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Making opera cool in Buffalo ; Valerian Ruminski believes his hip Nickel City troupe can succeed

The poster for "Rigoletto," the opera by Verdi being staged by Nickel City Opera, looks like a hip comic strip.

"See Rigoletto seek revenge against the Evil Duke!" it trumpets. And there are pictures labeled "The Assassin!" and "The Harlot!"

It's part of artistic director Valerian Ruminski's message to Buffalo, which is: You can be a regular guy and still like opera.

A year has passed since Nickel City Opera's first production, "The Barber of Seville." Since then, the opera troupe has made more inroads into what has long been considered a blue-collar town.

Ruminski has been meeting with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with an eye toward future collaboration, perhaps next summer at Artpark.

Meanwhile, he has plans in December for an "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and a Santa Claus opera he wrote himself, both to be performed at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre, where "Rigoletto" is being staged this weekend.

And as for "Rigoletto," taking place Friday and Sunday, ticket sales are brisker than they were for "Barber" at this point a year ago. Ruminski has been fueling the flames not only with the comic book poster but with stylishly low-budget ads currently running in area theaters before three artfully chosen movies: "Iron Man," "Sex and the City" and "Shrek."

"You can't get any broader than that," laughs NCO's executive director, Eileen Breen.

And if the people do not go to the opera, the opera can go to the people. There is no production of "Rigoletto" on Saturday because the roles are too taxing for the singers to sing three days in a row. To fill the dead air, Ruminski has scheduled a free opera arias concert at 7 p.m. Saturday in Cheektowaga Town Park.

It's his way of giving back to his hometown. "You can take the guy out of Cheektowaga," Breen jokes, "but you can't take Cheektowaga out of the guy."

Forty-three and single, Ruminski walks around with the kind of confidence a man can get only from having sung with the Metropolitan Opera.

"You've got to give him credit," says Dan Hart, the BPO's executive director. "He's very energetic and creative. People like him can make things happen."

While no BPO/NCO partnership is yet set in stone, Hart is optimistic. "We certainly like partnerships. We created one with the Neglia Ballet," he says. "It seems to me there's a very dedicated opera audience. One of the most amazing things is, the number of people I run into who go to the Met simulcasts at the theaters."

Ruminski believes, too, that there is an audience. His budget "Barber" wasn't perfect, he reflects. "I give it a B," he broods. But he was delighted with the turnout, and is certain that opera can continue to make it in Buffalo.

"The market is there," he says. "People are so negative about this market. I don't need all 400,000 people in the Buffalo area to go to my opera. I only need 4,000. I want to keep that number, and then expand.

"I'm no businessman, but I know how to put a good opera on stage."

On the road, Ruminski is always wheeling and dealing.

"That's the plus I bring," he says. "This networking thing is what makes this thing bubble."

One game of musical chairs began with his quest to book mezzo soprano Susannah Haberfeld, the daughter of Dame Gwyneth Jones, a famous Wagnerian soprano.

Haberfeld was originally intended to appear in "Rigoletto." It is her face that appears on the "Rigoletto" poster as "The Harlot!" Then there was a change of plans, and the role went to Heather Buck, of the New York City Opera.

Ruminski hopes to get Haberfeld next year, perhaps for a production of Bizet's "Carmen." Still, there is a catch.

"Flying freaks her out," Ruminski says. "She needs someone to fly with her. She won't fly alone."

Luck struck last November when he was in Dublin singing Verdi's "Macbeth" with Opera Ireland. Ruminski, who played Banquo, found himself having a Guinness with the opera's German director, Dieter Kaegi.

Kaegi said, "Ruminski, I'd like to direct an opera for your company."

Ruminski said, "Dieter, your budget here was 1.6 million euros. Our 'Barber of Seville' cost $55,000."

Kaegi said, "It would be fun. You're a fun guy. And it's in New York."

Ruminski laughs loudly, recalling how he had to enlighten Kaegi as to Buffalo geography. Miraculously, though, Kaegi let his offer stand. That gives Ruminski double cause to rejoice: If Kaegi comes here for "Carmen," he could fly in with Haberfeld.

"They know each other," he says. "Dieter could be her escort."

Besides Buck, the soprano, "Rigoletto" stars John Packard, who was "Figaro" in last year's "Barber," and also tenor Eric Fennell, who has been praised in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. The director is John Macadam of Ottawa Pocket Opera.

There will be two performances, at 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.


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