Nickel City Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro” is the best yet.

Buffalo Rising

June 27, 2015


This is the best Nickel City Opera (NCO) production to date. Don’t miss it. It’s really, really good. And that hasn’t always been the case with NCO. The overall ensemble balance between the singers was even, the orchestra sounded more robust than usual, and all of the “details” – the set, the costumes, the lighting, all came together this time.  And the new Riviera projector made the super-titles (which were very cleverly written) come to life. If you have avoided NCO because of some mis-steps in the past (the most recent “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and 2011’s “Il Trovatore” were painful) then this time you will be missing a wonderful treat.

Three singers deserve special praise right at the top.  As Figaro, Valerian Ruminski put his well-known ego on hold and instead brought forth all of his art, craft, and experience from singing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and around the globe. He was believable, nuanced, and really quite funny during the comic bits, all of which happen in ensemble, where it would ruin the moment to ham it up. This was his moment; it’s a big role requiring great acting chops and Ruminski brought all of his skills to bear.

Young Jena Abati stood out as Barbarina, which is an ingénue role with music composed by a man who loved sopranos (Mozart first fell in love with Aloisa Weber, but when she became unavailable he married her sister, Constance Weber, both highly regarded singers of their day). Abati’s voice and demeanor were perfect for the role.  Abati is currently studying to be a Physician’s Assistant, we hope that she’ll stay in Buffalo for years to come.

Ray Chenez sings the role of Cherubino, the teenage boy who falls in love with anything wearing a skirt (although he’s finally reigned in by Barbarina). Usually this is a “pants role,” meaning that a soprano plays the part. Chenez is a counter-tenor, singing the entire role using the male falsetto voice, which is a rare treat.  And, he can act.

Also notable were Jessica Best as Marcellina and Maria Teresa Magisano as Countess Rosina. However, while the countess’s famous “Dove sono” (in which she wonders what happened to the blissful marriage she once enjoyed) was serviceable as was her “Sull’aria” duet with Amy Grable (also a nostalgic moment), neither rose to the sublime level that opera goers have come to expect. I suspect that may have something to do with the orchestra, which, due to the limited space in the Riviera pit, just cannot hold enough string players. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music maven, you must have heard the Nelson Riddle arrangements for Frank Sinatra.  You can’t create that kind of magic with only five violins.

However, even with only 18 players, this was the best orchestra that NCO has assembled to date. With Mozart, as with Beethoven, it’s all in the woodwinds. And check out this lineup: Marlene Witnauer, flute; Susie Myers, oboe; Sal Andolina (yes!) and Andrea Runfola, clarinets; Ellen Barnum, bassoon; and Tim Schwartz and Rose Valby, horns.  Holy Amadeus! These cats can play. And what holds a great combo together? Drums and bass. A special shout-out goes to Andrew Ziemba, tympani and Paul Zapalowski, double bass.

And a special kudo to Michael Ching, not only the waving your arms around conductor, but also the harpsichord player for the recitative (spoken) portions, just as it was done in Mozart’s day.  Very impressive. While I usually despise electronic instruments, I don’t think that they could have fit a real harpsichord into the pit.  Also, unlike a real harpsichord which, being all wooden, is almost impossible to keep in tune, the electronic harpsichord serve as a constant and consistent “pitch pipe” to the rest of the orchestra, which I believe led to a more cohesive sound.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because my expectations may have been too high, I didn’t think that Buffalo favorite (and mine too) baritone James Wright was quite the Count Almaviva that I wanted.  With his matinee idol good looks and smooth baritone voice, Jim didn’t quite fit the role of the disreputable aging womanizer and really crappy husband. I believe that we are supposed to dislike the Count and all that he represents. And because everyone who’s acquainted with Jim knows he’s such a really nice guy, it was almost impossible to believe him in the role. I think in 10 years, Jim might make a great Don Giovanni, and could pull off that trick that actors Larry Hagman (“Dallas”) and Jon Voigt (“Anaconda”) accomplished, going from “good guy” to “bad guy” in a manner that audiences accept, even though it shocks them.

The set was ideal and cleverly used (and cleverly recycled from the opera “Don  Pasquale” two seasons ago). The lighting by Derek Heckler was sensitive to the mood, and the wigs and make-up (Georgiznna Eberhard and Elaine Rubach), and costumes (DC Theatricks/Jodi Mancuso) were very, very convincing. 

After the Sunday afternoon, June 28th performance, the next project for NCO is a new, 21stcentury opera, “Shot!” by Persis Vehar. Let’s hope the momentum keeps going.

