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From a Maine Barn to a Soviet Stage, Walter Nowick's Opera Company Raises the Iron Curtain to Promote Harmony

updated 01/12/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 01:00AM

As recently as three years ago, the prevailing attitude toward opera around Surry, Maine was pretty much summed up by sawmill operator Claude Dupuy, 37. "I hadn't heard much of it," Dupuy recalls, "and I didn't like what I'd heard." So it's little short of miraculous that in November, Dupuy and 57 fellow citizens from around the small (pop.: 900) coastal community of Surry took the stage in Leningrad and sang large portions of Mussorgsky's demanding opera Boris Godunov—in the original Russian yet. It took the Leningrad audience a few moments to fully grasp what was going on, reports Walter Nowick, 60, the founder and guiding light of the Surry Opera Company. "At first they clapped very slowly," he says. "But then they realized that we had learned this very difficult opera in their language, and they were standing and applauding."

Most Soviets are surprisingly knowledgeable about Maine, partly because the late Samantha Smith, the schoolgirl peace envoy who visited the Soviet Union, came from there. But even so, it was hard for the audience to appreciate what Nowick, a Long Island-bred, Juilliard-trained pianist, had accomplished. Some of Nowick's friends had suggested he call his group "The Presumptuous Opera Company" when they first heard of his seemingly loony plan to forge an opera troupe out of Maine fishermen, carpenters, secretaries, teachers, lawyers and short-order cooks—few trained and some, like Dupuy, once hostile toward the daunting art form.

Everyone's singing a different tune now that the troupe is in its third year—and especially in the wake of its triumphant Russian tour. Conductor Nowick, a Zen master who spent 15 years in Japan, first conceived of using music for peace when he saw The Day After in 1983; shaken, he arranged to play 12 piano concerts and send the $2,600 proceeds to a peace group. After that he got the idea of involving his neighbors in some affirmative musical action. Say 80 or 100 of them. Performing Aida. In Italian.

"It was a little hard," admits Nowick, who has never married and lives largely hand-to-mouth from odd jobs and donations from friends. Among his very raw recruits (ages 7 to 74) were only "about seven trained singers," he says—among them tenor Sheldon Bisberg, 49, owner and chief cook of the Blue Hill Lunch. "But nobody was ever thrown out. The less ability, the better."

Clearly Nowick relishes such challenges. "He has so much inner drive and enthusiasm," marvels soprano Beth DeMeyer, 53, who once sang professionally in Maine choral concerts, "it's hard not to get involved with music and him." Her husband, Forrest, 55, is living proof: A foreman at a Bass Harbor boatyard, he admits he has no voice to speak of, "but Walter will get you up there singing—bim, bim, bim, bim, bum, bum, bum, bum."

For their concerts, Nowick and a carpenter friend remodeled a barn on Nowick's 200-acre property, a feat that involved scraping pigeon droppings out of the concert grand piano and making spotlights out of tin cans. Department store heiress Catherine Filene Shouse attended early performances and was so impressed that she asked architects at Wolf Trap, the performing arts park near Washington, D.C. of which she was the patron, to replicate Nowick's acoustics in Wolf Trap's concert barns. She also invited the SOC to do Aida there, and the experience so excited Nowick and company that afterward, "I said, 'Let's do Boris Godunov,' and the company said, 'Bring it on!' "

Their enthusiasm gave him the idea for his full-throated diplomacy. "There's so much talk about 'Commies' and 'Reds' one tends to forget that there are 265 million people over there," he says. "They have faces."

Those faces were beaming last Nov. 15 when the SOC singers joined in an impromptu songfest in Tbilisi, one of their two concert stops. After a performance there, 40 listeners followed the Americans back to their hotel and serenaded them with Georgian folksongs. "We joined them and their faces lit up," Nowick says. "It's a strong feeling, singing side by side like that. We were hugging each other at the end."

Nowick is apparently adept at reaching such high notes. "He's a great teacher in every sense," says reformed opera hater Dupuy, who has blossomed into a strong tenor. "He helps people make music a part of their world."

—Written by Lee Aitken, reported by Cable Neuhaus

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