Tonawanda News

May 19, 2013

ADAMCZYK: When life is a comic opera

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — All right, try building a cultural organization, from scratch, and make that an opera company, in a community where fledgling opera troupes have come and gone. A community with plenty of opera fans, but plenty of others who have never experienced a full-scale, start-to-finish opera.

The Nickel City Opera, headquartered in a perfect place for it, North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre, turns five this year with something funny: Gaetano Donizetti’s 1842 comic opera “Don Pasquale.” More to the point is that the company has taken root as one of Western New York’s cultural attractions and treasures.

Opera here, prior to the establishment of Nickel City, was a little like baseball; the local fan appreciates what he or she has, but for a dose of the serious stuff, a trip to New York, Toronto or Cleveland is in order. The area now has a serious and dedicated opera company, one for the opera enthusiast to admire but equally accessible for the first-timer, the couple on a date or the young and aspiring music major.

Wearing a plaid shirt and jeans in a Tonawanda coffee shop, Nickel City impresario (and executive director, globetrotting opera basso and former West Seneca boy) Valerian Ruminski demonstrates how to sell opera tickets. It’s called guerilla marketing. Table to table, introductions followed by handouts. Never been to an opera? Your father liked opera? Don’t like opera? Well, you’re missing something great. Each potential ticket buyer gets a brochure and a little chatter, and likely does not know he or she is talking with the opera’s star.

“We’re marketing ‘Don Pasquale’ as a comedy, and I’m doing the lead,” Ruminski says about the next production at the Riviera Theatre, the golden age North Tonawanda movie house that neatly resembles a European opera house. “It’s the hardest role I’ve ever done. I did it with the Hawaii Opera Theater last year. I’m on stage, 80 percent of the time.”

He plays the role of an aging doofus, and there’s a lot of physical comedy in it. It’s a demanding role.

Tickets are selling well, he says, “because last year’s production of ‘La Boheme’ was so good. Sixty percent (of the audience) had never seen ‘La Boheme.’ Sixty percent had never been to the Riviera.”

So an opera singer, nowhere near over the hill in terms of his career, returns to his hometown to start an opera company of his own, while continuing to perform in cities around the world. You could make a funny, if exhausting, movie from this.

“Giving to the community gives back to the company,” Ruminski says of the many social engagements on the Nickel City calendar. There are lunches, dinners, raffles, nights in churches in which several of the troupe’s local singers perform recitals, low-cost marketing galore.

It is important to note the opera performances (June 28-30, in the case of “Don Pasquale” this year) are full-blown professional productions, with soloists, sets, lights, an orchestra — the works. This is not a presentation of amateurs.

The opera will be directed by David Grabarkewitz of the El Paso (Texas) Opera. The orchestra, conducted by David Ching, is from Westchester County. The soloists are Ruminski as Don Pasquale, Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez as Norina, Benjamin Brecher as Ernesto and James Wright as Malatesta. A chorus of 15, an orchestra of 16. This is how it works in the opera world; all the principles fly in to rehearse and perform, then fly out to the next gig.

“Two weeks,” Ruminski says of the three-day production. “All in, all out.”

This seems to be working. The Buffalo area now has an established opera company to complement its art galleries, symphony orchestra, football team and the rest of the cultural touchstones an urban center features, and it’s parked in North Tonawanda.

“The economy’s getting better, but that never really affected us,” Ruminski said over coffee. The last time we played, two nights, we played to 75 percent capacity.”

The Riviera Theatre holds about 1,200 people.

“We submitted grants, two years ago, to the National Endowment for the Arts. They were dubious. Now we’ve got nine major productions (over five years) under our belts.”

The Nickel City Opera has commissioned a work of its own. “Shot!,” about President William McKinley’s assassination, is “98 percent finished,” Ruminski says. With libretto by Ruminski and Gabrielle Vehar, and music by Persis Behar, the two-act opera (with scenes at the Milburn House, the Pan-American exposition grounds and Leon Czolgosz’s jail cell) will be ready for its 2014 premiere at either the Riviera or at the Canton, Ohio, Opera house (McKinley’s hometown). 

In a world in which people say a lot and little comes of it (Buffalo, historically, seems to be Exhibit A in that category), Ruminski came home and started his own little opera company, and has seen it grow like a garden. Hard work and worry seem to be secrets of its success, but that’s show business.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he reminisced. “We nearly cancelled the first ‘Amahl” (“Amahl and the Night Visitors,’ the Nickel City Opera’s annual pre-Christmas performance). 

“I always expect the worst. I’m overprepared. You gird against failure by being prepared.”

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at