BWW Previews: SHOT! A World Premiere presented by Nickel City Opera at Shea's Buffalo Theatre

Broadway World

May 16, 2016

Buffalo's Nickel City Opera Presents SHOT! An Original Work By Persis Vehar Based On The Assassination Of President William McKinley At The 1901 Pan American Exposition.

Buffalo, New York - Out of a sense of homegrown spirit and pride, Nickel City Opera enlisted the 27 time ASCAP award winning composer, Persis Vehar to set a libretto to music based on the assassination of President William McKinley at the 1901 Pan American Exposition by Polish-American dissident and self proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Commissioned by Dr. Judith Wolf and written by librettist Gabrielle Vehar, 'SHOT!' dramatizes the events before, during and after President McKinley's death providing the flavor of Buffalo in 1901 including actual songs that were written about the Pan American Exposition and its' relationship to Buffalo.

General Director Valerian Ruminski (Metropolitan Opera/New York City Opera), a Cheektowaga, NY native, wanted to create a new opera around a pivotal time in history. "Opera is always about life and death. The assassination of President McKinley changed the world. Any event that changed the world is a good subject for an opera and I wanted to present this tragedy within the genre. An assassination, a death row inmate, the underground railroad and fascism have all been subjects of new operas. SHOT! breathes life into the relevance of the art form as well as the subject matter. For an arts organization to grow you have to challenge yourself." ...Valerian Ruminski.

Now in it's 8th Season, Nickel City Opera has performed works in the standard repertoire from Puccini, Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. Ruminski has been planning on programming SHOT! for a number of years, and feels that the company is ready to present this World Premiere. With so many ties to the city of Buffalo, it is only fitting that the opera will be produced on the stage of the historic Shea's Buffalo Theatre. This will be the first time a local company has staged an opera at Shea's since the Greater Buffalo Opera Company's last performances in 1997. SHOT! engages a full chorus, orchestra, costumes and sets that help suggest the excitement of the electrification seen at the Pan Am by many for the first time, utilizing a combination on projections and set pieces.

Ruminski will be portraying President McKinley and tapped into his vast network of colleagues for the cast. John Packard, last seen at Nickel City as Count Di Luna in Il Trovatore returns to Buffalo as assassin Leon Czolgosz, the tormented self proclaimed anarchist influenced by political activist Emma Goldman. An internationally recognized helden tenor, John originated the role of Joseph De Rocher in the San Francisco Opera premiere of 'Dead Man Walking' and appeared in the NCO productions of 'Rigoletto' and 'The Barber of Seville'.

Rounding out the cast as First Lady Ida McKinley, Maria Teresa Magisano (New York City Opera/Vancouver Opera) appeared as the Countess in NCO's production of 'The Marriage of Figaro' and Eric Fennell (New York City Opera/Glimmerglass Opera) as Staff Secretary Mr. Cortelyou. Local favorites, Jena Abati (NCO's production of La Boheme/The Marriage of Figaro), Jessica Best (Gotham Chamber Opera/Finger Lakes Opera) and local tenor Stephen MacDonald (lead singer of Buffalo's legendary rock band Cock Robin) as 'The Vaudevillian', our host for the evening. International Soprano Michele Capalbo (Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, France, the Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera), who most recently portrayed TOSCA to great acclaim in Nickel City's Opera's 2014 production portrays Emma Goldman, the leader of the Anarchist movement in the USA.

Stage Director David Grabarkewitz returns to Nickel City Opera after directing it's 2013 production of DON PASQUALE. He served as The New York City Opera's Resident Stage Director from 1995-2010 and as Artistic and General Director of El Paso Opera from 2009-2015. His staging of MADAMA BUTTERFLY for The New York City Opera won the 2008 Prime Time Emmy Award for Best Live Performance, Music or Dance.

Grabarkewitz has done extensive research regarding this important event in American history, but also notes that this was a very historic time for anarchist caused assassinations around the world. King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated in 1900 and Alexander I of Serbia was assassinated in 1903. He notes that in interviews Leon Czolgosz stated "all these people seemed to be bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler."

Mr. Garabrakewitz fully realizes the importance of accurately bring to the stage this part of Buffalo's history while honoring the the composer's decisions. Vehar has added a character named the Vaudevillian to introduce each scene, giving a framework and commentary for the action. He describes how the opera starts with a cast of 60 onstage to convey the excitement of the Pan Am Exposition and President McKinley's visit, but by the final scene the opera is pared down to two characters, with President and Mrs. McKinley on his death bed. These private final hours attempt to dramatize their love story, as well as the First Lady's anguish.

