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Tosca is Dying to Meet You

Michelle Capalbo performs the role of Tosca (photo by Leslie Hassler Studio)

Nickel City Opera offers a Puccini favorite

OK, this article’s title might be just a bit of stretch. Tosca, the fearless heroine of Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name, (spoiler alert!) will die at the very end of opera, whether or not you are in the audience at the historic Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda next Friday, June 27 at 7:30pm, or the following Sunday afternoon at 2:30pm. On the other hand, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Metropolitan Opera baritone Valerian Ruminski, founder and artistic director of the Nickel City Opera, is dying to meet you, along with several of your friends, at one of next weekend’s performances of Tosca, as he continues his efforts to build a loyal audience for the Buffalo area’s only resident opera company.

Valerian Ruminski has overcome long odds since launching a new opera company, a New York State registered not-for-profit organization, six years ago with a production of The Barber of Seville in 2009. Subsequent yearly productions in June on the NCO home stage at the Riviera have included Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Bohème and last year’s Don Pasquale, with each successive staging demonstrating increasingly higher production values. Additional NCO productions have ranged from the offbeat, such as the 2011 staging of the one-act Il Tabarro, which is set on a river barge, on the USS The Sullivans destroyer in the Buffalo Naval Park, to a continuing yearly holiday family oriented staging of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Riviera.

Ruminski, who spent last weekend manning an informational booth at the Allentown Art Festival, is a tireless promoter of his vision: “I want to produce the very best opera in the most cost effective manner. I’m not looking to be the biggest but we want high quality.” Historically, running an opera company has been, more often than not, a continuing walk across a financial minefield that is littered with the fallen. Just this past May, the venerable San Diego Opera announced that it was going out of business after 49 seasons, but it won a last minute reprieve employing a successful crowd funding campaign that raised $1.6 million given by a broad cross-section of donors, triggering a $500,000 matching gift, and will present a reduced season next year of three fully staged operas.

Even the Metropolitan Opera, the undisputed premiere company in the country, has recently announced that it is facing a financial crisis. Some people familiar with the situation have, however, questioned the timing of the Met’s most recent press releases, observing that the house’s contracts with six of its unions expire next month.

“The big news,” says Ruminski, “is that Nickel City Opera is alive and well in its sixth year. We just passed a new, independent financial review, triggered by the fact that our revenues last season exceeded $100,000. We were also told that we had just the right mix of income streams, with half of our income generated by ticket sales, and the remaining half equally divided between gifts from our patrons and our board members, and grants from Buffalo-based foundations.” Ruminski always acknowledges the financial support that NCO has received from the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, the Fatta Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, John R. Oishei Foundation, and the George & Elizabeth Smith Foundation. And, you can now add the Cameron and Jane Baird Foundation to the list.

Last November, when it looked like that year’s production of the annual Thanksgiving weekend presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors would be the third and final one, family members of the Baird Foundation who had enjoyed the production, stepped in and offered to help keep it afloat so that it would continue to enchant future young audience members. This November’s production will have a new producer and director, since Ruminski will be singing a role in Verdi’s Macbeth in Manitoba during Amahl’s run.

“The problem is,” says Ruminski, “many opera artistic directors want to make a big living out of their jobs, but I don’t. Nickel City Opera runs from show to show, with virtually no full time staff, except me. Everyone else involved in putting on our productions is an independent contractor, and while I do pay myself, it isn’t a lot of money”. Anyone who wants to verify Ruminski’s statements can do so readily, since in a highly commendable act of financial transparency, he has posted the company’s Federal tax statements from 2009 to 2011 on its website.

Having the opportunity to stage Tosca represents something of an artistic homecoming for Ruminski. “I first sang in Tosca back in the early 1980’s in a production at Shea’s, as a member of the Boy’s Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral”, says Ruminski, “and I’m happy that we are able to include the current members of the boy’s choir in our production”.

Soprano Michele Capalbo, singing the title role in a Boston production of Tosca was described by the Boston Globe as “a young Canadian on the way to a major career. Her voice, particularly in the upper reaches, is by turns warm, sultry, and brilliant.” Metropolitan Opera tenor Adam Klein, who made a strong impression as Rudolfo in the NCO production of La Bohème, returns to sing the role of the unlucky painter Cavarodossi. While some of the local opera buffs may have expected to hear Ruminski in the arch-villain role of Scarpia, he says “the tessitura of the role is just too high for my voice”, so Canadian journeyman baritone Ted Baerg will make his company debut in the role. Ruminski will make an appearance as the Sacristan with James Wright as Angelotti and Michael Rabice as the Jailer.

Making his company debut, stage director Marc Verzatt, a lecturer at the Yale University School of Music, has directed opera productions at such noted venues as the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Houston Grand Opera. Conductor Michael Ching, a guest conductor at such companies as Opera New Jersey, the Nashville Opera and the Hawaii Opera Theatre, will return to lead an orchestra that includes many BPO musicians. The sets are from Opera New Jersey in Princeton and the costumes from Buffalo’s DC Theatricks.

This Sunday, June 22 at 4pm, tenor Adam Klein, accompanied by Michael Ching at the piano, with Valerian Ruminski as a special guest, will offer a selection of Polish vocal music at the Unity Church, 1243 Delaware in Buffalo as a fundraiser for Tosca. While the first half of the recital will feature traditional art songs, the second half will focus on the music of the most popular pop band in Poland back in the 1990’s, with Adam Klein, who was recently featured on the cover of Banjo News magazine with the caption “Meistersinger, banjo player...What can’t this man do?” demonstrating his unexpected virtuosity on the instrument, with pierogi treats at the post concert reception.

Opera tickets: $49/$47 Senior/$20 Youth. Phone: 692-2413. Information: rivieratheatre.org.

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