April 26, 1879: Madame Nordica (1857-1914) takes nine curtain calls after a stunningly successful performance in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Brescia, Italy, during the opening phase of her long singing career.

The singer, who spent the first eight years of her life in Farmington, Maine, as Lillian Norton, changed her name to make it more pleasing to the ears of prospective opera fans in Italy. Her critical breakthrough occurs in 1894 in Bayreuth, Germany, where she sings the role of Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

For the next 15 years, she is recognized as one of the world’s greatest opera singers. In 1911, past her prime, she returns to Farmington and performs for fans in her former hometown.

Three years later, Nordica is shipwrecked while on a concert tour of the Pacific. As she lies dying of pneumonia in Batavia (now Jakarta), her accompanying violinist, Francis Holding, of Lewiston, plays some of her favorite music for her.

April 26, 1983: Samantha Smith (1972-1985), a 10-year-old Manchester girl, writes a letter to Yuri Andropov, leader of the now-defunct Soviet Union, telling him she is worried about a potential U.S.-Soviet nuclear war and asking Andropov what he would do to prevent one.

Ten-year-old Samantha Smith of Manchester holds the letter from Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov in late April 1983 that has his personal assurance that the Soviet Union “will never, but never be the first to use the nuclear weapons against any country.” The fifth-grader had written to Andropov earlier in April congratulating him on his new job. Associated Press/Pat Wellenbach

She becomes famous when he replies and invites her and her parents to tour the Soviet Union for two weeks at his government’s expense. The Smiths accept the invitation. In July 1983 they go to the Bolshoi Ballet and visit Leningrad – now St. Petersburg. Samantha Smith spends five days at Artek, a Soviet children’s camp, spending her time there swimming, dancing and putting peace messages in bottles and setting them adrift in the Black Sea.


Some critics deride the trip as a Soviet publicity stunt that exploits the Smiths, but others praise the girl as a symbol of hope for peace.

The girl’s fame leads to high-profile TV interviews, a trip to Japan, political appearances and offers to do other television work. She is cast as a regular in an action-adventure TV series, “Lime Street.”

An Aug. 25, 1985, plane crash in Auburn kills her and her father, but her legacy survives in a number of ways, including contacts between Russians and Americans.

“It was amazing to see,” former Artek camp director Valery Kostin says 30 years after Smith’s death, having met her at the camp in the summer of 1983. “She was very natural. Some men in the State Department were working so hard to deliver a good message through diplomacy, but this girl arrived like an angel and changed the way Russian people viewed the United States. With her childish, naive voice, she delivered a very powerful message.”

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: jowen@mainetoday.com.

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