If you ask Linda L. Nelson why she and three other women from New York
bought and restored a dilapidated 91-year-old opera house in a remote
fishing village on Pnobscot Bay, the word democracy comes up.
“This is not about money or property for us,” said Ms. Nelson,
a former chief of technology at the Village Voice. “It’s
about living a good life, doing what you think is impotant and giving
something to the community. That’s how democracy works. Democracy
The good life for Ms. Nelson and her companion, Judith Jerome, now involves
running the Stonington Opera House here on Deer Isle, where their tale
of self-reinvention began five years ago. Ms. Nelson and Ms. Jerome,
Kayaking enthusiasts, were on vacation in Stonington at the time, exploring
the town, paddling its waterways and, they recall, talking about their
long-held dream of producing performing arts projects in a small-town
While there, acting on a suggestion by a friend from New York, Carol
Estey, a dancer and director who had spent summers on Deer Isle as a
child, the two women inquired about a bedraggled opera house draped with
a large for-sale sign. The opera house, up a steep hill on School Street
teased their dream and within a year they found two other partners, Ms.
Estey and Linda Pattie, a businesswoman and artist, and formed Opera
House Arts, a nonprofit corporation, to buy the building for $90,000.
This summer, close to 20 live events are testifying to the opera house’s
rebirth. One highlight was the premiere of a musical” Dracula…The
Covenant” by Dodie Pettit and Kevin Gray and directed by Ms. Estey;
another was the third installment of an annual jazz festival featuring
the saxophonists Joe Lovano and Bill NcHenry and the pianist Fred Hersch.
The opera house, a three-story green-shingled barnlike structure, was
long the cultural center of this coastal town, which is still laced with
stone walls, reminders of the granite quarries that the area is best
known for. Today the quarries are largely inactive, but in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, their pink-flecked rock was use for the Brooklyn,
Manhattan and George Washington Bridges as well as for Rockefeller Center.
When the opera house was built in 1886, the population of Stonington
was at a high of 5,000, almost five times as many residents as it has
today. (The building seated 1,000.) At the southern tip of Deer Isle,
and in those days accessible only from the water, Stonington thrived
on commerce from the ships that navigated its waters. (A suspension bridge
was built in 1939 to connect the island to the mainland.)
“People were not out of the loop of culture,” said Tinker
Crouch, a year-round resident whose family is so plentiful here that
her mother once t old her to simply say” Hi cousin!” to neighbors
she did not know. “They had access to silk from the Silk Road and
to crafts form South America. The stonecutters were Italian and Scottish,
and they were will aware of good opera and good theater. They know fine
In 1910 a fire ravaged Stonington- on the very day that the first fire
hydrant was installed. That hydrant saved the town, but not the opera
house. Two years later a smaller opera house with 250 seats was built,
and is the one standing now. Over time it became an albatross, used for
roller-skating parties, dances, recitals, basketball games, high school
commencements and movies.
When Ms Nelson and Ms Jerone pushed open the door five years ago. The
opera house though on the National Register of Historic Place since 1992,
was a vacant eyesore. Or almost vacant. A raccoon family lived in the
basement. “We stood in the dark peering into the smelly building
and said, “We can do this,’” Ms. Nelson recalled. “At
the time, I didn’t even know what ‘this’ was, but I
had a sense of possibility, a sense that this was the right thing to
The day after the closing, the new owners entered a float in the Fourth
of July parade and handed out 500 bags of popcorn and fliers announcing
plans to reopen the building the next summer. The women, whose ages range
from 40 into the 60’s spent the next year reinforcing the structure,
which had been heavily damaged by harsh winters and neglect. With the
help of local workers and volunteers, they installed bathrooms, created
fire exits, repaired the stage, refurbished the seats and relocated the
raccoons. All the while they were making frequent 10 hour commutes between
New York and Stonington. On July 8, 2000, the opera house opened with
a program that included the soprano Lucine Amara. Eight professional
acts performed that first season.
While residents here are typically skeptical of newcomers, this village
has welcomed the restoration. Last year contributions and revenues totaled
more that $200,000, nearly double the income in the first year. Almost
all the performances have been sellouts this summer, Ms. Nelson said.
In nearby Deer Isle village, performing arts center was built within
the last two years through an equally tenacious local initiative and
has further affirmed a tradition of live performing arts on the island.
Ms. Nelson and Ms. Jerome now live here year-round, having bought a
house with two others. The Stonington Opera House is their main focus,
but Ms. Nelson also works as a business consultant for a local newspaper
and Ms Jerome runs the library and is working on her dissertation for
a doctoral degree in performance studies at New York University.
Ms. Estey, who now live with Ms. Pattie in Phoenicia, NY, in the Catsckills,
spent a month on the island preparing for “Dracula”. They
both say they intend to spend more time in Maine as plans proceed to
winterized the opera house. With that done the owners, hope to attract
regional theater companies looking for a quiet setting.
“We could do this anywhere else- we could do this in the Catskills.” Ms.
Pattie said. “But there’s a particular energy here that’s
unique. I don’t know if it’s the granite or the water or