Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, Friend of Opera, Dies at 79

"Ave Maria" (Mascagni)
performed by Kathleen Battle
According to her publicist, actress Dame Elizabeth Taylor has passed away at age 79 from congestive heart failure. It is said she died peacefully. In 1963, the actress was featured in the film Cleopatra. She used a signature eyeliner many defined as "cat eyes" that inspired opera singer Maria Callas to begin wearing a similar look to add more glamour to her appearance. The relationship between the two women, however, went beyond makeup. In fact, Ms. Taylor became an active member in the opera community. As part of the royal media scene, Ms. Taylor and Richard Burton were members of a social elite that included opera diva Maria Callas and oil tycoon Aristotle Onassis. It may very well have been Madame Callas that introduced
Maria Callas with the actress
Ms. Taylor to Franco Zeffirelli because he had previously directed the opera singer in La Traviata, Norma and Tosca, and the two were close friends. Ms. Taylor and Richard Burton soon appeared together in Franco Zeffirelli's film debut, The Taming of the Shrew, in 1967. Based on the William Shakespeare play, it was an over-the-top Hollywood budget buster with the lead actors sinking $1 million of their own fortunes into the project and waiving their fees for a percentage of the box-office revenues. The collaboration sparked a lifelong friendship between the actress and the director. Zeffirelli was to become one of the preeminent
opera directors of the last century. Ms. Taylor's lifelong friendship with Franco
Elizabeth at the Paris Opera 1963
Zeffirelli also spawned an introduction in the 1980's to singer Aprile Millo who appeared in the director's production of Puccini's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera. The spinto soprano was chosen by the director to be the voice of Ms. Taylor (playing Nadina Bulichoff) for his film Young Toscanini in 1988. She even sang "Ave Maria" for the wedding of Ms. Taylor and Larry Fortensky in 1991. The life of Elizabeth Taylor could easily be confused for an opera plot with all its adventure, love and tragedy. She lived her life for all the world to be inspired by beauty and charm. She possessed a magnetism that made her one of the few select people in the world who could actually steal focus from an opera diva if the two were in the same room. For
At the Rome Opera 1966
all of the glitz of gowns and jewels, one cause that must be mentioned for which Elizabeth Taylor worked tirelessly, is her contributions to AIDS research and the development of potential cures. In addition to her legendary screen performances, Ms. Taylor was a staunch advocate in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Thanks to her friendship with co-star Rock Hudson, she began with an AIDS Project Los Angeles dinner in the early 80's and by 1985 she was working with amfAR's Dr. Mathilde Krim to use her celebrity in promoting the organization's cause. In 1991, she established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to create "funding to AIDS service organizations throughout the world to assist those living with HIV and AIDS." By 1999 she had raised an estimated $50 million to fight the disease. Even as late as 2006, she had commissioned a 37-foot "Care Van" equipped with examination tables and X Ray equipment (in addition to a personal contribution of $40,000) for the New Orleans Aids task force.

Hers was an accomplished life worth singing about.

Maria Callas, Elizabeth and Aristotle Onassis in 1964.
Franco Zeffirelli (far left) and Elizabeth at the Teatro dell'Opera in 1966.
In London. Left to right: Maria Callas, Peter O'Toole, Elizabeth and Richard Burton.
Elizabeth with Noel Coward in the film "Boom!" in 1968.
Backstage after Turandot in 1987. Left to right: Birgit Nilsson, Franco Zeffirelli, James Levine, Eva Marton, Elizabeth and Plácido Domingo.
Eva Marton, Aprile Millo and Elizabeth backstage after Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera.
Aprile Millo (far left) sings at the wedding of Taylor and Fortensky in 1991.