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La Boheme at Nickel City Opera

Despite its doubters, Valerian Ruminski's opera company is in its foruth season.

Puccini’s popular opera comes to the Riviera Theatre

Nickel City Opera launches its fourth season at the Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center in North Tonawanda with two performances of Giacomo Puccini’s best-loved opera, La Bohème, on Friday, June 29 at 8pm and Sunday, July 1 at 2:30pm.

The Nickel City Opera is the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone and Buffalo area native Valerian Ruminski, who launched his company in July 2009, with a production of The Barber of Seville. At that time, there were many people, no doubt, who questioned the wisdom of attempting to start a new opera company in a city that was particularly hard-hit by the deepest recession since the Great Depression. So, when Valerian Ruminski was recently interviewed and asked about the most important thing happening with his opera company, he did not hesitate: “Tell your readers that we made it to our fourth season.”

And, with so many other classical musical organizations, including symphony orchestras as well as opera companies all over the country, turning the lights out for good, Ruminski’s trenchant observation is much more than merely noteworthy.

The presentation of opera productions is without a doubt one of the most risky and expensive financial ventures imaginable, and the historical field is littered with the corpses of innumerable impresarios and arts organizations that have been felled by the harsh economic realities of producing live opera. Yet, Ruminski remains a true believer in the eventual possibility of establishing the firm financial basis necessary for the continuing, expanding artistic growth of his Nickel City Opera Company. “The company has gotten stronger during the past four years,” says Ruminksi, “and the grassroots support that we need to stay afloat has not only been consistent but has even grown. We’ve received financial support in past seasons from both the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, while the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo has supported us for the past two years.”

Ruminski says the company has established a strong board of directors, including, among others, Andy Anselmo, founder of the New york City based Singer’s Forum; Dr. Judy Wolf, the executive director of the former Greater Buffalo Opera Company; Dr. Michael Noe from the University at Buffalo; and the contralto and actress Suzanne Fatta.

“We’ve previously rented our sets from other opera companies, always an expensive proposition,” Ruminski says. “But we purchased the set for La Bohème from the Annapolis Opera, and we intend to rent it out in the future to generate income. For past productions we’ve used the Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra basically composed of graduate level students from the East Coast, whom we had to find housing for, which was costly. For the first time this year, our pit orchestra will be composed entirely of professional, union musicians, including many members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and I’ve managed to engage the sought-after opera conductor Michael Ching, who has worked with Florida Grand Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Opera New Jersey, Nashville Opera, Opera North Carolina, Virginia Opera, and Opera Memphis, where he also served as artistic director.”

Ruminski is also happy that he was able to engage the noted Swiss director Dieter Kaegi, who has directed more than 100 operas worldwide, having held posts at the English National Opera, the Zürich and Düsseldorf operas, and served as the director at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, as well as director of Opera Ireland for more than 11 years.

“I think that we have a very strong cast for this production,” says Ruminski. “Adam Klein, our Rudolfo, has sung leading tenor roles with the both the Met and the New York City Opera, and he has the kind of focused voice that can crack granite. Buffalo audiences will remember our Mimi, Maria Teresa Magisano, from her vivid portrayal of Rosina in the BPO production of The Barber of Seville at Artpark a few summers ago.”

Baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, who made his Met Opera debut as Schaunard in La Bohème, conducted by Placido Domingo, will sing the role of Marcello in this production, while Ruminski himself will sing the role of the philosopher Colline.

Of special interest to area opera lovers, soprano Jena Abati will be making her Nickel City Opera debut in the role of the coquettish singer Musetta. Abati, who is studying voice at the Eastman School of Music under Katherine Ciesinski, has already been featured in Classical Singers Magazine. “This has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Abati, who is a pre-med and music performance major at Canisius College. “Singing in an opera with these talented performers has proved to be the most valuable lesson I have had in my musical career, as they have helped me to grow and improve immeasurably as both an actress and musician.”

Ruminski has high hopes for the future of the Nickel City Opera. For the past four years he has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to get the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation to financially help a Nickel City Opera opera production in the stage lawn area located under the skyway. “Dan Hart, executive director of the BPO, and I have been trying for the past two years to get the ECHDC to financially help the Nickel City Opera and the BPO stage a quality, classy and glamorous major production in the harbor area,” Ruminski explains. “We had hoped to stage Aida this year, but even though we were called back for a second interview, our request for funding was ultimately turned down.

“The Santa Fe Opera began 65 years ago,” Ruminski muses, “with just some seats out in the desert, and it has since developed into the most important summer opera venue in the country. I think that if Buffalo were to develop a semi-permanent waterfront location for opera performances, it would attract a far greater regional and eventually a national audience, helping solidify our city’s reputation as a cultural destination.”

Tickets for La Bohème ar $34-$59; seniors, $29-$54; students, $24-$49. For more information, call 692-2413 or visit

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