Franca Warden’s special friend was Luciano Pavarotti, the Metropolitan Opera tenor who dominated the world’s tenor field of opera in the 1980s and ‘90s. When Pavoratti posed for Nelson Shanks, the painter of Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana, he insisted that Franca be present – really.
“Born in a small town in Tuscany just outside of Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, mother was surrounded by a rich cultural history and numerous budding artists, my father included,” her son, P. Jeffrey Warden said. “As a result, she developed a passion for the arts. Her lifelong philanthropic ambition was to support the arts in all its forms.”
As a teenager in World War II Dicomano, Franca Catelani (her family name) worked with the Italian Resistance, carrying messages into the mountains under the eyes of German occupiers. That’s one of the stories I heard at the celebration of Franca’s life in the Washington Crossing Inn last week. Franco died on April 21 and her family and many friends were there.
After the war, Franca would marry William B. Warden, an American ambulance driver, and later the director of the Lyric Opera Company, now the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Four of the Warrens’ five children were born in Italy, and the family lived in Florence in a house Bill renovated before they moved to Solebury Township, in 1959. Firmly established in Bucks County, Bill Warden was a county commissioner in the 1970s.
Franca Warden raised the children as a single mother after Bill moved away. She often talked about the support she received from her husband’s cousin, Adele Warden Paxson, of Elm Grove Farrm in Holicong, daughter of Helen Corning Warden, who founded the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
“The mission of the Academy of Vocal Arts is to be the world’s premier institution for training young artists to become international opera soloists,” the website says. The tuition-free school accepts a limited number of trained singers for four years of further training in opera performance. The school’s alumni perform in theaters around the world.
A family relationship, was behind Franca and her passion for opera, that and of course, her Italian heritage. Franca knew the singers, the big stars, and loved them all.
“Franca was charming, energetic and engaging,” her obituary states, and she was more than that. She talked a lot – about opera, and about her children, Gregory, an authority on Etruscan art and archaeology, Jeffrey, a restaurant entrepreneur, Derek, a banker, Michael, a builder, and daughter Ligia, who has had an antiques and jewelry shop in Lambertville.
With Sally Paxson Davis, Adele’s daughter, Franca founded the Bucks County Opera Association. Franca chaired the Bucks Opera board for many years and served on the board of directors of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia for 47 years.
“She often reminded us of our responsibility to either donate, lend our name, or assist in raising funds for artistic causes. She was a remarkable woman who enjoyed an incredible social life surrounded by her many like minded friends,” son Jeff said.
“During her tenure as chairman of the Bucks County Opera she raised funds, solicited audiences, supported productions, and exposed the Bucks County community to the world of opera. Her devotion and extensive knowledge of the arts went well beyond her passion for opera. She initiated cultural trips to raise awareness for all art forms, vocal, visual, and performing. She worked hard to promote arts throughout Bucks County, the greater Philadelphia area as well as internationally.”
Franca represented AVA and the Bucks County Opera on the Bucks County Chamber of Commerce, where she was a board member, and the chamber presented its 2007 Business & Arts Award to Franca. The Solebury Township Historical Society named Franca its 2003 Honored Citizen of Solebury. She was secretary-treasurer of the American Italy Society where whe raised funds for the restoration of churches, basilicas and palazzos in Italy. The mayor of Florence awarded her the Gold Fiorino.
Franca’s Italian accent was one of her most endearing qualities. Barbara Donnelly Bentivoglio, now a member of the AVA board, recalled, “She would correct Italian pronunciation in her native Florence accent and then Lamberto (Barbara’s husband) would correct her in the Milan accent.”
“Her love of the arts was only exceeded by her love for her children and the pride she took in their achievements,” Jeff said. “There are no words strong enough to describe the respect, admiration and most importantly the love we have for our mother. We are extremely proud of her lifetime of devotion to the arts.”
Memorial donations may be made to the Franca Warden Scholarship Fund at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19103. A public celebration of life will be held in September.