Rizk Seeks "New World" Of Music

by Jeanne Belovitch

"I was one of the best singers in Boston in my day, "says Helen Salem Rizk, owner of New World Travel.

Raised on Shawmut Avenue and now a resident of Union Park, Rizk has spent nearly half a century in the South End, only leaving the neighborhood to live for short stays in Europe, Bermuda and less glamorous Malden, Massachusetts. Her long-time friend David Thompson enjoys calling her "queen of the South End."

Rizk remembers her youth on Shawmut Avenue as "nice, happy days. It's great seeing now some of the neighborhood kids graduating Harvard and becoming leading citizens," she adds.

Her own success as a singer, however, could have taken her anywhere in the world. "I chose to live in the South End," she explains. "The South End is home to me."

Rizk studied opera at Boston University, then called Boston University College of Music. At 18, she had already performed at Carnegie Hall. Contemporary composer Alan Hovhaness singled her out during the first Bach Festival for the University at Jordan Hall. Hovhaness was so impressed with the richness of her soprano voice that he wrote Avak the Healer expressly for her. She performed solo with members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Hovhaness conducted.

"None of my family came to the performance," Rizk recalls light-hartedly. "They couldn't afford the transportation (to New York)." Hovhaness also was a South End resident at the time, living on Hanson Street. He currently is composer in residence at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

A strong-willed and independent woman with a dramatic and flirtatius style, Rizk later was the only woman of 30 singers to tour the country with Boston University's Seminary Singers.

She began singing before audiences at age six. She was a regular member in several Boston church choirs, and she knew at this early age that she wanted to be an opera singer. "When I first sang solo the feeling was wonderful. I thought I was an opera singer." Rizk attributes her talent to her grandfather, who was in charge of music programming for his church in a small town outside of Beirut, Lebanon.

Oratorio and the classics are Rizk's favorite music. She has attended Saturday night performances at Symphony Hall for the last 10 years. She does not, however, care much for Cole Porter.

Because music is so much a part of this energetic woman's life, on one evening a month musicians crowd into her home to perform with her for the sheer fun of it. A lover of being center stage and going---'solo,' Rizk admits, "I'm the only singer in the group."

"There's hardly any difference between Maria Callas singing and Helen, "says Thompson. Rizk quickly adds, "You think he likes me?" A former Baptist minister, Thompson helps Rizk three days a week at her travel agency.

Practically every church congregation in this city has delighted to the beauty of this woman's voice. For 20 years, she has been singing at the first Parish Church in Dorchester. "It is a community and responsive church," she says. "They do real work of a living Rizk also has sung at the Gardner Museum, countless weddings and functions, as well as at several New Hampshire churches. "Cruise directors always get me to sing." she notes. One other favorite place for sing-alongs is Dellmnico's at the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square.

Amid her music, Rizk has owned and operated her travel agency for the last 10 years. She recently moved its location from Weymouth to its current Tremont Street address. Attempting to join art withtravel, she explains, "I plan to lead a group of music-loving people through the Holy Land singing religious songs out loud and clear."

Her travel agency grew oout of a new-found appreciation for "other worlds" as she put it. After a family death, Rizk travelled for awhile to gather her wits. She liked travelling and the foods and music of other countries so much that she decided to open up a travel agency upon her return to the United States.

Rizk admits, however, that it is frustrating having two such strong interests. "I find it difficult. I give all my time to the travel industry. Leisure time goes to music." Prior to the travel agency, Rizk taught music privately, worked in a social service agency and for the city of Boston.

She is married to Dr. F. Randolph Philbrooke, a distinguished epidemiologist.

Source: South End News, Boston, MA; 1984