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2011 City Guide: Opera

Top: Nickel City Opera's Valerian Ruminski

If your only experience with opera is through the Marx Brothers, Queen, or Andrew Lloyd Webber pomp, have no fear. Not only is the music easier to enjoy that you might think, it’s also closer than you think. In fact, there are oodles of opportunities to experience the fat lady singing, on both stages and screens across WNY.

This is no surprise to the members of OperaBuffs of Western New York, a dedicated group of aficionados that first came together in 1987, during the days of the now-defunct Greater Buffalo Opera Company. “This city has always deserved an opera company with class and character,” says Valerian Ruminski, artistic director for the acclaimed, wildly ambitious Nickel City Opera. “We had one for eleven years, from 1986 to 1997, and it created much prestige and honor for Buffalo.”

A few years ago, movie theater chains began broadcasting the Metropolitan Opera live, and the crowds were stunning. Recently, the locally owned Dipson Theatres began bringing opera, theater, dance, and music in all its high-definition glory to the Amherst Theater on Main Street. Dipson president Michael Clement says the theater industry’s switch from film to digital projectors was vital in the rise of opera and similar hi-def events to its screens. But more than just a digital projector was necessary to start pumping in productions from the Royal Opera House and the Paris Opera Ballet: “We had to install a satellite dish and computer servers, as well as upgrade our infrastructure.”
Clearly, it was worth it, since Dipson’s “Culture in Cinema” series has been a smash hit. “The response has been absolutely wonderful,” Clement says. “This is our first season, and the attendance has grown with each show—The Magic Flute was our most popular to date.” The key is the presentation, Clement says: “You feel as if you’re actually sitting in the audience. One of the customers came up to me and recommended that we promote ourselves as a travel agency, which I laughed at, but she was right … There seems to be an endless demand for good cultural programming.”

As any opera buff—or member of OperaBuffs—knows, there are live performances happening in WNY, too, thanks to the Nickel City Opera. For the past three years, the NCO has brought full-scale productions to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, and returns there on June 24 and 26 to stage Verdi’s medieval-inspired Il Trovatore. Then, the NCO heads to the USS The Sullivans at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park for a unique staging of Puccini’s Il Tabarro on July 2 and 3.

This is the kind of bold move that has become a hallmark of the NCO. And artistic director Ruminksi says it’s all part of the plan. “We envisioned an exciting version of Il Tabarro on an actual navy destroyer—about an hour long, with a full orchestra, costumes, and a full chorus right on the stern. I can’t imagine a more exciting way for young people who have never seen an opera to experience one for the first time. It’s also great for stalwarts who are craving a new spin on an old art form.” Meanwhile, Il Trovatore at the Riviera “will showcase a Verdi mainstay presented as it was originally conceived in the medieval days—with swords, witches, and spooky stuff.” (The NCO is currently planning an opera based on the McKinley assassination in 1901.)

So what is it about this form that has made it so popular right now? Part of it, Ruminksi believes, is the quality of the hi-def, big screen broadcasts. “It’s exciting to see opera on a big screen with faces so vivid you believe you can touch them. Also, opera has been embracing a modern approach to casting singers: younger, more attractive, thinner, more muscular.” And of course, there is the undeniable emotion involved. “At its heart, it transmits a universal message about the state of humanity through music,” Ruminski says. “What makes opera relevant and enjoyable now is what makes films, plays, and television shows watchable and enjoyable: we can relate.”

For details on Dipson Theatres’ Culture in Cinema series, visit www.dipsontheatres.com or join the Dipson Facebook page at the Amherst Theatre. For tickets to Nickel City Opera’s Il Trovatore, call the Riviera at 692-2413, and for tickets to Il Tabarro, call 646-294-3634. For information on OperaBuffs of WNY, visit www.operabuffsofwny.org.

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