Service with a song
At Quisisana resort in western Maine, dining-hall workers and desk clerks, many of them recruited from top music schools, double as entertainers
CENTER LOVELL, Maine -- Across New England this summer, thousands of college students and recent graduates are waiting tables and sweeping floors to earn a few bucks before the fun ends around Labor Day. Getting to work at a posh vacation spot, and perhaps indulge in a bit of summertime romance, is what makes it all worthwhile. At elite venues located from Bangor to the Berkshires, meanwhile, hundreds of young performing artists are tuning violins and vocal cords in hopes of impressing discerning audiences and, given a break here or there, propelling themselves toward careers on Broadway or the concert stage.
And then there is the staff of Quisisana at Lake Kezar, a lakeside resort in western Maine where they're doing both at once.
In what could be construed as either a gimmick or a stroke of genius, the majority of the resort's 78-person service staff is recruited from top-notch music schools such as Juilliard and the New England Conservatory. Each night of the week, on a rotating basis, the members perform ambitious programs of opera, musical comedy, chamber music, and classical piano. Some are new to Quisisana this year and are still adjusting to their hybrid duties. Others return summer after summer, trays in one hand and score sheets in the other, as if it were perfectly natural to serve blueberry pancakes by morning and perform Handel's Sonata in G minor (op. 2, no. 8) by night.
Seven nights a week, in any event, scenes such as the following can be observed:
As dusk descends upon the lake, Elizabeth Johnson, Emerson College class of 2003, throws off her apron, ducks out of the dining hall, and hurries a few hundred yards down a dirt path to the resort's performance hall. Once there, Johnson, 22, an aspiring actress and singer, dons a cocktail dress and, with barely any time to warm up or brush her hair, bounds onstage to belt out show tunes from "Chicago" and "Bells Are Ringing." The audience includes several guests to whom Johnson has just served dessert.
Elizabeth Coulter, who spent the day rigging sailboats and stacking kayaks by the lake, pulls out her violin and prepares for her weekly chamber music concert, where each Sunday she performs pieces by Haydn, Massenet, Faure, and Beethoven. Coulter, 23, has a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. This fall she'll join the Virginia Symphony. Her sailing skills? Rudimentary, at best.
"I was a lifeguard in high school," she says when asked about her daytime job. "So I picked the beach staff. But I'm learning about boats, sort of."
Quisisana may not be the only resort hotel where groundskeepers and desk clerks double as entertainers -- although publishing a staff directory that reads like a copy of Playbill is certainly a novelty. Surely it ranks among the most unusual of its type, though, given the high performance standards and the off-the-beaten-track quality of the place, whose loyal clientele returns year after year.
"The work is hard, really hard, but that only adds to the sense of community," says Ferris Allen, who's singing the role of Colline in "La Boheme" this summer. Allen, 21, a vocal performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory, adds, "You develop relationships here that you simply wouldn't have in a normal repertory theater company. It's only going to get harder after Quisisana."
Like others on the dining hall staff, Allen reports for work at 7:30 each morning and serves three meals a day, six days a week. This is his third summer at the resort. He's not hoping to get "discovered," he says, so much as enjoy what Quisisana has to offer. Should he find himself waiting on a Metropolitan Opera trustee, Allen says, "I'm thinking, `He's a nice guy' -- not, `Maybe he can introduce me to Jimmy Levine.' "
Because the productions are non-Equity, staffers, who typically make between $4,000-$6,000 per season, are paid strictly as resort personnel.
Mezzo-soprano Betsy Garcia, Allen's boss in the dining hall, acknowledges that Quisisana is not in the same league as vaunted programs like the Santa Fe Opera. But, she says, "They're also hard to get into; plus you don't make any money doing them." Now in her 11th year here, Garcia, 36, says what makes the experience special is this: "People are very serious about the work; they get paid for it; and the spirit of collaboration that develops is pretty incredible."
