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.
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.