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Valerian Ruminski Takes on a New Role: The Impresario

Buffalo native launches a local opera company

Many concertgoers arriving at a Buffalo Philharmonic concert a few weeks back might have recognized vaguely the man with the deep voice giving out handbills for an upcoming production of The Barber of Seville, at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, without actually placing him. After all, it is not often that you encounter a star of the Metropolitan Opera passing out flyers on the street in Buffalo.

But when you are Valerian Ruminski, artistic director of the newly formed Nickel City Opera Company, it is all in a days work.

“There has not been a major opera production company in Buffalo since Greater Buffalo Opera folded due to financial problems in 1997,” Ruminski said in a recent interview with AV. “Buffalo is a city with a fantastically rich cultural heritage that includes the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Albright-Knox and the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center, the University at Buffalo and the many area colleges, along with one of the finest public library systems in the country. Our city is a genuine cultural center that deserves, along with other major East Coast cities, to have its own permanent, resident opera company, and I think that our new organization, the Nickel City Opera Company will become that company.”

While Ruminski is quick to acknowledge the quality, smaller-scale efforts of Father Jack Ledwon’s Opera Sacra and Tim Kennedy’s Buffalo Opera Unlimited in the period since the demise of the GBO, he is convinced that this area can also support a resident opera company that produces two major productions each year. “There are probably a million and a half people in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula,” he says. “If we can develop just one-half of one percent of that number as an audience base, we will be able to sustain and grow the Nickel City Opera into a permanent, viable cultural institution.”

The rising star

A member of the Greater Buffalo Opera Company Chorus for several years, and later an apprentice singer with the same late, lamented organization, Ruminski received his B.A. degree in voice from UB in 1996. Following a pair of years as an apprentice with the Chautauqua Apprentice Program (1996) and the Santa Fe Apprentice Program (1997), Ruminski completed the prestigious four-year Graduate Certificate Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia Pennsylvania program. Since completing that program, Ruminski has forged his own distinctive path in the rarefied world of international opera, singing a wide variety of roles. He has performed with many of the great opera companies in the US and abroad, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Dallas Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Miami Opera, Minnesota Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Opera Ireland, Opera de Montreal, Opera de Monte Carlo, and the Birmingham Opera. Ruminski made his Metropolitan Opera simulcast debut as Lord Gualtiero Walton in the 2007-20008 season, in the acclaimed production of Bellini’s I Puritani featuring the Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko. Ruminski relates that the singer scheduled to play the part of Walton showed up very much under the weather—and not from the flu—and was summarily dismissed, with Ruminski substituting in the role at the last minute, to general critical acclaim.

In the fall of 2010, Ruminski will return to the Met for the simulcast of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. Singing the role of the jailer Nikitisch, Ruminski’s voice will be the first that the audience hears.

Bringing opera back to Buffalo

Starting a local opera company has been Ruminski’s dream for many years, but his continued, on-and-off fundraising efforts failed to reach critical mass until recently. In a newspaper article in 2007, Ruminski praised the restoration efforts at the Riviera Theatre, and that led to a telephone call from Frank Cannata, executive director of the Riviera Theatre Partnership, offering the Riviera as a home for the Nickel City Opera.

“The acoustics at the Riviera Theatre are very good for opera, and the ongoing restoration efforts have helped return the building to its former glory,” Ruminski says. “A financial grant from New York State will allow an expansion of the existing building, resulting in new rehearsal space and dressing rooms, along with a black box theatre. These improvements, along with the 1,100-seat size of the Riviera, makes it an ideal venue for a regional opera company.”

Launching a new arts organization, particularly one as complex as an opera company, is a risky business at any point in time, but especially so during a deep recession, like the one that we are now experiencing. Yet Ruminski exudes an infectious enthusiasm when he talks about making his venture work.

“It has really been the occurrence of a perfect storm of events that make the inaugural production of the Nickel City Opera possible,” he says. “The key event was the partnership with the Riviera Theatre, because that gives our opera company a home. Getting David MacAdam, assistant artistic director of the Ottawa Pocket Opera, to serve also as our assistant artistic director has allowed us to use many elements of that company’s staging of The Barber of Seville in our own production. We were also able to secure the use of the sets from the Syracuse Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville for significantly less than the going rate of five to ten thousand dollars.

“We realize that an opera company in Buffalo is not going to be a big money-maker,” he continues, “and that is why we have incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Our aim is to break even, and a key to doing that is to keep the budget low, while asking fair ticket prices. Our long-term plan is to establish a viable local opera company that produces two fully staged operas a year during the month of June, as a kind of summer opera festival, after the BPO season ends and before the Chautauqua Opera season begins in mid July.”

Ruminski is already planning future productions, including a fundraising event in December featuring two short operas, one by local composer Persis Vehar, along with a real sleeper: Zeus’s Head, a comedy written by Buffalonian Russell Link and set to music by Tom Rice, was performed only once previously, a half century ago in New York City. Already in the works for next year are Verdi’s ever-popular Rigoletto and American composer William Bolcom’s powerful, recently composed opera, A View From the Bridge, based on the play by Arthur Miller.

Ruminski has continued plugging away at fundraising, one of the key duties of the head of almost any nonprofit cultural organization. “I’ve been on the phone constantly for the last few months, making cold calls to any and all individuals and organizations that I can think of to gain support.” One such call led to a surprise donation of $3,000 from a Southtowns foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. A partnership program with students from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts allows selected students to study an opera as part of their curriculum and then to attend a performance, free of charge, when opera patrons buy an extra ticket when purchasing their own tickets, helping to build the next generation of opera lovers. Groups such as the Kiwanis Club and Opera Buffs have already purchased blocks of tickets in support of this program.

The Barber of Seville

While Ruminski plans to offer future productions in their original language versions, along with the use of projected supertitles, this production of The Barber of Seville will be sung in both Italian and English, with the recitatives, or dialogues, spoken in English. “While the Rossini finales will be sung at their usual breakneck speed, I’ll be working closely with both the director, David MacAdam, and the conductor, Zachary Kampler, to ensure that the dialogue is perfectly audible,” says Ruminski. Kampler will lead the Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, made of graduates from top-tier East Coast conservatory programs, while Tom Witakowski is the chorus master of the locally recruited chorus.

Ruminski has assembled a strong cast for his company’s debut production. American baritone Jack Packard, who originated the role of the Inmate in San Francisco Opera’s world premiere production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, will reprise his New York City debut role as Figaro. Tenor Benjamin Brecher, a veteran of a dozen New York City Opera productions, will reprise his role of Count Almaviva with that company, while Ruminski will sing the part of the slippery music master, Basilio. The young Canadian soprano Nadia Petrella will sing the part of Rosina, while another young Canadian, baritone Christopher Mallory, will sing the role of Bartolo, her guardian and would be spouse.

Pre-opening night fundraising events include an intriguingly titled “Bukowski Beer Drinking Cabaret” at Nietzsche’s, from 7-10:30 pm, this Saturday, June 20, with Ruminski doing the singing and Persis Vehar playing the piano in her own song settings of the works of the skid-row poet and cult figure Charles Bukowski. For the more traditionally minded, at 6pm on Monday, June 22, a six-course dinner at Ilio DiPaolo’s Restaurant in Blasdell will feature singing by Ruminski and several young artists. Finally, an Opera Gala Dinner will be served at the Riviera Theatre, right on the set of The Barber of Seville, at 6pm on Wednesday, June 24.

Performances are Friday, June 26, at 8pm and Sunday, June 28, at 2:30pm. Tickets are $20-$50, available at the Riviera Box Office (692-2413, Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm) or online at For more information, visit

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