Built in 1917, the Quisisana resort sits along a prime stretch of beachfront on one of Maine's most picturesque lakes. (Crooner Rudy Vallee and author Stephen King are among the celebrities who've owned summer homes here.) White clapboard cabins are nestled among soaring pine groves flanked by clay tennis courts, shuffleboard and volleyball areas, a dock accommodating several types of watercraft, and other amenities. Guest capacity is 150, and a one-week stay is required in season, which runs from late June until late August. The cost -- between $145 and $190 daily per person -- includes meals and entertainment, with the dining room and performance hall open only to lodge guests.
The resort began featuring performances in the late 1940s. Concerts were staged after dinner in the main dining hall. By the 1960s, it was attracting such guests as Vladimir Horowitz, who brought his own piano. In the 1970s, Quisisana's owners bought an adjoining inn and converted what had been the inn's main lodge into a separate performance space.
Current owner Jane Orans, a former nursery school teacher from Larchmont, N.Y., bought the resort in 1983. She and her late husband started coming as guests in 1971. Since assuming ownership, Orans has expanded and formalized the music program -- adding chamber music, for one -- without disturbing the basic architecture.
"I'm not a musician myself, but I have an opinion on everything," says Orans, who is known for her salty wit and rapport with guests and employees. Nor is she much of a businesswoman, Orans admits. Another owner might keep the place open from Memorial Day through fall foliage season. Not Orans. She closes early, on Aug. 24 this year, partly because her staff has other commitments and partly because her own patience runs out by the end of August. "We're only nice for nine or 10 weeks," she jokes over dinner one night. "After that, our niceness self-destructs."
Concerts start at 9:15 each evening. Saturday kicks off the weekly cycle with a sampler chosen from the full performance menu. Sunday is chamber music, Monday a musical comedy (this year's selection is "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"). Tuesday's "Evening of Piano Music" features soloist Elaine Hou. Wednesday night is opera ("La Boheme," sung in Italian with English subtitles projected onto a board above the stage), Thursday a Broadway revue with cabaret seating, and Friday a selection of opera arias.
Planning for the musical program begins in late fall. By January, Orans and a team of advisers have started scheduling auditions around the country. A network of alumni and music-school faculty steers many top students toward Orans. Among former staffers who have gone on to stardom are mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who worked here in the mid-'80s ("I don't do rakes," Graves is said to have remarked when first reporting for cleanup duty), and tenor David Miller, who is singing the role of Rodolfo in the Broadway production of "La Boheme." The opera is cast before the staff assembles in late May, but other roles are assigned after on-site rehearsals.
How strong are the performers? "I'm blown away by the quality," says voice coach Brian Gill, a doctoral candidate in vocal performance at the University of Kentucky. Gill says he wasn't surprised when a member of the Richard Tucker Foundation board saw "La Boheme" here and suggested that cast member Kimberly Smith, who sings the role of Mimi, enter the foundation's prestigious award competition for budding opera stars.
The staffers, who range in age from 19 to 30-something, live in cabins or single rooms scattered about the resort property. One cabin known as the Party Shack is reserved for after-hours jam sessions and general partying by employees, not all of whom perform in the nightly shows. As might be expected, familiarity breeds more familiarity. By Orans's count, at least 20 marriages have been sparked by summer flings. That group includes her son Sam, who is married to opera singer Nathalie Parker Orans, who helps manage the resort.
All involved say there's a recognizable "Quisi type" who thrives in this type of setting and artistic community. Those who are picked, and who usually succeed, according to Orans, tend to be outgoing, industrious, and have a healthy sense of humor, especially about themselves.
"We call it living on Quisi time," says Johnson, who shares a cabin with three roommates and is not averse to late-night partying at the Shack, notwithstanding her having to be up at 6:45 each morning to serve breakfast.
Longtime guests like Iris Fried, a Larchmont neighbor of Orans, returned to Quisisana last week for her seventh stay. She and her husband are devotees of New York City's music, theater, and dance companies, so they're accustomed to hearing and seeing the best. Quisisana's crew seldom disappoints, even if the rustic setting is a far cry from Lincoln Center.
"Getting to know these young performers personally is the icing on the cake," Fried says. "I feel like their mother."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.