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NEW COMPANY WILL SEEK TO REVIVE OPERA AT SHEA'S

After a nearly two-year hiatus, live opera is poised to make a modest comeback in Western New York.

A new group called Opera Niagara has risen from the ashes of the defunct Greater Buffalo Opera Company and will present two productions early next year in Shea's Performing Arts Center. The titles and dates will be announced later this month.

In an attempt to lure mainstream theatergoers to opera, one of Shea's touring Broadway musicals will be offered as part of the opera subscription package.

The plans were disclosed by Michal Wadsworth, a former president of the Greater Buffalo Opera Company who is Opera Niagara chairman; Patrick J. Fagan, Shea's president; and Jacek Wysocki, a former Greater Buffalo Opera Company board member who is secretary of the new opera venture. Michael Wallace is vice chairman, and David Sisson is treasurer of Opera Niagara.

Wysocki, a Buffalo lawyer, has been laboring to clean up the fiscal mess left by the collapse of the Greater Buffalo Opera Company amid a jumble of bounced paychecks, unpaid bills and cancellations following a financially disastrous production of "The Flying Dutchman" in November 1997.

The organization, in effect, went out of business after 11 seasons the following April, with a presentation of Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," presented in Shea's by the New York City Opera touring company.

Although the mountain of debt has shrunk, about $200,000 is still owed, mostly to Shea's and M&T Bank, the former opera company's principal corporate sponsor.

In Opera Niagara, Wysocki and Wadsworth think they see a way out. The new company plans to limit its financial exposure and perhaps even earn a surplus by partnering with Shea's, which offers management and marketing savvy.

"All of our financial management will be done through Shea's," Wysocki emphasized. Shea's will charge the opera company minimal rent and hold seats on its board.

Fagan said the marketing strategy will target both Buffalo's core opera audience, which numbers 2,000 to 2,500, and lovers of conventional musical theater who might "cross over" to opera. One focus will be southern Ontario, where large numbers of tickets were sold for Shea's production of "Phantom of the Opera" last spring and for British soprano Sarah Brightman's Oct. 1 concert.

Throwing in a Broadway musical with the opera series is a tactic "more and more opera companies are using" to build audiences, Fagan noted.

Shea's and Opera Niagara also will try to pitch opera to young professionals, already a large part of the musical audience base.

Linda Schineller of Schineller and Blanchard, a Williamsville marketing firm, will guide the marketing effort.

Opera Niagara might try to further minimize risk by co-presenting productions with the Syracuse Opera and Rochester Opera League. Discussions have been held with those organizations over the last two years, and an agreement with one or both "is still possible," Wysocki said.

The idea is to start slowly, pay down the old debt and generate income to support future opera seasons, he said.

Attempting a comeback is the only sensible avenue for opera -- and Shea's -- Wysocki and Fagan agree. Although "a fair number" of patrons and subscribers swore off opera after the Greater Buffalo Opera Company debacle, "others need opera in their lives," Wysocki said. "And we've put in so much effort over the last two years, we can't just walk away."

From the theater's standpoint, Fagan said, "if we don't do this, we won't get paid. If we do, we have a chance to be paid."

Last March, Buffalo Opera Unlimited, a smaller company, mounted a production of "Susannah" in the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda that was not on the same scale as those presented by the Greater Buffalo Opera Company.

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