ROME — After staging operas for decades at venerable Western world venues, such as La Scala and the Met, Franco Zeffirelli is taking “Turandot” to the new Royal Opera House in Oman, where, on Oct. 12, Puccini’s Persian princess fable will become the first opera ever to play in the Persian Gulf.
Zeffirelli sees the “Turandot” gala, which will be a hot ticket in the entire region, as a cultural milestone of sorts.
“They have overcome their post-Sept. 11 fear of being marginalized, and now they are opening up to Western culture,” he says.
Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, who is leader of the emirate, is a longtime classical music and opera buff. He chose Zeffirelli to open this doorway for opera in the Gulf after admiring the maestro’s work last year at Italy’s Arena di Verona.
The Omani ruler picked “Turandot,” which is based on a Persian fairy tale about a princess who has her suitors beheaded, as his operatic ice-breaker over Verdi’s “La Traviata” which, as the title suggests, is about a fallen woman. Her whirlwind romance might not have been appropriate as the first opera to play in the region.
“When we had discussions in Oman last year during Ramadan, I found that she (Traviata) was a more difficult figure for them,” Zeffirelli recounts.
Sadly, Zeffirelli is now contending with the loss of tenor Salvatore Licitra, who died recently in a scooter accident.
The rising opera star, seen as Luciano Pavarotti’s artistic heir, was supposed to play the role of Prince Calaf and, among other arias, perform Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” at the inaugural of the 1,100-seat opera house in Muscat, capital of the oil-rich nation in the United Arab Emirates.
“He was so full of enthusiasm; with no equals, or anyone even coming close,” says Zeffirelli, who is still finalizing negotiations for his replacement.
Zeffirelli’s next challenge will be to bring “Don Giovanni” to the 15,000-seat Arena di Verona, which, according to the maestro, has so far never “dared” to stage such a large-scale production of Mozart’s masterpiece.
Zeffirelli, who has been directing plays, films, and operas for more than 60 years, laments that the Met recently started phasing out some of his classic productions, including “Traviata,” “Tosca,” and “Carmen,” for “financial reasons,” he says. And substituting them with “hippie crap.”
“It’s a terrifying cultural revolution,” says the maestro. “Thinking about it makes me sleepless.”
But, he adds, “they aren’t touching my ‘Boheme.’ ”
Indeed, Zeffirelli’s honored production of that Puccini classic, a Met staple since 1981, continues to be a hot ticket among New York auds.