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Begin with‘Boheme'; If you ever had a notion to see your first opera, ? head to Nickel City's production this weekend

Opera is for the young. Just look at Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme."

The opera is about artists who are young and idealistic. They dream big, have trouble paying their rent, get together and break up.

The opera is being performed this weekend by Nickel City Opera at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre. Buffalonians will find it a great first opera, says Valerian Ruminski, Nickel City Opera's executive director.

" 'La Boheme' is from what's called the verismo era of opera," Ruminski says in his deep bass voice. "It's an opera written about real people, an almost blue-collar approach. And if there's one thing this town can understand, it's the blue-collar approach."

"La Boheme" means "the bohemians" in Italian. So timeless is the opera that it inspired the Broadway musical "Rent."

"These are young people. They don't have a lot of money. They're living on the edge. All they have is their spirit and their desire to get ahead and try to be artists. They're living on the edge of society. They're inspired and they're idealists. They want to suck the marrow out of life.

"It's about young love. [The hero, Rudolfo] falls in love with a girl who is dying. It's access to people who aren't opera people. It could be happening next door to you. It's not the king of England."
Buffalo chanteuse Susan Peters tends bar at Nietzsche's, arguably the most bohemian bar in Buffalo. She loves "La Boheme."

"It has it all – love, sickness, death. It just mirrors love and life. It's got everything!" she says. "All the larger-than-life things that make opera opera. It's universal and personal at the same time."

She laughs recalling how her friend Bob Stark, a Nietzsche's patron, took her and her mother to "La Boheme" at Artpark.

"My mother had never been to an opera before. He made a huge feast for us, with homemade smoked cheese. We ate and we saw opera. I loved it. My mom did, too. From that point on, it fulfilled something in her life."

Peters was taken back to that night when she saw a video of a "La Boheme" flash mob. "They started singing one of the great arias, in the middle of some market.

"I was choked up. I was bawling. It was fabulous."

>A chat over a Guinness

"La Boheme" is set in the early 19th century Paris – roughly the time and place of "Les Mis."

Some of this weekend's costumes, which come from DC Theatricks, appeared originally in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," a historical drama set in New York City.

Ruminski, an internationally respected bass-baritone, is importing a German director, Dieter Kaegi. They met in Ireland when Ruminski was singing Verdi's "Macbeth" with the Dublin Opera. "He's a world-class director," Ruminski says. "We had a discussion over a Guinness and worked it out."

The opera, performed in Italian with English supertitles, is family friendly. There is even a children's chorus that plays a small part.

"We have about seven kids in the chorus," Ruminski says, adding that the children love it. They're usually in choruses where they're always being told not to sing too loud, Now they can sing loud. This is opera."

Puccini's opera is especially suited to Nickel City Opera, which operates in a rather bohemian manner.

The troupe recently named its first board of directors, Ruminski proudly reports. One board member is Vernon Siegel, president of SR Instruments, an industrial weighing company in Tonawanda. Another is John Hoffman, the owner of Buffalo Bar and Grill on Louisiana Street. "He's got a boarding house upstairs. He's putting up some of the chorus," Ruminski says. "That helps us out."

But Ruminski still oversees most things.

He is the marketing department, shaking people's hands, handing out fliers in a Mozart costume at the Allentown Art Festival a few weeks ago.

He is the receptionist, answering the phone at the Nickel City Opera offices in a strip plaza on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga.

And he is the publicist, in between picking people up at the airport, picking up costumes and arranging and singing in rehearsals.

Did we mention he was singing the part of Colline, the opera's philosopher?

Puccini must be smiling.

>Renting a truck

The Riviera Theater crosses old-fashioned elegance and down-home intimacy, much like smaller European opera houses. Last summer the troupe staged another Puccini opera, the lurid, one-act "Il Tabarro," on board the USS The Sullivans.

Behind the scenes, though, every production has its own challenge. "La Boheme" posed the problem of finding the right set.

"One of the biggest set rental companies is in Binghamton, Tri-Cities Opera," says Ruminski. "But the set they wanted to give me didn't fit the stage of the Riviera. And they wanted more than the budget had."

Another set ended up being just drops. He despaired.

Then his luck changed.

"We got a call from Tri-Cities. ?They said, ‘We had a set we forgot about,' " he says. "It was in storage for 12 years. They said, ‘We'll give it to you for $3,500.' That was half of what we were going to spend. I said OK, and we rented our 25-foot Penske truck and drove down to Binghamton."

Ruminski loves to think outside the opera box.

The year 2013 is expected to bring "Shot!," an opera by local composer Persis Parshall Vehar about the McKinley assassination. Also in the wings, down the line, is Mozart's "Don Giovanni." "We're setting it in an office," Ruminski says.

"La Boheme" features an orchestra of local musicians, led by conductor Michael Ching. Adam Klein, featured in last summer's smoldering "Il Tabarro," is the hero, Rudolfo.

Ruminski makes contacts while singing around the world, and filling out "La Boheme" is an international cast typical of NCO productions. The comic part of the wealthy Alcindoro, for instance, is sung by a Russian, Mikhail Svetlav.

"This guy's hilarious," Ruminski says. "He's this Russian basso. I sang ‘Boris' [Mussorgsky's ‘Boris Godunov'] with him at the Met. He was making me laugh all through my run of ‘Boris.' He was able to drive up here. He's cracking everyone up."

"La Boheme," even with its affecting story, has its share of humor.

"The humor is surprisingly contemporary," Ruminski says. "The way love worked then is still the way love works today."

But bring the Kleenex.

"The question invariably comes up: What opera makes you cry?" Ruminski says. "Verdi doesn't make me cry. Wagner doesn't. Tchaikovsky, maybe. But Puccini! You cry in ‘Tosca' in certain parts. You cry ?in ‘Boheme.'

"You should try something once. Foods, too. If you're going to try opera once in your life, ‘Boheme' is one of the three operas that's going to hook you, bring you in. If you don't like ‘Boheme,' opera is probably not for you. ‘Boheme' is the litmus test."

email: mkunz@buffnews.com