The Opera Impresario of Buffalo

Valerian Ruminski and his Nickel City Opera Company bounce back for a new season

By JAN JEZIORO

Soprano Holly Bewlay sings the role of Diva

The Nickel City Opera Company (NCO) will return for its 9th season next week, when it presents its entirely new production of Mozart’s comic chamber opera The Impresario. In a bold move, Ruminski has scheduled each of his company’s four performances of The Impresario in a different location, in what he is calling the Buffalo Traveling Roadshow Opera. The first performance on Tuesday May 23, at Slee Hall on the UB Amherst Campus will take place at 7:30pm. The remaining three performances, all at 7pm, are on Wednesday May 24, at the Saturn Club on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, on Thursday May 25, at Villa Maria College in Cheektowaga, and on Friday May 26, at Canal Side, aboard the USS Little Rock in the Naval Park. The cast includes Brian Cheverie in the title role, Holly Bewlay as the Diva, Emily Yancey as the Ingenue, David Macadam as the Agent and Valerian Ruminski as Mr. Buttle.

During its first seven seasons, NCO produced fully staged, increasingly elaborate, and increasingly successful productions of some of the most favorite operas in the standard repertoire at the immaculately restored Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. Last year, after four plus years of laying the groundwork, Ruminski decided that the company was in a successful enough fiscal situation to take a chance and produce the premiere performances of a new opera by the nationally recognized and much awarded Buffalo-based composer Persis Vehar, and to put it on at a much larger venue, Shea’s Performing Arts Centre, a National Historic Site. Based on the assassination of President William McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in 1901, Vehar’s opera “SHOT!”, dealt with the most arguably significant event in our city’s history, when Buffalo was at the unequaled peak of its economic and social importance on the national scene. “SHOT!” should have been a hard-earned triumph for the company, but unfortunately things turned out differently.

Valerian Ruminski as president McKinnley in “SHOT” photo: KC Krat

“SHOT! stumbled at the box office for several reasons,” says Ruminski. “First off, we had to have the show on a weekend where certain factors worked against us. It was the same weekend as the Allentown Art Festival, there were other shows happening that weekend plus it was a gloriously warm and sunny day which, as we know, is rare for our town. The parking was horrible because of the Festival and everything else. On top of that we had to price the tickets up over what we normally charge because of the cost of mounting the show so it deterred many people from coming. The show was not known and many people were not willing to try something that they had no experience with. We did the best we could to push the word ‘opera’ out of the picture to allow for the fact that this was a ‘modern’ work that was different than a traditional opera since it was set in 1901. But it seemed people were not receptive to that interpretation. We had an excellent marketing plan and we expedited it. Everyone told us that they thought the show got great exposure. I think it was a case of the wrong show at the wrong time for a busy audience with too many choices. That said, it was a show I am personally proud of artistically and I am glad we brought it to life. It’s a piece of Buffalo history that was never fully dramatized which needed to be done and now it has. As for losses, NCO came in about 1/3rd under our target box office numbers. This was not fatal and our Board helped make up the shortfall as well as The Wendt Foundation which, due to fortunate timing, ok’d a grant which we had applied for before the show opened. We were left with a debt of about 5% of the entire production which we have whittled down since last July. Over all we sustained some damage but we won the war”.

While much appreciated locally, Valerian Ruminski’s long persevering efforts to establish a permanent opera producing company in Buffalo have gained notice on the national opera scene. Just last week Valerian was awarded the Opera America National Service Award, initiated back in the early 90’s to recognize the people who work tirelessly for the sake of promoting opera in the USA and abroad, and in previous years it has been given to opera luminaries such as Peter Gelb, director of the Metropolitan Opera and Placido Domingo of Los Angeles Opera.

“Receiving this award is very meaningful to me because my teacher and General Director of the former Greater Buffalo Opera Company Dr. Gary Burgess received this same award in 1996. To have reached the same milestone as Gary in my work with NCO is very gratifying. Unfortunately, the GBOC only survived into its 11th season. Obviously, I want NCO to keep going for many more years and this is a step in that direction. I am committed to succeed with NCO here in Buffalo despite whatever opposition or obstacles or setbacks we might have because that is my character and my goal. Furthermore, the recognition of Buffalo NY in the opera community matters. The introduction I received before being handed this award was about the Buffalo region and its history of opera and how we were emerging economically after years of being depressed. I am proud to see myself as an ambassador of Buffalo to the greater national and international community. Singing and opera is a universal art form and I have always been driven to make Buffalo relevant and respected in the global market with what we do. Premiering SHOT! at Shea’s Buffalo, our new opera about the McKinley assassination, was an example of this. People must realize that art and culture is what humans live and breathe to experience. We are not here to merely work and survive. To truly live you must grow through the experience of art and culture and that is why I want Buffalo to be a viable participant in the opera community. In the bigger picture, NCO has begun to be recognized and respected for producing high quality shows like our SHOT! premiere. Professional singers, directors, stage managers, actors and dancers have been hired and brought to Buffalo for NCO operas. They all go back into their respective communities and spread the news that Buffalo has a professional company worthy of accolades. This award reinforces that truth. Moving forward into our 10th Anniversary Season we will continue to grow, seek to display the same quality work that we have since our inception and work to fortify our standing artistically, financially and with a reputation for excellence”

