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Nickel City Opera at Five

Valerian Ruminski welcomes opera lovers in front of the Riviera Theatre (photo by Caroline Esposito)

The founder of the Nickel City Opera Company celebrates his company’s 5th anniversary

When Metropolitan Opera bass Valerian Ruminski announced that he was starting a new opera company based in Western New York in 2009, there were plenty local skeptics who thought “Good luck with that.” After all, putting on opera has always been an expensive proposition, with the history of the genre, both generally and even more specifically locally, being littered with the corpses of defunct opera companies. To attempt to launch a new opera company during the depths of a major, national recession, in an area that had been already suffering economically seemed, if not quite the height of folly, at least somewhat naively optimistic.

It is safe to say that Valerian Ruminski has proved the naysayers wrong, as his Nickel City Opera Company prepares to launch its fifth season this weekend at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, with a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s sparkling comic masterpiece Don Pasquale, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm and with a Sunday matinee at 2:30pm.

This year’s production of Don Pasquale follows the company’s highly successful production of La Bohème, which sold more than 75% of the Riviera’s seats during its two-day run, according to Ruminski, who remains a believer in his opera company’s mission. “Some people believed that we shouldn’t have started an opera company at this level,” says Ruminski. “They would argue that unless you have a certain level of financial support, it’s a mistake to try and start an opera company. I would say to them, ‘If not now, then when?’ We took the plunge because we believed that area opera lovers would support our new company, and after the success of La Bohème last season, we are adding a third performance, on Saturday night, in addition our usual Friday evening and Sunday matinee performances”.

“The one word that keeps coming up as I receive feedback on our productions is ‘value,’” says Ruminski. Citing a region and era where dollars are tight, Ruminski says many different forms of entertainment compete to receive peoples’ hard earned money. “I’m proud to say we’re able to keep the ticket prices of our productions reasonable and still provide audiences with a quality show, including professional opera singers and musicians.”

Many local opera buffs agree, including WNED classical music host and avid opera goer Peter Hall, who says “As I sat in the audience at La Bohème last year, I thought that it’s all come together—Buffalo has a real opera company. The first two years, the orchestra makeup held the singers back, while in the third season, Il Trovatore might have been too ambitious, but it all came together last year in La Bohème.” Hall’s observation about the orchestra refers to the fact that for the first three seasons the opera company employed the services of the Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra made up of college students. For the first time last year the opera orchestra was made up of professional area musicians, ably led by conductor Michael Ching, who has worked with Florida Grand Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre and Opera New Jersey, among other companies, and who will be returning for this year’s production of Don Pasquale. New to this year’s production is the acclaimed opera stage director David Grabarkewitz, who Ruminski says is both imaginative and funny. Grabarkewitz, just named the new Artistic and General Director of El Paso Opera, continues to be the resident stage director of the New York City Opera, where he has directed productions in a wide range of operatic styles.

Ruminski, who will himself sing the title role of Don Pasquale, has performed the role once before, last year at the Hawaii Opera Theatre, but he will soon be singing the role, this time in German, in August at the St. Anton am Arlburg Festival in Austria. “I use a combination of muscle memory and visual memory to help me sing the same role in two different languages,” says Ruminski, who has some strong feelings about the role of prompters in opera. “I hate them,” he says, “they are part of an overbuilt, redundant system to prevent mistakes, but yet they are like vultures, justifying their paychecks by living off of mistakes.”

Baritone James Wright, who appeared in the role of Schaunard in last season’s La Bohème and as King Melchior in the NCO’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, will sing the role of Dr. Malatesta, Don Pasquale’s physician and putative matchmaker. Tenor Benjamin Brecher, who has appeared in numerous roles at the New York City Opera as well as at Opera de Montreal and at Glimmerglass, will sing the role of Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew, who by refusing to marry the woman his uncle wants him to marry, risks losing his inheritance. The role of Norina, the lovely young widow who is Ernesto’s true love, will be sung by the rising young Puerto Rican soprano Zulimar Hernández, who recently made her Opera Santa Barbara debut in the same role.

Ruminski has consistently tried to push the envelope for his opera company, as in his staging a couple of seasons ago of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, which takes place on a barge, on the deck of the USS The Sullivans destroyer, at the Buffalo Naval Park, a production that was marred somewhat by the ambient traffic noise from the Skyway. This season, Ruminski had wanted to present the world premiere of “Shot!” a two-act opera about the assassination of President McKinley by the nationally recognized, Buffalo based composer Persis Parshall Vehar, who was recently named Composer-in Residence by the NCO. Ruminski had high hopes of his opera company producing Vehar’s new work at Artpark, in Lewiston. After a number of talks with George Osborne, the Director of Artpark, Ruminski had a verbal commitment to the new production on a Friday, only to find out the following Monday that the deal was off. While Ruminski is currently involved in an effort to have “Shot!” premiered in Canton, Ohio the city where McKinley settled after his Civil War military service, it’s a real shame that his efforts to debut Vehar’s opera in her hometown fell apart due to the short-sightedness of Artpark management. The days when Artpark was a regional summer magnet for enjoying several operas each season are seemingly gone forever.

Tickets: $24-59. Phone: 692-2413. For more information visit:

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