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 20 years with the Sergio Franchi Memorial Concert that is being held this year on Saturday, August 23. It all began when Sergio passed away 23 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 Americas 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. She wonders if this might be the last year of the concert but doesn’t want to look too far into the future. One day she may return to California to be with her family. But for now the legacy of Sergio goes on.
“This year is such a landmark year of the concert,” says Eva. “In my heart I want to make it incredibly special. Sergio will open the concert with his music on the big screen. Let the Music Play is 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.
Proceeds from ticket sales go to the foundation that awards an estimated 16 grants and scholarships each year to young tenors and sopranos who perform during the concert. To date 840 grants and scholarships have been awarded to young talent who go on to perform at places like the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and in Paris, London and Spain. This year, some of the best talent from past concerts will perform as well. James Valente from the Paris Opera was 19 when he first started at Stonignton and recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in Madama Butterfly. Derek Taylor also in Paris now, is coming back as well as Michael Amante who is a popular tenor, the others are classical tenors. In addition there is a 32 piece symphonic orchestra conducted by Jeff Domoto.
“It’s going to be a fantastic show,” says Eva. “Sergio will open the concert through the magic of the big screen and it will be full of grand celebrity surprise. I really feel the magic of the event is that it’s Sergio’s home and his grounds.”
It is a special place for sure 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.”
Five thousand people are expected to attend this year’s concert on Saturday, August 23 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. This year’s theme is the Great 60’s to celebrate the era Sergio’s career started in America. People are invited to dress in 1960’s attire, 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.