“Everyone who works with NCO works hard to make this company thrive”, says Valerian, “and we could not have grown to where we are without Eileen Breen, Wesley Krantz, Frank Cannata, Michael Feeley, Fred Attea and our Board members and all the talented artists who have come through our town to participate in every show. I have driven trucks, made sandwiches for full orchestras, stayed up all night at times and worn more than 2 or 3 hats as director, producer, singer and provider as a labor of love to bring opera to Buffalo. I feel gratified, proud and enriched by my experience and I hope Buffalo will continue to help us survive in trying times. This company is well worth it”.

Always a realist, Valerian explained why he chose The Impresario for this year’s production: “For our situation right now, doing a smaller opera production was paramount and I have already participated in an Impresario production way back in the early 90’s with the Greater Buffalo Opera Company and Gary Burgess. It was a lot of fun and I wanted to capture that energy again. I thought that since I was familiar with the show I could put something together that was fun and contemporary for the audience that they would enjoy. NCO needed to do a smaller show and The Impresario fit that bill. I do believe, given our history, that NCO can put on a great version of it. We are opening with the Overture which will be played by Maestro Matthias Manasi from Berlin. Manasi is also giving Masterclasses at the Elmwood Community Music School on May 27th and June 3rd. It is an opportunity for good young singers to be heard by someone who can place them in concerts in Germany.

Maestro Matthias Manasi from Berlin.

His overture will be accompanied by some acting work as well as moments in between numbers which will augment the show. I don’t have a precise running time yet but I believe it will run close to an hour if not over an hour. This version, sung in English, will contain dialogue, modernized and localized for Buffalo, and to show you how modernized it will be, some of the characters use cellphones on stage. The Impresario, despite the Mozartian period it is from, is highly adaptable to any locale, any age and any audience. It is a work of great genius, as we all know Mozart was, and it is a work that does not get the same amount of exposure as Mozart’s other operas do. I also enjoy the piece because I rarely get to do much spoken dialogue in my own language and my character in this show speaks a lot and has a very ‘quirky’ personality and I like comedy”.

“We have been wanting to do something like the Buffalo Traveling Roadshow Opera for a few years now” says Valerian. “Many people do not have the motivation to drive long distances to see some of our shows so we wanted to bring the shows to them. We rarely do shows in downtown Buffalo or in the suburbs so all the venues reflect that desire to come closer to our audiences. Villa Maria College is a wonderful venue that does not get the exposure it used to get and we wanted to use their Recital Hall to do something. Also, unlike the USS Sullivans show we did in 2011, the USS Little Rock has a canopy over it, the audience will be only 5 or 10 feet from the performers as opposed to 30 or 40 yards. I do not believe the noise will be such a significant factor given the closer proximity of the crowd. The noise factor is also outweighed by the novelty of seeing any type of production on a ship in the harbor. Also, doing anything at Canal Side is very much in step with where Buffalo is going. The Naval Park is always happy to have us, and a show on a ship is always a fresh experience”.

“Everything NCO puts out is done with the highest effort at quality. While due to our lower budgets we have had to sometimes compromise slightly, over the years, I would say that when we put a show on it is very respectable, at the least. I urge the audience to come out and support us, as we move into our 10th Anniversary Season in 2018, to experience an evening of laughter and the sounds of Mozart. Finally, and by no means least, I would like to thank all our supporters and donors and all the Foundations that have contributed to our success and longevity over the years. Without the community support that we have received, NCO would not have lasted for these last nine years”.

Opera tickets: $25, cash or check at the door. Online at: www.eventbrite.com (type in Nickel City Opera). NCO Box Office: Phone 861-3071. Tickets for the May 23 and June 3rd master classes are $20. Tickets for the 9th annual gala dinner at the Saturn Club on June 6th are $60.

right: Valerian Ruminski (Don Magnifico) in La Cenerentola at Seattle Opera. Photo by Elise Bakketun
Valerian Ruminski as. Bartolo in Opera San José’s The Barber of Seville. Photo courtesy of Pat Kirk.