident throughout the series. The film features an international cast of actors, including Robert Powell in the role of Jesus, alongside Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Olivia Hussey, and many others. Rather than presenting a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, Zeffirelli’s miniseries uses a more nuanced and humanistic approach, exploring the emotional and psychological aspects of Jesus’ life.


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Alice Lechner

Alice Lechner comes from a music-loving family. Her first encounter with the opera universe was at the tender age of six. The grandeur of the stage productions and costumes, the backstage chatter, and last, but definitely not least, the music left her in awe, beginning with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The overall feeling that opera awakens in anyone who gets a glimpse into this part of artistic eternity, that each and every day passes the test of time, was what drew her to stay and be a part of this world. The Opera House of Brașov became her second home, and the people who worked there were her second family.

Since then, Alice has devoted her spare time to maximising her musical knowledge through instrumental studies, studying both piano and violin for a short time. In the following years, her number one passion stepped out of the limelight and graciously gave way to Law Studies.
Since 2018 she has been studying Law at “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iași.

Her passion for opera, even if it is no longer her top professional priority in terms of career, it has most definitely become her priority during her free time. Wanting to experience the best of both worlds and extend her musical horizons, she regularly attends opera performances throughout Romania and abroad.
With OPERA Charm Magazine, Alice aims to nurture her creative side to help it flourish and bloom and to discover, alongside the magazine’s readers, the fascinatingly complex world of opera.

Currently, she is an LL.M. in Business Law at “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iași.

Oana Zamfir

Oana Zamfir is a second year MA student at the “George Enescu” National University of Arts, at the Department of Musicology.

She studied violin for 12 years at the “Stefan Luchian” High School of Art in Botosani, later focusing on the theoretical aspects of music. In 2019 she completed her bachelor studies in Musicology as a student of the National Academy of Music “Gheorghe Dima” in Cluj-Napoca. Her research during 2018-2019 brought to the forefront elements of the archaic ritual within works of composers who activated during the communist period, giving her the opportunity to start a research internship at the “Carl von Ossietzky” University in Germany. In this context, she recorded conversations with members of the Sophie Drinker Institute in Bremen, and had access to documents directly from the Myriam Marbé archive.

Since 2019 she has been a teacher of Music Education and Theoretical Music Studies, making full use of interactive methods in the musical training of students and working, at the same time, with the children’s choir founded in the first year of her activity.

Her interests include pursuing a degree in interior design in 2020.

Alexandru Suciu

Alexandru Suciu inherited his passion for art growing up in a family of several generations of musicians. He began his musical studies at the “Augustin Bena” School of Music in Cluj, where he studied piano and guitar. Even though his main study direction was philological, his passion for music prevailed. He began his academical journey at the Faculty of Letters of the “Babeș-Bolyai” University, studying Comparative literature and English. He continued by studying Opera Singing at the “Gheorghe Dima” National Music Academy. He also graduated the Musical Education section, followed by Artistic Directing at the Musical Performing Arts department.

His multidisciplinary education opened the doors towards research, which is seen both through his participation in national and international conferences and symposia, such as the Salzburg Easter School PhD-forum, organized by the Salzburg Universität or the Silesian Meeting of Young Scholars, organized by the Institute of English at the University of Silesia, as well as the collaboration with Opera Charm Magazine.

During his student years, he won several prizes, including the Grand Prize at the “Paul Constantinescu” National Musical Interpretation Competition, the Romanian Composers and Musicologists’ Union Prize at the same competition, the First Prize and the Schubert Prize at the “Ada Ulubeanu” Competition.

He further developed his artistic skills by specializing in courses and masterclasses held by personalities such as Vittorio Terranova, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Marian Pop, Ines Salazar, Riccardo Zanellato, Paolo Bosisio, Valentina Farcaș and Manuel Lange in contexts such as the Internationale Sommerakademie für Operngesang Deutschlandsberg, Corso Internazionale di Canto Lirico I.M.C. Licata or the Europäische Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst Montepulciano. Besides his activity on-stage, he currently teaches Opera Singing Didactics, and Pedagogical Practice within the Department for Teacher Education and Training at the “Gheorghe Dima” National Music Academy.

Cristina Fieraru

Cristina is a 24 year-old Romanian soprano & a student at the National University of Music Bucharest, where she pursues the MA program in Vocal Performance.

She made her debut in Pamina from “Die Zauberflöte” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at only 19 years old at the Bucharest National Opera House, as a member of the Ludovic Spiess Experimental Opera Studio. Over the years she made her debut in roles such as Contessa d’Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Mimì & Musetta (La Bohème), Alice Ford (Falstaff), Erste Dame (Die Zauberflöte) in her university’s opera productions.
Her passion and experience extends in the field of choral music, too.

She has been part of our dream team since the fall of 2021. For a good period of time she took care of OPERA Charm’s social media and took you on the monthly journey through the history of opera through our Legends rubric – and a few times through the Theaters around the World rubric.

Her little soul rubric – from 2021 to present – is definitely the Conductors of the Future, where, every month, she gives you the chance to meet a young star of the world of conducting and, of course, to find out what’s the most charming feature of opera in these artists’ views.


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