It’s All About ME: Digitizing Amateur Opera in Surry, Maine

XFR Collective Maine Gang Members (facing the sun): Brendan Allen, Michael Grant, Carmel Curtis, Marie Lascu. Photo by Alan Wittenberg.

In Surry, Maine, about an eight hour drive from New York City, the concert barn awaits. Surry Arts at the Barn (SATB) is described as being “a unique venue in its almost 50 years of local and international exchange programs.” The concert barn has been a prized local community performance venue and has featured film screenings, musical theater productions, and seasonal concerts. The surrounding barns have also been utilized for such creative efforts, and have served as residencies for “as many as 30-40 international musicians and guests from Russia, Japan, France, Georgia, Germany, Canada, and the United States.” Currently, in the early stages of a new chapter in its history, following the 2013 death of founder Walter Nowickt, the Barn is working to expand its programming but also to pay homage to its past.

As with any performance-based organization, the focus is on the now and on what comes next. Fifty years can really shoot by before a collective concern is born regarding the documentation of past efforts. However, current Art Director/Program Manager/flautists/all around amazing person, Alan Wittenberg, is devoting some resources to preserving this history. In a 2015 article, Wittenberg is quoted as saying “This barn has a legacy…” Four XFR Collective members were able to tap into this legacy over the course of three days in July 2017. But XFR member Michael Grant didn’t know any of that when he rented a nice little Airbnb cottage in April.

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Beautiful cabin at beautiful SATB in beautiful Maine! Photo by Carmel Curtis.

Michael had been looking for months at the listing for this little place — a lovely and very reasonably-priced standalone cottage with a grand piano — because it seemed like a place where he and his musical theater-writing wife, Kit, could get out of awful New York City for a few days of trees and songwriting. Eventually their schedules and the availability of the cottage lined up. When they arrived, Alan turned out to be a very welcoming, generous fellow, happy to tell all about the place and its history.

After several decades of conventional farm life in the late-19th through mid-20th centuries, the land was bought in the 1960s by Walter Nowick. He turned the farm into something of a commune, where dozens of disciples came to live together, work together, and learn Zen together. In 1984, after most of his students had moved on, he decided to start a community opera — The Surry Opera Company — in a barn on the property. It began beautifully enough, as a labor of all-inclusive community love, welcoming locals of all skill levels to come and sing opera together. But in 1986 it took a historic turn.  At the height of the Cold War, seeking to forge person-to-person connections between Americans and Russians, Walter organized a trip of the Surry Opera Company to the Soviet Union where they would sing “Boris Godunov” for the Russians, in Russian. The trip was a success, and over the coming years the Surry Opera Company made multiple trips to various parts of the USSR, and hosted the Leningrad Community Opera on their premises in Maine.  After the Cold War ended, they continued their mission of international understanding and cross-cultural friendship with both Russians and Japanese, traveling abroad and hosting groups in Surry.

When Alan walked Michael and Kit  through “the cow barn” (no cows have lived there for some time, and part of it has now been converted into a charming Airbnb apartment) they encountered a box of VHS tapes. Alan explained that they were mostly original performance documentation, mixed with some TV news pieces and Lord knows what else. That was the first glimmering of the idea that XFR ought to get our tuchuses up to Surry and preserve this stunning history. Back in New York, when Michael told fellow collective members about a community-based amateur opera company in Maine that was intent on preventing a nuclear holocaust at the height of the Cold War through cultural exchange efforts with like-minded Russians, we didn’t need much convincing. Free the tapes!

While XFR Collective’s general model is to work with partners on a small number of tapes to kick-start independent preservation efforts, we’ve lately found ourselves coming upon unique opportunities that call for some negotiations to enable mutually beneficial outcomes. As a collective, we are in the midst of working out new ways to operate sustainably into the future. We also feel a great sense of solidarity with any kind of community-based effort, and welcomed the challenge of trying out a new work model.

