A family camp makes music on the shores of Kezar Lake
A joyous cacophony of voices intermingles with the steely clink of cutlery and the sneakered footfalls of waitstaff. The scent of sun- warmed evergreens drifts in through an open door. A young camper samples a Maine wild blueberry cobbler as she chats with her parents and grandparents about their day’s adventures. Quisisana Resort, which describes itself as “equal parts summer camp, music festival, and gourmand’s fantasy,” hosts 130 to 150 guests each week from mid-June to late August, entertaining entire families with nightly musical performances of everything from operatic arias to Broadway show tunes. “People stay for a week, so they get to know what we are about,” says Quisisana owner Jane Orans. “A lot of them are regulars, but every year new people arrive and get excited by it.” Orans has been coming to this 47-acre wooded sanctuary on the shores of Kezar Lake every summer since 1971. “I’ve loved this land from day one,” says Orans.
Orans, who winters in Larchmont, New York, is not alone in her devotion to this western Maine wellspring, located in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Visitors have sought respite here for generations. Archives from the Lovell Historical Society tell of New Yorkers who traveled via Pullman railroad cars to Portland’s Union Station before driving the 35 miles on back roads to the inns of Center Lovell. Surrounded by towering pines, seven-mile-long Kezar Lake is still relatively untouched by development. Fishermen catch trout, salmon, bass, and pickerel in its waters, and Quisisana campers enjoy additional aquatic endeavors such as canoeing, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, and waterskiing.
Quisisana campers also savor three gourmet meals a day (vegetarian and gluten-free dishes are available). Each morning, they choose from several possible breakfast options, and lunch may be anything from a salmon salad with baby arugula and spinach, roasted corn, and Israeli couscous to a lobster club on toasted brioche with bacon, lettuce, and tomato and served with hand-cut french fries.
As we finish our midday meal with Orans and Quisisana artistic director Marshall Taylor, a cheerful brown-haired woman stops at our table to give Orans a hug. “It’s not bad at my age to have friends who are younger,” says 82-year-old Orans. The young woman, Amy Hine, recently graduated from Rider University in New Jersey, where she received a BFA in musical theater. When Hine is done waiting tables today, she will hurry off to afternoon rehearsal. Originally from Michigan, Hine has the role of Cinderella’s mother in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. About half of the 80 people who work at the resort—whether they are serving food, lifeguarding at one of two sandy beaches, or raking leaves from the gravel paths—also perform here. Quisisana has attracted students and recent graduates of institutions such as the Juilliard School in New York City, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, and the New England Conservatory in Boston. Alumni have gone on to perform on Broadway and with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Carol Noonan, folk singer and owner of Stone Mountain Arts Center in nearby Brownfield, first came to Maine as a college student and worked summers at Quisisana.
Orans has a close relationship with each of the people who work here. Her son, Sam (who has also been coming to Quisisana for decades), is the resort director and co-manager. A former preschool teacher, Orans starts each season by reading to the staff—most between the ages of 18 and 30—the children’s book When You Give a Moose a Muffin. Through the book, Orans emphasizes the importance of generosity, hospitality, and exemplary behavior. We follow Orans past the pine-paneled lodge, where a man is reading a newspaper while his companion checks her email. The lodge is one of the few places on the resort grounds that have Wi-Fi; cellular service is also absent here. Stopping at a row of golf carts, Orans gets into a driver’s seat and urges us to join her. “This one is my granddaughter’s,” says Orans. “We’ll borrow it for a little while. She won’t mind.” Her son calls after us, “Just be glad she’s not driving you in an actual car!”
We pause briefly at the Quisiworks gift shop before navigating down a gravel path to the waterfront. Quisisana has 40 cabins, most of them miniature versions of the white- and green-painted dining hall and lodge. Some sit back in the trees, surrounded by a sea of cinnamon-scented ferns; others are directly on Kezar Lake. The popular Love Nest cabin rests on stilts that extend into the water. Patches of daisies and black-eyed Susans adorn the grounds outside cabins, most of which have music-themed monikers such as Polonaise, Mazurka, and Fantasia. Orans invites us into her cottage. Its centerpiece is a large stone fireplace, perfect for staving off summer’s late-day chill. From the porch, we look out at the lake that Orans once swam across daily.
Orans, whose eldest son, Jacob, died in 2006 at the age of 43, has made it through her fair share of loss. Perhaps this is why she has spent more than half her life working to keep Quisisana intact. The closeness of the Quisisana community is one of its greatest attributes. We drive the golf cart past a group of teens who are playing volleyball. Their parents watch from under a pair of umbrellas nearby. “They come a week, they stay the same week every summer, they sit at the same table, they stay at the same cottage. It’s a bit of a home away from home,” says Orans. Orans’s daughter, Mary, who now lives in Durango, Colorado, still visits for a week each summer, bringing her son with her.
