It’s been 25 years since the late, great Italian romantic tenor, Sergio Franchi passed away. Five thousand adoring fans and admirers are expected to converge upon the Franchi estate in Stonington Connecticut on Saturday, August 29 for the annual Sergio Franchi Memorial Concert. Eva Franchi promises it to be the most spectacular concert ever. “Once again, the sound of music will play over Stonington in memory of the great romantic tenor, marking the 25th anniversary of his passing,” says Eva. David LaMarche from the American Ballet Theatre in New York City will conduct the 32 piece symphonic orchestra. LaMarche is a Westerly, Rhode Island native and welcomes the opportunity to give something back to the area where he grew up, according to Eva.
“Ballet has always been close to the Franchi heart,” says Eva who studied classical ballet herself so many years ago. “Sergio adored the art of ballet. He was a great dancer. Each year we give a scholarship to a great ballet student. They will dance this year at the concert, performing the Eternal Waltz from La Traviata, the music that played the very first time I ever danced with Sergio.”
Some love never dies. Such is the case with Eva Franchi and her love for Sergio. She has been honoring that love for the past 21 years with the memorial concert. It all began when Sergio passed away May 1st, 25 years ago after a battle with cancer, and Eva wanted to create some final farewell to honor him and his beloved music. As she drove through the winding drive of their 240 acre estate in Stonington, Connecticut, she looked out at the sun setting over the expansive fields, and was inspired by the Field of Dreams movie coming out at the time, with the theme “if you build it, they will come.” She decided to do just that.
She came up with the idea to have a concert, thinking that if perhaps 400 people might come to hear his music, it would be a success. She gathered up his address books and sent out invitations to everyone who had touched his life, asking them to come to one last memorial concert. That first year they had three young singers and an orchestra and the traffic to their estate was backed up for miles as people waited to get in. The men were dressed in suits to honor the country subtle elegance Sergio was known for. Instead of the anticipated 400, there were 1500 and according to Eva “the magic has never stopped.”
“He adored this place. He loved the feeling after being on the road traveling, that when he returned home it was like coming home to paradise. I think maybe God knew what was coming in our life. And when Sergio got sick, I said, “that’s okay, we never have to leave the property. I would have given my life to save his life but it just didn’t happen.”
They had resided there since 1978, and it was a place where Sergio and Eva relaxed and enjoyed themselves, surrounded by family and friends. He loved good pasta according to Eva, but was especially enamored with her Hungarian chicken paprika which was his favorite. He was a kind man, building a chapel on to their estate as a surprise for his sister’s wedding. And his was a familiar face at area antique shops where he fed his appreciation of art and his penchant for collecting. “He was truly a renaissance man,” says Eva. On the compound there are several structures where family members live as well as the chapel, museum and Sergio’s antique car collection. But as enchanting as their estate is, it was his music that touched people’s hearts.
“Who would have known that one day, this would become the grounds, the stepping stone for today’s young upcoming artists, singers, tenors and sopranos honoring the magical world of romantic classical music.”
“Before the three tenors, there was Sergio Franchi,” says Eva. “The people’s tenor. People loved Sergio. He traveled to every state in America performing the great Italian classics. When Mario Lanza passed away, Sergio kept that music alive.”
According to Eva, after winning a European music competition, it was Ella Fitzgerald who discovered Sergio, making contacts with RCA Victor, to sign him and bring him to Carnegie Hall in 1962. He was an overnight success. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan show more than 27 times, and did a world tour with Jimmy Durante and became a tap dancer, great story teller and a fabulous entertainer. Giving one man concerts in all of America’s most prestigious concert halls, and performance venues, he was under contract in Las Vegas with the Flamingo Hilton for 28 years of his life. He went on to perform in Do I hear a Waltz on Broadway followed by a role in the movie The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anthony Quinn. He recorded 29 albums for RCA Victor. But what he loved most as an entertainer was performing his own private concerts. He adored the connection and intimacy he had with his audience.
Sadly, his life ended in 1990 and the Sergio Franchi Music Foundation was born, to honor and celebrate his life and music so that the legacy of Sergio goes on.
Each year, through the magic of the big screen, Sergio comes to life, opening the concert with Let the Music Play, the signature song of the concert.
“The very first time I saw him in 1964 I was at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, and I heard his voice off stage. Sergio was opening for Juliette Prowse right after he came to America. He walked on and there was the one, all my life, I ever dreamed of. There he was. Our eyes met and he sang the entire next song, Your Eyes Are the Eyes of a Woman in Love…. to me….the rest is history.” She was 22 years old. They met again years later and married in 1980.
“We had an incredible life here for 10 years. This was our first home together. It was heaven on earth.”
Today Eva is honored by the outpouring of support particularly by the people of Stonington and surrounding areas. She says that Stonington has always been known for artists, poets, and writers but never a singer. Sergio was the first major singer in the area. The Salt Marsh Opera was formed in 2001 and she likes to think that just maybe, the concert planted a seed that helped inspire that. Now Stonington is becoming known for its music as well as the visual and literary arts.
In May of this year Eva Franchi was presented with the Savoy Foundation’s Third Annual Chivalry Award at the Foundation’s annual Spring Event – Festa della Primavera at the Columbus Citizens Foundation in New York City. The Savoy Foundation’s 2015 Chivalry Award was presented to Eva, who for the past 25 years has honored her late husband, and his cultural legacy with a concert series that funds scholarships for up and coming young opera singers. The Savoy Foundation Chivalry Awards are meant to focus greater attention on standards of knightly conduct, which history associates with Europe in the Middle Ages. Even today the word “chivalry” is still synonymous with courtesy, honor and integrity. Honorees are selected in recognition of their outstanding service, generosity and civility in their distinguished careers and their unselfish commitment to public causes and personal dignity, which reflect the noble and ancient chivalric traditions of the Dynastic and Hereditary Orders of the Royal House of Savoy.
Proceeds from concert ticket sales go to the Sergio Franchi Memorial Foundation that awards grants and scholarships each year to young tenors and sopranos who perform during the concert. The young talent goes on to perform at places like the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and in Paris, London and Spain. Last year alone, $35,000 was awarded in grants and scholarships to 16 talented young artists.
The Franchi estate is a special place and the enduring love that Eva carries with her for the man of her dreams, lives on in this annual event. What does she miss most about her Sergio?
“Every, every aspect of him,” says Eva. “Every day was a joy. I fell asleep smiling and I woke up smiling. I know it sounds ridiculous but he was so tender. He was a romantic man, strong, sensitive. He cried watching Bambi and would hand me a Kleenex too. I miss his intelligence and his tenderness. I learned something from him every day. He was an artist in so many, many ways. We had a great sense of humor between us. We laughed together. We loved being together. We got along so well. I miss him with all my heart in every way.”
This year’s concert takes place Saturday, August 29 at the Franchi Estate located at 91 Sergio Franchi Drive, Stonington, Conn. Grounds open at 11 a.m. and the concert begins at 2 p.m. sharp. A mass in memory of Sergio will be held in the Memorial Chapel at noon. This year’s theme is “Once Again, The Sound of Music,” featuring Sergio and his performances with Julie Andrews. “Once again, the sound of music will play over Stonington in memory of the great romantic tenor, marking the 25th anniversary of his passing,” says Eva.
People are invited to dress in country elegance, bring their own chairs and a small, elegant romantic picnic. Cold drinks, water and desserts will be available for purchase. Sergio’s home, chapel and antique cars will be open for viewing. Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the gate. For more information visit www.sergiofranchi.com, or call (860) 535-9429.