Composer Persis Vehar (Eleanor Roosevelt/Hill of Bones) believes that a natural evolution from music of the past, wedded to new and different ideas, makes for accessibility and listenability for both opera audiences and those new to opera. "Based on traditional operas successful for centuries, SHOT! contains a drinking song, death scene, recurrent motives and conflicting personalities. The musical style includes syncopation and mixed meters, diatonic with chromaticism and jazzlike elements. A Vaudevillian, like a Greek Chorus, introduces scenes with recitatives (spoken word) and 1901 melodies. After a 'McKinley Two Step' and a 'gay '90s like song', the love story between the President and his wife Ida unfolds."

SHOT! will be conducted by Nickel City Opera's Music Director Michael Ching. The former Artistic Director of Opera Memphis, Maestro Ching is a noted composer himself and his opera SPEED DATING TONIGHT! has been programmed over twenty times since its premiere at the Janiec Opera of the Brevard Music Center in July 2013. This spring, the opera will play at UT El Paso, Vanderbilt University, University of South Carolina, Emerald City Opera (Colorado), Humboldt State University (California), and Arkansas State University. His most recent one act opera, ALICE RYLEY, was commissioned and premiered by the Savannah Voice Festival in October 2015. ALICE featured a speaking role for baritone Sherrill Milnes. Michael is currently writing another one act for Savannah Voice Festival. His 2010 opera, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, opera a cappella, was recorded and released on Albany Records and his PIANO CONCERTO will be rereleased on a 25th anniversary recording by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.


In 1901, the world came to Buffalo to celebrate peace and prosperity between North and South America. The Pan American Exposition was called "The Rainbow City" for its celebration of light, color, and architecture. The Expo offered companies, cities and countries an opportunity to show off their agricultural techniques, technological innovations, and cultural contributions to the world. Millions of people came from every corner of the globe to see the spectacle.

SHOT! will be performed Friday, June 10th at 8:00pm and Sunday, June 12th at 2:30pm. Tickets available at the Shea's Performing Arts Center box office at 650 Main Street, Buffalo or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000 or

Nickel City  Opera Goes to Sea

Artvoice Magazine
July 11, 2011


Puccini in a unique setting.  


Nickel City Opera is on a roll. After a small disaster regarding the upkeep of the venue - a cleaning contractor failed to stock the proper janitorial supplies, which led to restrooms without toilet paper and paper towels - the venue quickly recovered from this pr debacle. Last weekend’s performances of Verdi’s Il Trovatore featured the strongest production by the company in its three-year history. Director Henry Akina’s atmospheric staging at the Riviera Theatre was highly effective, while the singing of the principal soloists proved to be memorable. Hoping to keep that momentum going, Valerian Ruminski, artistic director of the NCO, decided to stage this weekend’s performances of Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro, on Saturday, July 2, and Sunday, July 3, in a genuinely unique location: the stern deck of the USS The Sullivans, the destroyer permanently docked at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, at the foot of Pearl and Main streets, across from HSBC Arena.

While Puccini set Il Tabarro on a barge docked on the river Seine in Paris, Ruminski explained that he first got his idea when he read a newspaper article about a production of the work a few years back that was set on a ship docked in Brooklyn. “When I read about this production,” he says, “my mind started racing, and it only took me about five minutes to come up with the idea of putting on a similar production by the Nickel City Opera, but on the deck of The Sullivans.” That production, by the Vertical Player Repertory, an indie opera company, took place on the deck of a former oil tanker undergoing restoration, docked in the busy container port of Red Hook. The New York Times reported that “parts of the production married beautifully: both the story and the show begin at sunset. The cast had to adjust to the boat’s swaying, but even that proved well meshed. ‘You’re feeling the motion of the ship, and the music begins with this lovely rocking,’ said a member of the show’s chorus.”

Nickel City Opera’s performances also will begin at dusk, about 8:45pm, with some orchestral musical selections preceding Il Tabarro. The audience will be seated on the pier, while English supertitles will be projected onto a screen hanging on the USS Little Rock, docked in back of The Sullivans. Performers will be entering, in some cases through the seated audience, and exiting, via gangways, onto the Little Rock. In the event of rain, a concert version of the opera will be presented under a canopy on the Little Rock.

Ruminski is enthusiastic about his new production: “Anyone with a sense of excitement will want to see Il Tabarro performed on a destroyer. Has anyone in our audience ever seen an opera performed on a ship before? The sightlines from the audience seating area on the dock are very good, and I think that our production, set in the 1940s, during World War II, the time when The Sullivans was commissioned, benefits from being staged on this ship.”

