The road to a mystical Florentine moment began in my hometown of Montreal. I was still a teenage pianist and I had just learned that Fryderyk Chopin, the perfect piano composer had said, “If you really want to give the piano a soul when you play, listen to great singers of opera and recreate what you hear on the piano. That will make the piano’s felt, metal and hammers sing as if they are human!”
So, learning what I could about singing became a priority. I found a collection of cassette tapes in the local classical music shop: Interviews with Maria Callas. Everyone who was anyone in the world of opera was on those cassettes, including Callas’ beloved conductor, Tullio Serafin; baritone and friend, Tito Gobbi; her favorite director, Luchino Visconti; and, in particular, Florence-born close friend and director, Franco Zeffirelli. I purchased the tapes, returned to my “too-cool-for-school” vehicle, a 1980s secondhand Camaro, put “tape number one” in the player, and began a six-hour drive to New York for my bi-weekly piano lesson with maestro Jerry Lowenthal who was at the Juilliard School.
A photo of Franco Zeffirelli at the Fondazione Zeffirelli in Florence
As I took off down the highway, a voice and strings began together: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore… (I lived for art, I lived for love…). The singing was the most human, vulnerable and honest sound I had ever heard. It was Maria Callas singing from Puccini’s Tosca. I have no idea where the next six hours went, or how I even managed to get to New York, but somehow I did, floating in my cloud of history, opera and “La Callas”. The Vissi d’arte that began the series was from a production at Covent Garden directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
It was midday when I arrived. I parked the car, and without thinking twice, made my way to the Metropolitan Opera House. I had to hear singing live. I had to bring that power and humility into my fingers, into my bones. It was complete folly. I had no idea what would be playing that night, but I had to go. It was suddenly as important as water is to life. As it turned out, it was the opening night of a brand-new production of Puccini’s Turandot, directed and designed by none other than Maestro Franco Zeffirelli. The line for tickets stretched all the way onto the plaza. It would be hours. So I found a coffee shop nearby, ordered something to eat and pulled out my scores. I would study all afternoon and then, just before 8pm, I would head back to the plaza. Maybe there would be someone trying to sell a ticket cheap at the last moment.
Fondazione Zeffirelli in Florence
At 7:45 pm, there was a flurry on the plaza of every kind of person; the diamond, fur and cashmere types; the nicely but less fashionably dressed; the bedraggled... This was a New York premiere after all! Suddenly, a hefty and unkempt man wrapped in three different scarves, some kind of mutton-looking hat, a well-worn stuffed blue coat and lace boots, one noticeably untied, approached me as I wandered among the crowd.
“You looking for a ticket?” he gruffly said.
“Yes, I am! What do you have?” I didn’t question if it was a scam or not. I took it at face value. That’s how much I needed to get in. He showed me tickets in his hand.
“I’ve got three tickets to sell. And it’s getting late. I’ve got one standing room at the back of the house on the main floor. That will be $25. Cash only. And then I’ve got a pair down center on the aisle for $300. But I’ll only sell them as a pair. It’s five to eight and I gotta get rid of them!”
“Well, I’m a student and nowadays even $25 is a lot, but I’ll take the standing room.” I had a ticket!
Five minutes later, as I stood in my place under the balcony, the gold star-like chandeliers began to rise and the house lights went down. The ushers closed the doors, calling out to the hallway that there would be no late seating. I realized that my well-trained memory had subconsciously imprinted on my brain the seat numbers on the better tickets the man had been trying to sell. Taking a deep breath, I lifted my head and shoulders, and quickly made my way down to where I knew the empty better seats were. I removed my coat, placed it in the second seat as if it belonged there (imagine the nerve!) and sat in the aisle seat next to it. When I started breathing again, I realized how guilty I felt, but I knew that the seats would otherwise remain empty. Today I wouldn’t repeat such an incorrect exercise, but as a young student I still had much to learn.
Set design sketches at Fondazione Zeffirelli in Florence
The orchestra began with Puccini’s foreboding Asian-themed melody, the massive gold curtain opened as if in a fairytale and there, in full glorious view, was Franco Zeffirelli’s opening scene, outside of an imperial palace in China: Zeffirelli’s Turandot. I had never seen anything like it. It was a huge world evocatively and meticulously executed with precision. Singing the role of Turandot, the ice princess, outwardly tough but full of fire was Éva Marton, who blew your hair back when she sang. I floated through the evening and into the next day, and on that memory I still float a little, more than 30 years later.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of the owners of The Florentine dropped me a note. “Would you like to meet Pippo Zeffirelli, the adoptive son? He runs the Fondazione Zeffirelli here in Florence.”
No way! The memory of being at the opening night of Maestro Zeffirelli’s New York Turandot, immediately came flooding back. I had been to the Fondazione Zeffirelli probably ten times since my arrival in Florence. Whenever a theatre-loving friend visited, I’d buy tickets for everyone and we’d visit this almost interactive museum of theatre, art, cinema and performance history. And then there’s the music salon, one of the most grand but intimate concert halls I have seen. The costumes and stage design models, made by Maestro Zeffirelli’s own hands, are not kept behind protective glass, inviting closer observation. There is also his office exactly as it was in Rome, where the greats of the performance art world engaged in artistic discussion: producers, directors, stars! Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Fanny Ardant and, maybe even at one point, Maria Callas, and so many more. To see the breadth of Franco Zeffirelli’s artistic creation up close is breathtaking in its own right. More than 100 entirely created and designed opera productions. Classic films such as Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew with Taylor and Burton, Jesus of Nazareth, The Champ, Tea with Mussolini and, a personal favorite of mine, Callas Forever. And his operas on film: Otello, La Traviata. The artwork he prepared in his own hand for plays, his never-realized project of Dante’s Inferno. Just as I am again lost in the glories of this genius’ complete artistic vision, fashioning an entire world as he saw it, Callas wafts through the air. “Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore…” I lived for art. I lived for love.
Pippo Zeffirelli with Dolly the dog / ph. Hershey Felder
And there she is, on the screen, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, singing from Tosca. In the centre of the room is a costume for Callas for a Zeffirelli production and, right behind that, the crown of leaves that Callas wore in 1964. I am a teenager again, feeling the same thrill as that night more than 30 years before as I sat in a proper seat at the Met seeing Zeffirelli’s Turandot for the first time. Just then, I turn and am greeted by a charming man, looking far too young to be who he is: Pippo Zeffirelli, the maestro’s son. In Pippo’s arms is a sweet dog, shy, clearly older. Pippo introduces her as Dolly. Dolly was the Maestro’s dog and she lived with him until he passed a little more than a year ago.
As we go through the halls, Pippo regales me with stories of the 17th-century San Firenze complex, once a convent, then the courthouse and now home to the Zeffirelli archive, which the Maestro saw and approved before his passing. Caterina D’Amico, a film producer in her own right, welcomes us. A devoted archivist to the history of Franco Zeffirelli, she excitedly shows us discoveries in the Maestro’s hand in the archive room, drawings and ideas that were previously unknown. Then together, Pippo and I, with little Dolly in Pippo’s arms, make our way up to the museum floor, and there, in the hallway, lit simply, as if ordained by nature, is the handcrafted set model that Zeffirelli had made for his Turandot, the very one that I managed to attend more than 30 years before.
Once again, there is a touch of magic in Florence.
The music hall at the San Firenze complex, Florence
Watch Hershey Felder perform as Debussy live streamed to your home on Sunday, November 22, 2020 at 5pm Pacific / 7pm Central / 8pm Eastern. (Includes extended viewing access of the recording at your leisure through Sunday, November 29).