How we made: Franco Zeffirelli and John Tooley on Tosca (1964)

'A nervous Callas stood in the wings, clutching Zeffirelli's arm. Even her dresser was bruised by her grip'

Franco Zeffirelli, director

Almost every week, I watch the video of the second act with friends. Here and there, there is some horrible acting, but no one did anything the music didn't demand. Everything that really matters is in that act: [Tito] Gobbi and [Maria] Callas, two of the greatest ever opera singers, the strength of the drama, the glory of the music, the magnificence of the scenery. It was the first great event of my career.

Of course I was aware of the responsibility of working with the world's two best artists, but I was also clear-minded and knew I wanted certain things to be respected. They were perfectionists, too, so it was a very harmonious team.

Tosca is one of my favourite operas, and I felt strongly that if you inherit that kind of musical treasure, you must respect it. Everyone agreed we didn't want a revolutionary approach – we wanted to project the right kind of associations.

In Rome, I visited the Basilica di Sant'Andrea della Valle, where the first act was set, and the Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant'Angelo, Puccini's settings for the second and third acts, so I could get an impression of the space and design for the staging. I wanted to realise the sorts of images audiences would only have in their imaginations. I even acted out the first act with my assistant. I all but jumped off the parapet at the end to ensure everything was perfect.

John Tooley, assistant general administrator

In the mid-60s, the live Sunday evening TV broadcasts from Covent Garden usually comprised single-aria musical interludes. But because of the drama and spectacle of this production, I suggested they broadcast the whole second act.

Gobbi and Callas arrived for rehearsal only hours before filming. When I dashed home for an hour, I got a frantic call from the TV director who said the two singers were just larking about and he couldn't get a thing out of them. But being consummate professionals, I knew they could switch into the roles when the cameras started rolling.

Gobbi and Callas were a perfect team – they knocked sparks off each other. Zeffirelli adored Callas: she trusted him, and he calmed her nerves when she was about to perform. He would stand by her in the wings, with her clutching his hand or arm. Her dresser, Gertie, was another source of comfort, and sometimes suffered bruising on her arm from the pressure of Callas's grip.

In the first two years [1964 and '65] of this production, Callas sang only five performances because of ill health. She was a perfectionist, and worried a great deal about not being able to meet her own high standards. The other performances were sung magnificently by a gifted and distinguished Australian, Marie Collier.

In 1964, Cavaradossi was played by an unknown young Italian, Renato Cioni. He had a fine voice, but it was a gamble to put him alongside two great singers. We need not have worried: Callas warmed to him, and went out of her way to help him come to terms with the challenge. The only thing that would anger her was people who came unprepared and did not know their roles well enough.

Tosca allowed Zeffirelli to indulge his love of spectacle – although this caused complications, because the Victorian building was not designed to accommodate such a huge production. It was a tremendous challenge for the technicians, yet this production was abandoned only a few years ago. The secret of its longevity? The power of the music and drama, combined with Zeffirelli's spectacular staging and some great casts. It was a true realisation of what Puccini wanted.


Interviews by Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

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