Two of the principal soloists for Il Tabarro played a large part in the success of last weekend’s Il Trovatore. Baritone John Packard, a ruefully forceful Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, will be appearing in Il Tabarro as the deceived husband Michele. Soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs sang the demanding role of Leonora exquisitely in Il Trovatore, portraying a woman who kills herself rather than be unfaithful to her lover, but she gets to put the shoe on the other foot as Michele’s philandering wife Georgetta in Il Tabarro. Both Packard and Blancke-Biggs have sang their roles in Il Tabarro previously, and so did not need to start rehearsing these roles again until this week, while director Henry Akina recently mounted a successful production of Puccini’s Il Trittico, the three-part opera of which Il Tabarro is a part, at his Hawaii Opera Theatre home base.

The role of Georgetta’s unlucky lover Luigi will be sung by tenor Adam Klein, whose career highlights have included Tristan in Tristan und Isolde with the Seattle Opera and many appearances with the Metropolitan Opera, including as the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, as Steva in Jenufa, as the Chevalier in Les Dialogues Des Carmelites, and as Elemer in Arabella, opposite Renée Fleming.

Bass Valerian Ruminski, who appeared as the first soloist in Il Trovatore, set a dramatic standard that the rest of the cast had to work hard to duplicate. In Il Tabarro he’ll sing the role of Talpa, husband to the faithful if eccentric La Frugola, who will be portrayed by NCO newcomer Gillian Cotter, a mezzo-soprano from the Fredonia School of Music, while Hawaiian tenor Jeremy Blossey will sing the part of Tinca. The Easter Festival Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Zachary Kampler.

Tickets are $50. For reservations, call 931-0591. Tickets also may be purchased at the Naval Park Gift Shop on the evenings of the performances, by cash or check

Nickel City Opera Launches 3rd Season with Big Plans

Artvoice Magazine
June 17, 2011

On Friday, June 24, at 8pm, and on Sunday, June 26, at 2:30pm, the Nickel City Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi’s ever-popular tale of love and gypsy revenge, Il Trovatore, at the Riviera Theatre on Webster Street in North Tonawanda.

The Nickel City Opera exists due to the vision of its artistic director, Buffalo native and Metropolitan Opera bass Valerian Ruminski, who along with the company’s executive director, Eileen Breen, felt that there was both the need and the opportunity to continue the legacy of Gary Burgess’ groundbreaking Greater Buffalo Opera Company, which produced full-staged opera productions from 1986 to 1997 with an increasingly high level of professionalism. The first two Nickel City Opera seasons featured a thoroughly enjoyable inaugural production of the Barber of Seville, and a more ambitious production of Rigoletto last year, followed by a charming holiday production of Amahl and the Night Visitors on the weekend after Thanksgiving, which will be given a reprise this November.

While the first two seasons of the Nickel City Opera have to be considered as genuine successes, Ruminski feels that the organization has reached a turning point. “The Nickel City Opera is currently experiencing a growth spurt,” he says. “Something significant, maybe like an individual going through puberty. I have to consider our first two seasons to have been successful, but as we now expand, and plan on additional productions, beyond our core month of June time-frame, we definitely are hoping for a little box office bump for Trovatore, which, I think, is our strongest production, to date.”

As part of the company’s growth, Nickel City Opera is taking the bold step of producing a second summer opera, on July 2 and 3, at a most unusual location, when it stages Puccini’s Il Tabarro aboard the USS The Sullivans, the destroyer docked in the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.

The legendary tenor Enrico Caruso famously once said that all that it takes for a successful performance of Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. Perhaps with Caruso’s remark in mind, for this production Ruminski has assembled the strongest cast of soloists in the company’s short history.

The pivotal role of the gypsy Azucena will be sung by the internationally renowned Metropolitan Opera star Victoria Livengood, a Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano who is best known for her dynamic portrayals in well over 100 performances with the Met, where she has established herself as a house favorite. Livengood has also appeared throughout Europe, South America, Canada, and the United States, including many appearances at the Spoleto Festival, where she sang the title role in The Medium under the direction of the work’s composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. Her portrayal of Azucena in a recent production of Il Trovatore in Fort Worth, Texas drew high praise: “The real star of the production is the simply awe-inspiring Victoria Livengood as Azucena. Her potent mezzo includes a fearsome chest voice; a smooth, flexible middle voice; and a bright trumpet of an upper range that cuts through chorus and orchestra with amazing force.”

“I have a powerful voice,” Ruminski says, “and while I sometimes have had to rein in my volume level when singing with others, the only time that I have ever had to raise my voice was when I was singing with Victoria.”