Quisisana comes from the Italian phrase qui si sana, which loosely translates to “A place where one heals oneself.” The Pleasant Point property where Quisisana now stands represents an amalgamation of two resorts: the Quisisana Inn, founded in 1917, and the Sunset Inn, created several years later on nearby land. Boston music store owner Ralph Burg combined the two in 1967, and Orans first came to Quisisana soon after that, visiting with her husband and three small children.
Orans, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, grew up in New York and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. She met her husband, Jerry, soon after college. “He adored me,” she says of Jerry, recalling one of their first encounters at the Plaza Hotel in New York City; he did not want the date to end, so he accompanied her from 59th Street to 90th Street, where she was staying. A trial lawyer for 27 years, Jerry argued cases all the way up to the New York State Supreme Court. “He was a brilliant man,” says Orans. “He fought for a lot of good causes.” Jerry died of a heart attack at the age of 52. “He did more than his share in his short life,” says Orans.
After Jerry’s death in 1981, Orans continued to visit Quisisana with her three young children, Mary, Jacob, and Sam. Ralph Burg and his wife, Fay, had sold Quisisana in 1976, and the resort transitioned through several owners before being put on the market again in 1983. When it looked like the camp might not have a buyer late that summer, Orans tried to convince a group of guests to buy Quisisana with her. One other family agreed. Three years later, she arranged to become the sole owner. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Orans. “But I taught myself what I needed to do to keep things running. I figured it out as I went along.”
It took a lot for Orans to keep things running—from staffing to maintaining the property to interacting with guests. “There were many years when Jane and I cleaned cabins together,” says Taylor, “and she always insisted on doing the bathrooms. She said that was her department.” Taylor, whose friends call him Marsh, began at Quisisana as a talented baritone and busboy in 1989, when he was 25 years old, and immediately connected with Orans. He went on to serve in a range of roles, including dining hall maître d’. “When the management or the owner is setting the tone like that, it’s hard for the staff not to pick up on it,” he says. Taylor has returned every summer for almost three decades, and has had a front-row seat to the difficulties of running a small family- owned business. “What I’d never realized all those years ago was how frightened she was,” says Taylor.
Taylor’s current role includes recruiting talent for Quisisana, choosing the season’s musical productions, and making sure these go off without a hitch. “When you grow up and you want to be a performer, there are so few pictures of what success is,” says Taylor, who started life in a small community called Valley, near the town of Hillsboro in southwestern Wisconsin. “You imagine yourself as a big star or working on Broadway. I think I originally wanted to be a country singer.” Taylor’s early musical education involved much time spent listening to the radio in the remote village he grew up in. He went on to earn a bachelor of music in vocal performance from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and a master of music in opera and musical theater from Arizona State.
“I can’t imagine a better balance for myself,” says Taylor, who, like Orans, has made Quisisana his year-round job. “I get to do a lot of things. I run the payroll, and that doesn’t fit with an artistic profile, but I love to do it. I love to interview the kids and hire them. I love the guests. A lot of my days during the season are just spent listening to and talking with them and finding out what their year has been like, keeping them in the family.”
People have also been known to first meet their spouse here. Nathalie Parker Orans, a young opera singer from Connecticut, first came to Quisisana in the mid-1990s to work in the front office, and that’s when she met Jane Orans’s son, Sam. They were married on the beach at Quisisana in 2000 in a ceremony presided over by one of the guests. Nathalie returns to the resort each summer with Sam, who is now the manager, and their two children. This afternoon Nathalie sets up a row of folding chairs so that we can sit with Jane inside the music hall to watch the Quisisana staff perform a few pieces for a local television station. Located on the lake, the music hall was once the dining room for the Sunset Inn—the original sign from the inn still hangs outside the door. Sam wheels in a piano, then moves around the room adjusting the lights (he has been known to climb in the rafters to do so, much to his mother’s chagrin). Soprano Samantha Dango takes the stage wearing a floor-length dress. Dressed in a tuxedo, her partner (and fiancé), tenor Jeremy Blossey, follows her. Dango takes a moment to adjust Blossey’s collar before joining him in Mimi and Rodolfo’s duet “O Soave Fanciulla” from Puccini’s La Bohème. The room is silent save for their soaring voices, which reach out across the lake toward Mount Washington. Jane, flanked by Sam and Nathalie, smiles.