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The Robert L.B. Tobin Award
2006 Award Winner Franco Zeffirelli

Franco ZeffirelliFranco Zeffirelli was born in Florence, Italy, in 1923. His mother died when he was still a child, and he was brought up by an aunt and a British woman, whose love for Shakespeare and opera marked the very young Zeffirelli for his entire life. In his teenage years, he fought with the Italian partisans against the Fascists, and when World War II was over, he began to study at the Beaux-Arts Academy in Florence.

He was attracted to the theatre from an early age, and he became part of a theatre group as an actor. Soon he began to design sets and costumes for various productions. The great change in Zeffirelli’s career was his encounter with Luchino Visconti, one of the greatest film, opera and theatre directors of the 20th century. He became Visconti’s assistant and worked at his side for more than 10 years.

Today, Zeffirelli is one of the best-known directors in the world. His activity goes from film to theatre to opera. His opera productions in the major theatres of the world are countless, with the participation of such artists as Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert Von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber, to name just a few. Particularly unforgettable were his productions of Aida and La Boheme at La Scala in Milan; Tosca, Turandot, Falstaff, Don Giovanni and La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; Carmen, Il Trovatore, Aida and Madame Butterfly at the Arena di Verona; and Aida at the National Theatre of Tokyo.

Two extraordinary experiments at Busseto, the tiny productions of Aida and La Traviata, continue to have wide international renown. In 2004, the Busseto Aida was taken to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. In 2005, the Busseto La Traviata was also produced in Moscow before traveling to Tel Aviv in November 2005, where Zeffirelli's I Pagliacci had already been produced in January of the same year. In January 2006, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma staged Don Giovanni. In the near future, Zeffirelli's productions will include an Aida for the opening of the season at La Scala and Rigoletto at Mantova, the city where the story takes place.

In film, his name is linked with great international successes, including The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (1966), Romeo and Juliet (1969), Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1971), The Champ (1980), Hamlet (1991), Tea With Mussolini (1995) and his latest movie, Callas Forever. For television, he was the author of Jesus of Nazareth (1976-77), which has been seen by more than a billion and a half people throughout the world. Zeffirelli's artistic choices are underlined by a constant devotion to the classics, particularly Shakespeare, which he has often transposed into the world of film.

Also to be remembered are his movie transpositions of the operas Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci (1981), La Traviata (1982) and Othello (1986), all of which help draw young audiences closer to opera. Zeffirelli has also directed great celebrations of the Catholic Church, such as the Opening of the Holy Year (in 1974 and 1983), and the great celebration concert for the bicentennial of Beethoven requested by Pope Paul VI (1970).