The role of the doomed lover Manrico will be sung by the versatile tenor Eduardo Villa, who has appeared in the role more than 100 times. Villa is a regular guest star of the Metropolitan Opera, having appeared on the Met stage in the title roles in Verdi’s Don Carlo and Ernani, and as Radames in Aida, Rodolpho in Luisa Miller, Don Jose in Carmen, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Enzo in La Gioconda. He has also appeared as well as in other leading opera houses throughout Europe, Australia and North America.

Soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, most recently heard worldwide in the Sirius Satellite Radio Metropolitan Opera Broadcast of Puccini’s Tosca, with tenor Marcello Giordani, and in Verdi’s Macbeth, as Lady Macbeth, at Santiago, Chile’s Teatro Municipal, will appear in the role of Leonara, a women who unwittingly tempts men to their ultimate destruction.

John Packard, who has become the de-facto “house baritone” for the Nickel City Opera, following solid performances, both in the title role of Rigoletto and in the Barber of Seville, will portray the tragically libidinous Count di Luna, while Nickel City Opera artistic director Ruminski appears as Ferrando, loyal henchman to the Count, who Ruminski also characterizes as being “something of a father-figure” to that unlucky individual.

Ruminski had originally engaged an Irish director for this production, but after that individual was left scrambling due to the loss of his position, following a forced merger of his company, Ruminski was luckily able to engage Henry Akima, the director of the Hawaii Opera Theatre, a company with which Ruminski has sung for the previous three years, and with which he will again be appearing in February.

Wesley Krantz, former operations manager at the BPO, is the production manger and Zachary Kampler will once again lead the Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, and the large chorus of gypsies – a dozen women and a dozen men – all local singers, in the opera’s many well-known numbers, including the famous “Anvil Chorus.”

Nickel City Opera's 'Barber of Seville' Deserving of Accolades

The Buffalo News
August 21, 2010

Want some popcorn with your opera? You can have it at the Riviera Theatre, where the new Nickel City Opera is in residence this weekend doing a bang-up job with Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”

With so much good news surrounding the company’s first production, knowing where to begin is difficult. Friday’s performance of the slapstick opera by Gioachino Rossini featured tremendous voices, fine comic timing, lovely sets, sumptuous 18th century costumes and a competent orchestra. It topped the opera productions I have seen at the Chautauqua Institution. That was how good it was.

Earthy humor abounded. Directed by University at Buffalo graduate David MacAdam, the opera is being presented mostly in English, with a couple of arias in the original Italian. The words fit the music well, and the jokes were nonstop. This “Barber” had a youthful, populist feel, probably the way it did when Rossini wrote it.

From the beginning, you got the idea that the opera was in good hands. Benjamin Brecher, as the Count Almaviva, radiated the appropriate confidence. He navigated the twists and curlicues of the Count’s lines with clarity and panache.

This is high praise, but John Packard was the best Figaro I have ever seen, and others said the same thing. His singing is lusty, on the mark and marvelously expressive. He even does his own guitar playing, accompanying the count’s serenade.

As Rosina, Nadia Petrella is world class — beautiful and funny. Her high notes were clear as bells, her demanding lines dazzling. Even in the face of the treacherous “Una voce poco fa,” she projected humor and ease. That’s the crowning challenge of Rossini — you not only have to pull off challenging vocal derring-do, but you have to enjoy it.

A special bravo to Christopher Mallory, who made Don Bartolo a delight to watch and to hear. Making a bad-guy role consistently entertaining is challenging. Your eyes were always drawn to him. Valerian Ruminski brought his usual vocal power and off-the-wall comedy to the role of Don Basilio. Rosemaria Serrano was a fine Berta, and Brian Cheveries and Kendrew Heriveaux also distinguished themselves. The balance was good, and the ensemble work sparkled. One crowd scene involving a police force got as hilarious as a Marx Brothers movie. In a superb comic touch, one figure on stage slept all through it, his walking stick by his side. That is the kind of production this is. Nothing is neglected.

The Eastern Festival Symphony Orchestra, led by Zachary Israel Nobile Kampler, played well, especially considering it is a student orchestra. The violins’ pizzicato, the horns’ touches of color — it all admirably followed the breathless action on stage.

Finally, the Riviera itself was a star. It is a great place for opera, not too big or too small. The acoustics were good. A few members of OperaBuffs, who were out in force, pointed out that it reminded them of elegant European opera houses.

“The Barber of Seville”

Presented by Nickel City Opera, Friday night in the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda. Another performance at 2:30

p. m. today. For more information, call 692-2413 or visit

© 2020 Nickel City Opera, Inc.

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