It is opening night, three hours before curtain at Quisisana, a summer resort in western Maine, and Randy L. Braunberger has butterflies. The source of Mr. Braunberger's anxiety is not his role as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, this summer's featured production. It is the 70 orders of roast halibut (with a compote of tomato and rosemary served with orzo and toasted pine nuts) and the 45 orders of grilled chicken breast (with sesame cucumbers served over rice noodles) that Mr. Braunberger, the resort's Paris-trained chef, must prepare for dinner.
Once Mr. Braunberger finishes in the kitchen, he will toss off his white tunic, smear on some greasepaint, don a houndstooth blazer and transform himself into the proper professor who, in turn, transforms Eliza Doolittle.
"Playing Shaw is much easier than preparing 4,725 meals a week," Mr. Braunberger said the next morning. "The show was fun. It was invigorating. By comparison, getting dinner ready was nerve-racking. To cook a good piece of fish and have it be moist you really have to pay attention to it."
Mr. Braunberger is but one of dozens of immensely gifted young performers who make Quisisana a magical place. Recruited from the best music conservatories in the land, they serve meals and clean cabins by day, then sing arias and play sonatas at night.
Situated on 47 acres just over the New Hampshire border on stunning Kezar Lake, Quisisana is equal parts summer camp, music festival and gourmand's fantasy. The combination, tried few other places in America, works marvelously well.
Performances take place, usually an hour or two after dinner, in the music hall, a lakeside building lined with windows that provide a lovely view of the lake and the Presidential range beyond. Sundays are devoted to chamber music, Mondays to musical theater, Tuesdays to a piano recital, Wednesdays to one-act operas, Thursdays to a musical revue, and Fridays to a concert of arias.
At the "musical welcome" on Saturday night, the performers offered a glimpse of all the entertainment planned for the week. The seven chambermaids introduced themselves with a soft shoe accompanied by the rhythm of rapping brooms and mops. "I've got Windex, I've got Endust, I've got Tilex, who could ask for anything more?" they sang.
As entrancing as the scenery at Quisisana can be, with the mountains rising gently behind the lake in layers of blue and gray, the key to Quisisana's success is the connection that guests develop with the staff. When the cabin boy who showed my wife and me to our cottage materialized that night in a musical revue, we found ourselves elbowing each other and pointing in recognition as if a second cousin had landed on Broadway.
We discovered that the introverted blond youth checking out sailboats and canoes played a haunting cello in a chamber music trio. Our chambermaid, baby sitters, and waiters all had parts in one-act operas or in My Fair Lady.
"I figure I get to learn two different skills that are going to be useful - acting and waitressing," said Andrea M. Maybaum, a theater student at Boston Conservatory who won our hearts with her voice and her fussing over our 10-month old daughter.
The music quickly becomes part of the scenery at Quisisana, inseparable from the views of a fiery sunset over the lake or the coziness of whitewashed cabins nestled among tall pines. While sunbathing on the beach, you can hear a soprano rehearsing in the nearby music hall. During a Tuesday evening cocktail party, the chamber musicians play on the grassy point jutting into the lake.
Many of the cabins have musical names - Andante, Adagio, Intermezzo. "You're in Pianissimo," whispered Jeff Goodman, our cabin boy, a music theater major at Arizona State. "So we must be very quiet." When the dining hall staff gathers around a table to sing their congratulations on a birthday or anniversary, they harmonize like a cathedral choir. T. G. I. Friday's it is not.
Quisisana, which is Italian for "A place where one heals oneself," is aptly named. Its restorative powers take hold almost immediately. There are no televisions and no phones in the 37 cottages, although several newspapers are delivered daily and pay phones are scattered about the property. The calm, soft water of the 10-mile-long lake seems to have a sedating effect, even on children. After an initial sting, the lake provides for delightful swimming, not to mention canoeing, kayaking, sailing, wind surfing, water-skiing and fishing. It is home to trout, salmon, bass and pickerel, as well as Stephen King, the novelist, who has a house a few miles north of Quisisana. The white sandy beach has plenty of chairs and umbrellas and there are cozy spots for reading everywhere.
There are hiking trails and a golf course nearby. One day, we took a 30-minute hike up Mount Sabbatus, which is three miles away, for a spectacular view of the region. In the resort itself are three clay tennis courts and a net for volleyball and badminton. Equipped also with table tennis and pool, Quisisana is well suited for teen-agers, although during our stay we mostly saw children under 7 on the lake shore and in the well-stocked toy room. The cabins, most of which have porches or decks, are comfortable, neither too Spartan nor too luxurious to let you forget that you are deep in the woods. Ours had two bedrooms, each with two beds, connected by a bathroom. The pine-paneled living area had a stone fireplace and was tastefully decorated with white wicker. A small refrigerator was stocked daily with ice and spring water.
Some of the cabins line the lake front, while others, like ours, are a short walk away in the woods. Some, like Love Nest, which extends over the lake on pilings, are booked up years in advance. Buildings are connected by pine-straw paths that are lighted by antique street lamps. Baskets of impatiens and geraniums hang from the pines. With a capacity of only 150 guests, Quisisana never fells crowded. And with a staff of 80, few wants go unfulfilled. "I think we've reinvented the word 'nice,' said Jane Orans, the resort's 58-year-old owner and den mother. When Ms. Orans, a Westchester County resident, and her artistic director, Dwayne Hartford, tour the country each spring to recruit staff, they look not only for talent, but for "a Quisi type - somebody who doesn't take themselves too seriously and seems ready to work as well as to sing."
The quality of the music is remarkable, particularly given that rehearsals must be sandwiched between making beds and chopping lettuce. Occasional slips, and they are rare, are more than overcome by a perpetual and infectious exuberance. Many of the performers, who range in age from 18 to 33, have professional credits to their names. Alumni have landed on Broadway and in the Metropolitan Opera.
Because the selections are accessible, without being pedestrian, they don't require an aficionado's ear to be enjoyed. During our week, the program included everything from Mozart's "Impresario" and Copland's "Four Piano Blues" to selections from Gilbert and Sullivan and Les Misérables.
Performances are usually followed by a snack - sometimes milk and cookies, other times cordials and candies - providing a chance to mingle with the performers. Many return year after year, saying the place has become a part of their lives. Marshall Taylor, the 29-year-old maitre d'hôtel in the dining hall, was back for his sixth year of musical theater. Jill Copeland, the music director and pianist for the classical programs, had returned for a fourth summer.
Despite the dedication of those professionals, the last night's music is not always the main topic of conversation the next day. "Though we'd like to think everyone is talking about the performances, I find that a lot are actually talking about the food," says Ms. Orans. Indeed, the food was ample and the menu creative, with breakfast offerings that included a full range of fruit, cereals, omelets, pancakes, waffles, and heavenly blueberry muffins and scones. At breakfast, you make selections for lunch and dinner. (A children's menu is available.) Our favorites: salmon leek roulade and shrimp scampi.
Although there is an adequate selection of wine and beer, Quisisana does not serve hard liquor. Dress at all meals is informal, but bathing suits are prohibited and athletic wear is discouraged at dinner. All meals are served in a central dining hall, where Ms. Orans' attention to detail can be seen in the perfect matching of the flowered china with the fresh alstromeria on the tables.
Old Quisisana hands and newcomers end up describing their time there as almost a religious experience. I asked a 20-year-old with a deep soulful voice, why she chose to spend three months in the Maine woods, working much of the day as a chambermaid, rather than in summer stock. "It doesn't offer Equity eligibility or anything like that," she said. "But it offers more spiritually and that's why I'm here."
By Kevin Sack