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Surry by the Bay

Spectacular Landscape, Spirited People

Surry Opera Company

Text by Kate Mrozicki
Images contributed by the Surry Historical Society

Working for peace through music

One doesn’t expect to hear the sounds of opera floating out of an ancient barn in a small town in Maine. However, a peek inside Walter Nowick’s “concert barn” on a Sunday evening in August during the 1990s would have revealed Mainers, Russians, and Japanese folks gathered together in everyday clothes, belting out a moving rendition of a chorus from Aida, accompanied by two or more pianos, while an appreciative audience looked on. Begun in 1984 as an attempt to bring attention to the threat of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, the Surry Opera Company continued through the 1990s bringing together people from across the region and the world through music.

Program Cover
Program Cover
Surry Historical Society

Beginnings: the Presumptuous Opera Company

Walter Nowick--farmer, Juilliard-trained pianist, Zen teacher, son of Russian immigrants, witness to the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and Surry resident--wanted to do his part to promote world peace. After seeing the TV movie The Day After and its depiction of nuclear holocaust in 1983, Nowick planned an ambitious 12 concert series including all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and 32 Haydn sonatas to benefit the nonprofit Ground Zero and its USSR/US sister city program The Pairing Project. He told the Ellsworth American that he wanted to celebrate the music that had brought him and many others so much joy over the centuries, the music that he hoped would survive for further generations to appreciate.

He invited his Zen students, members of local choral groups, and anyone with interest to join him in performing Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Magic Flute for a local audience. The offer was intriguing and the first summer 80 people-- schoolteachers, carpenters, sawyers, clam diggers, children, architects and retirees--came together to perform the two operas at the Hancock County Auditorium. These were bare bones concerts without the pageantry of costumes, sets, or a full orchestra. Some of the participants had been professional musicians, but most were amateurs, only a few of whom could read a note of music. Though sometimes out of key and a bit ragged, the performances were received with enthusiasm and the so-called Presumptuous Opera Company continued. An invitation to Nowick from a long-time fan of his performance, Catherine Filene Shouse, founder of the Wolf Trap, the National Park for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, DC, gave the company its first official tour. They traveled to Wolf Trap in February 1985 and were well received. The trip provided further momentum to pursue Nowick’s goal of performing the Russian opera Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky in its original Russian one day in the Soviet Union to help “sow the seeds of harmony” between rival countries.

Admission Ticket
Admission Ticket
Surry Historical Society

Through the Iron Curtain

For many members of the Surry Opera Company (SOC), as it was now known, the sounds of the Russian language were the sounds they had been taught to fear growing up during the Cold War. They struggled with the foreign words, many attempting to learn the Cyrillic alphabet to improve their pronunciation and grasp of the language they were singing in. The act of learning the opera was itself a step toward peace and understanding for many of those involved.

Surry Opera Co. Japan 1987
Surry Opera Co. Japan 1987
Surry Historical Society

Performances remained unpolished but received critical acclaim, the enthusiasm of the amateurs carrying them through the rough patches. In lieu of sets, 200 slides of artwork commissioned from various local artists provided a backdrop for performances. The SOC performed throughout Maine in 1985. Nowick brought the group to perform in Kyoto, Japan where he had lived for 15 years studying Zen and teaching and performing piano.

Through some lucky connections, they were able to navigate the bureaucratic red tape of crossing the Iron Curtain and plan a tour in the Soviet Union as Nowick had hoped. In November 1986 SOC made its first trip to the USSR, the Soviet Intourist Bureau controling their itinerary of performances in Tbilisi and Leningrad. They performed Boris, some Hyden, and also a few numbers from the American Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The response from local people was very warm. On one occasion they were serenaded back to their state-run hotel where Soviet citizens were not allowed to join them in their rooms. The connections made with people coming back stage would end up forming the basis of strong friendships and many trips back and forth between countries.

People of the Earth Together

During the rest of the 1980s and into the early 1990s the SOC continued to tour, performing many times in both the USSR and Japan and throughout the state of Maine. The group captured a good deal of media attention with coverage on CBS news, in the New York Times, People Magazine, Opera News, and the Boston Globe. In 1989, in the wake of relaxation of Communist Party control in the increasingly unstable Soviet Union, the Leningrad Amateur Opera Company and Orchestra Klassika were allowed to make their first visit to the United States accompanied by a four-man TV crew. Two tour buses full of performers traveled around Maine and performed in Boston and New Brunswick. They spent much of their time in Surry, welcomed by delegates of Maine officials and housed in Nowick’s old cow barn converted for the special guests.

The SOC at times consisted of 100 people, as diverse a mix as they were at the beginning, some members driving over two hours each way to participate in this unique experience. Over the years the group traveled beyond the the Soviet Union and post-collapse Russia, visiting Canada, France and Japan. Trips were sponsored by non-singers who came along as tourists, helping poorer members to cover the cost. In 1990, once relaxed regulations allowed visitors to stay in private homes, the trip expanded to many more travelers including two Surry selectmen who came as guests of the SOC as part of an official delegation to the USSR.

The SOC certainly succeeded in forming bonds across international boundaries even after the Cold War had ended. Through the SOC hundreds of Mainers made trips abroad, housed visiting musicians and attended concerts in other languages, learning folk songs and joining in folk dances. Russian contingents often performed for students at the Surry Elementary School. Summer festivals held at Nowick’s barn in Surry, billed as “People of the Earth Together,” featured visiting amateur and professional musicians from Russia, Japan, France and Germany as well as Maine and Canada, with musical works in all languages, chamber music, many-hands and multi-piano performances, and at some point everyone joining together for a rousing Mozart chorus or two. While concerts began to diminish in extravagance as the 21st century began, over the years a great many people had come together to share music and friendship in an effort to connect across cultural barriers.


Personal interview with Susan and Charles Guilford March 2012

"Surry pianist hopes concerts will wake people up," Bangor Daily News February 11-12, 2012, 1984.

"Surry Opera Company Set to Travel to Soviet Union in Just Two Months." The Ellsworth American. Thursday, August 28, 1986.