Seventeen years ago, when Eva Franchi began annual concerts honoring her husband, the elegant Italian tenor Sergio Franchi, her grief after her husband's death from cancer in 1990 was still fresh. The last thing on her mind was a dress code.
But when nearly 1,500 people began to arrive that first year — 1,000 more than she expected — for a musical lawn party at her 240-acre Stonington estate, she saw that men were wearing jackets and ladies dressed up, many with beautiful hats.
"It was what he stood for, to pay respect to his memory, to honor him," she recalls.
Honoring Sergio Franchi and his musical legacy has been Eva's primary focus for the past 20 years. Born in Hungary, the former ballet dancer says her husband always told her, "No matter what you do, my love, if you can't do it with passion, don't do it."
"This concert," she says, "I've been doing it with passion, and without the passion it would not work."
Fans — his, but by now also hers — are expected from around the world on Aug. 7 for what could be the final concert at the Franchi estate if, as expected, MGM Grand at Foxwoods takes it over next year.
This year also marks the return of the series after a two-year hiatus. In 2009 Eva's mother, who lives with her, was ill, and the year before hurricane-force wind and rain forced cancellation.
Attendance has averaged about 4,000, but once reached 6,000.
A change of venue to MGM Grand would not be out of place, as Sergio Franchi headlined at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. But public reaction so far has been rather like if the family matriarch announced that Thanksgiving dinner would henceforth be held at a restaurant.
Concertgoers are accustomed to arriving via the rural beauty of Stonington's Pequot Trail, turning slowly onto Sergio Franchi Drive, and meandering past massive trees and open fields to select a picnic site.
They like stopping by the little family chapel and museum on the property, and wandering like old friends through the handsome brick main house, gazing at paintings Sergio collected and ones he did himself.
Sergio found the hunting scene on the original wallpaper in the dining room, identical to wallpaper in the White House, too vicious. But rather than replace it, he painted over the blood on the boar's mouth.
The house was built in 1896 and rebuilt in 1949 after a fire. Sergio and Eva spent all 10 years of their marriage here. They had no children, but he had a son and daughter by a previous marriage.
A caretaker lives on the property and several smaller houses on the property are rented. "I like to come home to lights and life," says Eva.
Queen Victoria's Copper Kitchenware
The main floor of the house is open on concert day, so visitors can peruse Sergio's antique collections, including copper from Queen Victoria's kitchen and early American pewter. They might even spy Eva's "Mama," who turns 96 on Aug. 7.
Then they may stroll past the bar to linger before a wall of photos showing Sergio with a roster of Hollywood stars such as Anthony Quinn, Juliet Prowse, Robert Wagner, Dean Martin and Julie Andrews.
Sergio Franchi was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1926 and came to the United States in 1962 hoping for an opera career. He became, instead, a singer of romantic songs, an actor on stage ( "Nine") and in film ("The Secret of Santa Vittoria") as well as a singing spokesman for Plymouth Volare.
His bandleader for the last 18 years of his life was Hartford's Chick Cicchetti, a frequent guest at the memorial concerts.
Unlike others who made it big in popular music, Sergio never abandoned opera. "No audience ever let him off the stage without doing an Italian aria," says Eva.
But not until after his death, with the ascendancy of "The Three Tenors," did opera become a mainstream hit here.
$1 Million In Scholarships
Sergio was happy in his career, says Eva. But by establishing a concert series in his name to raise money for scholarships for the nation's top young opera singers, she feels she has "put him back where his heart was."
For a volunteer-run event, with hired staff only on concert day, the statistics are impressive: 478 scholarships given; $1 million raised for The Sergio Franchi Music Foundation Scholarship Fund.
But it's the stories that most impress.
On a July morning the day after her 67th birthday, Eva sifts through the latest letters from Sergio's fans.
A New Jersey woman has loaned Eva a photo of herself posing with Sergio after a concert at least 35 years ago.
"She still has the dress she wore," says Franchi, "because he put his arms around it. And she's coming!"
Family and friends are also coming to the concert from as far away as Hungary, Italy and South Africa, where Sergio lived before moving to America.
The singer appeared 41 times on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and a DVD and CD of some of those appearances will be on sale for the first time at the concert. About a dozen singers will perform, including a 12-year-old prodigy singing Caruso, with a 37-piece symphony orchestra.
Top Draw: James Valenti
The top draw is James Valenti, a former Sergio Franchi scholarship winner who recently won raves as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"He came to us at 19 years old," recalls Eva, "6-foot-5, and he looked like a Great Dane puppy!"
This year Valenti won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, given to an American singer considered on the cusp of a major career. Valenti has it all, says Eva, including sex appeal.
Tickets are $35, available at the door, or in advance only by mail. For information and directions, call 860-535-9429 (don't be surprised if Eva answers the phone) or visit http://www.sergiofranchi.com.
People are encouraged to bring their own picnic. Wine, beer, soft drinks and coffee will be available for purchase along with focaccia, homemade stuffed cannoli and Hungarian strudel.
Hilary Heminway, a Stonington interior designer, will choose one picnic as the "most charming," says Eva, and the winner will receive a dinner for eight "at Sergio's table, which mother and I will cook, and tell Sergio's stories."
Some people openly wonder, Eva says, why she hasn't remarried, doesn't date and hasn't moved. But many more have told her they feel inspired by her enduring devotion to the love of her life.
"Sergio stood right on that step," she says, standing in the living room, "and told me this was the most beautiful place in the world." The gently rolling hills reminded him of both the Italian and English countryside.
"I do love this house," says Eva. "Sometimes, when I'm rearranging things, I just pour a glass of wine, put on his music, and I pretend I dance with him."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times