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Opera on the upswing; While other opera companies are floundering, Nickel City Opera flourishes by thinking outside the box

In opera, you think on your feet. Mezzo soprano Victoria Livengood learned that when she was on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, starring in "Carmen."

The last scene was just beginning when Placido Domingo, playing her spurned lover Don Jose, pulled her close.

"I forgot my knife," he whispered.

Don Jose is supposed to stab Carmen as the curtain falls.

Livengood, who is in town starring this weekend in Nickel City Opera's production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," went on singing, but inside, she said, she was in a panic. What would they do?

Luckily Domingo, older and more experienced, had an idea. "Give me your fan," he hissed.

She did.

"He stabbed me three times with the fan," she says. "One, two, three," she says, imitating the violent motion.

Livengood's sense of adventure makes her a perfect fit for Nickel City Opera, a company that has managed to thrive for three years by finding creative solutions.

Valerian Ruminski and Eileen Breen -- respectively, the creative and executive directors of Nickel City Opera -- have their own offbeat way of operating that makes the opera troupe, now in its third year, an alluring adventure. Its current projects prove that. For instance:

An artist for Heavy Metal Magazine drew the poster for Verdi's "Il Trovatore" ("The Troubadour").

On July 2 and 3 at dusk, the Nickel City Opera is staging Puccini's one-hour opera "Il Tabarro" ("The Cloak") on the USS Sullivans (the audience will sit on shore) at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.

Ruminski has also succeeded in getting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to consider staging "I Pagliacci" in a circus tent in the parking lot of Kleinhans Music Hall.

Most colorful of all is the tale of the costumes for "Il Trovatore."

The opera is a twisted, medieval drama whose convoluted goings-on made it the perfect centerpiece for the Marx Brothers' spoof "A Night at the Opera." Ruminski wanted to emphasize the medieval mood. So he and Breen called DC Theatricks, looking for medieval costumes.

They were told, "We might have something really good, but we can't tell you yet."

A few days later, the costume company called, triumphant. They had bid on, and bought, a big lot of costumes from the 1967 movie "Camelot."

Dave Dejac of DC Theatricks describes the costumes as men's tunics, elaborate capes and chain mail. "Some of them are from a carnival scene," he said, perhaps referring to "The Lusty Month of May."

"We haven't gone through it all yet," he says. One costume, albeit not one in "Il Trovatore," has been identified. "We found a small boy's tunic. My wife recognized it right away."

Sure enough, the tunic had a label reading "Tom." It was worn by the boy to whom Richard Harris, at the end, sings the poignant reprise of "Camelot."

>Eat wings, sing Verdi

What do the simple folk do? Not opera.

Opera is expensive, Ruminski says, modeling a cape that may or may not have been worn by Richard Harris.

"The demands are greater because, take all the other art forms, layer them like a cake, and you have opera," he says.

Given the financial challenges, it is remarkable that Nickel City Opera appeared just as other cities' opera companies, like orchestras, are suffering. Rochester's Mercury Opera recently folded, and the New York City Opera is reportedly close to bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, the Nickel City Opera was accepted into Opera America, the opera equivalent of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Like the orchestra league, Opera America ranks companies dispassionately according to budget, which puts Nickel City Opera at the lowest level, Level 4. But Ruminski and Breen, attending a recent conference, were pleasantly surprised they were not seen as second-class citizens. With budgets tightening, bigger companies were interested in hearing their secrets of survival.

What are those secrets?

Besides thinking outside the box -- the opera box, that is -- the Nickel City Opera takes small steps. They stage productions at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre, which, though it has been likened to European opera houses, is affordable.

"Our productions break even," Breen says. "We keep costs low."

Operas so far have featured a competent orchestra from Westchester Community College, where Ruminski is an adjunct professor of voice.

In its first year, the Nickel City Opera staged only Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." The next year, it staged: Verdi's "Rigoletto" and, as a Christmas bonus, Samuel Barber's "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

In "Il Trovatore," as in past productions, Ruminski has relied on his personal connections, singers he works with at opera houses around the world.

Ruminski schedules productions in June because, as a singer himself, he knows that is when singers have free time. His colleagues appreciate that, as a singer, he understands their schedules and needs.

That, and there is that buffo sense of humor.

"He said, 'Want to come to Buffalo, eat some wings and sing Verdi?' " Livengood laughs.

>An opera called 'Shot!'

Ruminski chooses operas with mainstream appeal.

"There's a reason why 'Il Trovatore' is one of the most popular operas," he says. "The beautiful music is what you're coming to hear."

A revolutionary at heart, Ruminski admires some contemporary operas. Nickel City Opera is in the process of commissioning an opera from local composer Persis Vehar, called "Shot!," about the assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo.

But the troupe hopes to hook opera novices, and Verdi classics are a sure thing.

"New operas are mostly story-driven and music-anemic. People are allergic to melody in this day and age," says the opinionated Ruminski. "You come away from 'Trovatore' or 'Rigoletto' humming things."

Ruminski himself sings the first big number of "Il Trovatore." It's a haunting tune like a medieval ballad that sets the stage by describing a horror story involving a witch, a curse and a baby destroyed in a fire.

He has won competitions with the piece. "I sing it the way Verdi wrote it, very percussive, like gunfire," he says.

The room is alive with energy and camaraderie as Ruminski and Livengood rehearse a violent scene from the last act under the watchful eyes of director Henry Akina.

Both "Il Trovatore" and "Il Tabarro" are heated and intense. Both involve love triangles. Both end with the discovery of dead bodies. Two operas in a row mark a new high for Nickel City Opera.

As a Buffalonian might put it, though, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.

"With two or three productions under our belt, I can say the patient has a heartbeat," Ruminski says. Local foundations, he adds, have been generous.

"But we need more volunteers and support," he says.

"If opera gets bigger, everyone benefits. There is no down side to having a great opera company in our town."


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