On 21 June Franco Zeffirelli’s new production of La traviata opens at Verona’s gigantic arena. He’s 96.
On Anna Magnani and Maria Callas
Anna Magnani and Maria Callas were two goddesses but with difficult characters. Anna wanted to see me and asked to come to dinner, as long we could be alone so that we could chat easily. I said ok, but shortly after Maria called me, needing advice, so I invited her to dinner. Only after I had hung up, I remembered my plans with Anna. I imagined an evening of hell, together with these two prima donnas who did not know that the other would be there.
Magnani arrived first, in a bad mood, and when I warned her that Callas was coming, she exploded with anger. The bell rang, and I went to let Callas in who, on the contrary, greeted the news that Magnani was there with pleasure saying, like an excited girl, “Thank you! Anna is a great artist, I’m just a poor woman trying to do her best.”
Anna’s anger subsided instantly, caught off-guard by such an enthusiastic remark. And so began a loveable minuet between the two tigers, as they competed to appear the most modest. But there was another problem to solve: who would sit on my right at table? I waited for Anna to go and powder her nose and I said to Maria, “Listen, the actress you admire so is older than you are, so I’ll have to put her to my right.” Maria replied, convinced, “Oh yes, you must!”
[If Anna had known] that she had been labelled as the eldest it would have been a catastrophe. The evening went well, and the two of them chatted intensely, ignoring me and not even allowing me to speak. I gave up. I had the privilege of attending an encounter between two pedigree tigers, full of love and harmony.
On his career
I’ve never had the support of the Italian critics. I’m never nominated for awards – it’s if in Italy I don’t exist.
Everything I’ve done that has been slated, or not, is the result of my personal choices, but I too have freely criticised everything and everyone, making my ideas widely known, and sometimes paying the consequences.
On old age
Old age is a huge burden, but I still try to churn out ideas to be realised in my, very imminent, future – it keeps me mentally occupied. The only regrets I have, are two abandoned projects: a film about Dante’s Inferno, which was difficult to do because it was full of high-cost special effects; and an immense fresco on the life and works of the Medici family.
I’m afraid to die. I am a believer and I pray a lot, but when I look around my garden, I tell my children, “Think, sooner or later I will no longer enjoy this wonder, I will not see this beauty anymore”.
Zeffirelli was talking to the Corriere della Sera.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.