Once our group was locked in for work with SATB, we began to plan. We knew that the media we would be dealing with were VHS tapes (give or take a Umatic) so we focused on assembling a travel station for this single format. This included:

  • a CRT monitor (Sony PVM-14M2U)
  • 2 VHS decks (Panasonic AG-5210 and an AG-2570 for backup)
  • a time base corrector (Leitch DPS-295)
  • an iMac (21.5 in, Late 2012 2.9 Gz Intel Core i5) with vrecord installed
  • and a Blackmagic UltraStudio Express analog to digital converter

We also brought along:

  • BNC and RCA cables
  • 99% isopropyl alcohol
  • Cleaning wipes/swabs
  • Hard drives
  • VHS test tapes
  • Power surge protector
  • Extension cords
  • Screwdrivers

Before driving up to the location eight hours away, XFR members Michael Grant and Carmel Curtis tested the “mobile rack” and documented it with a wiring diagram. This ended up being an extremely helpful step in ensuring that everything went smoothly. When we did our first MIX event in 2015, we were not able to test out our set up until installation day and the troubleshooting ate up quite a few hours of work time. The prospect of repeating experience that eight hours from home, with nowhere to go for extra gear or connectors, it was critical to get our ducks in a row before we hit the road.

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Once in Surry, we were able to easily set up our transfer station and get to work!

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Checkout our workstation! (Yes, those are two people singing while holding a cat.) Photo by Carmel Curtis.

Our agreement with SATB before embarking on this project can be summarized as follows:

XFR members will travel to SATB in Surry, ME on Thursday July 20, work on digitizing as many select videotapes and print photographs as time allowed from July 21 – July 23, and depart on Monday July 24. Services will be compensated at an agreed daily rate + gas and tolls. Deliverables will be an inventory, digital preservation and access files, and a summary report.

In practice, XFR assessed and inventoried 98 videotapes that had been assembled from the cow barn and other locations related to the Surry Opera Company. 29 of the tapes exhibited visible signs of degradation (i.e. white mold). Videotape binder is made up of organic materials, and is therefore susceptible mold growth under the right environmental conditions (usually high temperature and high relative humidity). Mold is a fungus that grows in the form of filaments and is a living organism that can easily spread. Those tapes exhibiting mold were sorted out and boxed separately from the non-moldy tapes. If not handled with caution, moldy tapes may pose a health risk for users, and also risk contaminating equipment in which they are played.

Sample of moldy Surry tape!

Other tapes were found to be in better condition, and Alan designated a number of tapes of highest interest to be prioritized for digitization. 11 were digitized during XFR Collective’s stay, including:

  • A tape containing an ABC news story on the Surry Opera Company, along with the raw footage shot by ABC for the story, of the company rehearsing Boris Godunov in the barn.

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  • A 1992 performance of The Magic Flute in Japan.
  • The 1986 Soviet TV documentary Thirty Days in One-Storeyed America, about the Leningrad Amateur Opera’s visit to Surry.
  • Performances of Fidelio and Porgy and Bess in Leningrad.
  • A fully staged performance of Abasalom and Eteri at the Tbilisi Opera House.

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  • A performance of Fidelio in the barn.

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  • A 1992 Japanese TV news piece on a visit by Japanese performers to the barn.

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  • “Bits and Pieces”, a 1988 compilation of video pieces related to Surry Opera Company visits to Leningrad, Moscow, Tbilisi, and Kurgan.  Includes a 1987 TV spot soliciting singers and non-singers alike to join the 1987 trip to the USSR.

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XFR Collective’s policy is to make the videos we digitize available to the public on the Internet Archive, but it is in the nature of boxes of old tapes that their contents are not always known for sure in advance. We left SATB with compressed H.264 access copies of the videos (the uncompressed preservation master files will follow soon on a hard drive), to review for any copyright concerns. This fall we will begin the process of uploading the videos to Internet Archive!

We very much look forward to not only sharing this footage we had the privilege of spending time with, but also in assisting Alan in any we can with further efforts to preserve the legacy of the Surry Opera Company!