Singing for Peace: Surry Opera Company

When Walter Nowick first founded an opera company in Surry in 1984, it was called “megalomaniacal” by a Surry resident and greeted with amused skepticism throughout Hancock County.

Called the “Presumtuous Opera Company,” even by themselves, the group that rehearsed and performed concert-style operas in their native languages in Nowick’s wooden barn in Surry, later grew to 80 members and came to be known throughout Maine, the country and the world as the Surry Opera Company.

  Nowick was born in Long Island of Russian and Polish immigrant background. He studied piano at Juilliard School of Music in the 1940s, first coming to Surry when his Juilliard teacher who summered here invited him to come up for lessons. He later came to own the Surry farm where he had once summered.

At the height of the cold war, the Surry Opera Company helped spread understanding among ordinary citizens of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union when it traveled to Russia and Georgia in 1986 to perform “Boris Godunov” in Russian. The Leningrad Amateur Opera Company returned the visit in 1989, performing in Surry and touring with the Surry group.

On its 10th anniversary in 1994, speaking before Congress, Sen. George Mitchell credited the group with “cultivating international understanding and goodwill through the performance of great music by ordinary citizens.” 

The Surry Opera Company was composed of a core of Surry residents and mostly untrained singers.

“You can do wonderful things with untrained voices,” said Nowick.  “The realm of music doesn’t belong to professional musicians, it belongs to everyone.”