STONINGTON — The 25th Sergio Franchi Memorial Concert may be the final outdoor musical extravaganza produced by Eva Franchi on her bucolic 240-acre Stonington estate, but smaller pop-up concerts could appear here and there.
“Maybe a Christmas concert,” said Franchi one afternoon last week as she sat inside “Farmholme,” the main house on the rolling estate she bought in 1979 with her late husband. “My mama’s wish was always for me to do a Christmas concert. So maybe we do it here, right here on the patio, with twinkling lights and roasted chestnuts and hot toddies, and we’ll all put on our best sweaters ... and there will be valet parking ... and maybe even snow.”
Or maybe there will be a block party near her Beverly Hills villa where she’ll fling open the French windows and invite tenors and sopranos to sing out to the listeners gathered below. Or maybe she’ll arrange for a smaller, indoor concert at the United Theatre once its renovation is complete, or perhaps she’ll produce one in Cremona, Italy, the birthplace of her husband, “right there in the church where he was baptized,” or maybe one back in Hungary, “where my roots are ... where I studied classical ballet.”
“Those are my little dreams,” said Franchi in her delightful Hungarian accent. “But for now we leave it as a surprise. But I am not pulling the plug.”
For now, she continued, it’s back to the plans for Saturday’s concert, the “Grand Finale Let the Music Play Concert,” an enormous undertaking for the founder of the Sergio Franchi Music Foundation, one that requires hours and hours of preparation, planning and legwork ... like hanging the posters around the Westerly-Stonington region, a job she takes on herself.
“Every poster I put up myself,” said Franchi, who added an American flag this year, right next to the giant-sized poster of her late husband that marks her driveway off Pequot Trail.
“Look at that face, it’s like a Roman coin,” she said, pointing to one of the many paintings and photographs displayed inside “Farmholme.”
“Look at that warmth ... that is a comfortable man, a man who is sincere and elegant .... that is a gentle man.”
“It is an emotional time,” said Franchi, blinking back tears, “but it’s perfect timing and my energy is excited.”
But the time has come for the annual benefit concert to come to an end, she said.
A few years after the 1990 death of her husband, Sergio Franchi, the popular Italian tenor who was a regular guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Eva decided to honor her husband, who was 64 when he succumbed to brain cancer, by raising scholarship money for “talented young tenors and sopranos” at an annual concert on the estate, to help her late husband’s “classical Italian romantic love songs live on forever.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, guests were treated to the likes of recording artist Giada Valenti; James Valenti, the acclaimed tenor who played Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” at the Met a few years back; soprano Latonia Moore; Il Divo’s David Miller; and tenor Michael Amante. Westerly native David LaMarche, conductor and music administrator for the famed American Ballet Theatre, joined the team a few years ago to conduct the 32-piece symphonic orchestra that accompanies the vocalists.
In 2018, the concert, which has attracted thousands of music-lovers to Stonington each year to hear world-class tenors and sopranos sing carefully-chosen selections, “went silent.”
“We became silent,” she continued softly, because so many people close to her and close to the foundation had died during the previous year.
“We lost Paul Cravinho,” she said of the late Honorable Paul Ernest Cravinho Sr., a Stonington probate judge who died in January of 2018. “He was the heart of the organization, with his wife, Kathy. Together, they had all the professional knowledge. He was such a help.”
This year’s concert, the final one on such a large scale, will begin with an “In Memoriam,” segment, said Franchi, with the names of all the people once affiliated with the concert who died since the last concert in 2017 scrolling on a big screen. Then it will be on to the main show, which will open with “as much of the family as we could patch together.”
Sergio Franchi’s great-grand-nephew Jonathan Huber, a student at Berklee School of Music, will play piano while Eva’s great-grand-niece Bradi Harrison, who lives in Beverly Hills, will sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” from “The Lion King.”
“We are starting with the family,” she said with a smile. Then it will be on to the main program, which will feature Amante, Moore, Giada Valenti and James Valenti and several newcomers.
Moore, who will play the role of Serena in “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera starting this fall, will sing “Summertime” during Saturday’s concert, Franchi said, and several numbers from “Madame Butterfly.”
Franchi said that Susan Neves, a soprano she met in Florida when she was serving as a judge at the Vero Beach Opera, will perform a number that is near and dear to her heart, she said, a song her husband often sang.
“She will sing ‘Mattinata,’” said Franchi. “Sergio sang ‘Mattinata.’”
Tenor Matthew White, the 2018 winner of the Vero Beach Opera Foundation’s second International Vocal Competition, will also join the list of performers on Saturday, Franchi said.
“I think I will have an airplane fly overhead,” Franchi said with a laugh. “It will drag a message that says, ‘Thanks you, now let the music play.”
Franchi said she vividly recalls hearing her late husband utter those same words.
“I was 22 years old,” she recalled, “and I went to see Juliet Prowse perform ballet to Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ and there was a young, Italian tenor who came on before Juliet, and I heard a loud voice off-stage say ‘So, let the music play.’”
“I heard that voice and suddenly Sergio walked on the stage,” she continued, “and our eyes met.”
“I am in love with him and I always will be,” she said. “That will never end. Everything I do, I do by asking ‘How would Sergio enjoy it?’”
“I am honored that this has become a beloved event,” said Franchi, who has created the hospitality division for Conair Corporation, where she has worked for close to 30 years. “I brought opera to this area, and I can’t believe that after 25 years we still have four-thousand people coming.”
“Sergio loved Westerly ... he loved this area,” she said. “We spent the happiest years of our lives here. Connecticut is my home. I have never felt alone here. I have the greatest friends and neighbors.”
Even if she were to sell the estate, she said, she would keep a small cottage on the property for herself, one with a fireplace that she would light in the wintertime and listen to the music play.