UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2000
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Valerian Ruminski

Valerian Ruminski makes his entrance as Albert in the 2000 New Israeli Opera production of Halévy's La Juive.

Valerian Ruminski as Sparafucile in the 2000 New Israeli Opera production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, with Galina Malinsky as Maddalena (left) and Maureen O’Flynn as Gilda.

Valerian Ruminski, ’95, making his Met debut this winter, has an unusual background that includes pop and poetry

an operatic life

basso cantante

by Clare O'Shea

Opera singer Valerian Ruminski says he’s not a huge fan of opera. The UB graduate has trained with world-renowned voice teachers and won prestigious awards. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut January 17, and this spring will appear in New York City Opera productions of La Bohème and Don Giovanni. Can this rising opera star really not like opera?

“I’ve been in more operas than I’ve seen,” Ruminski says. “When I do opera, it’s work.” And work, to the 33-year-old bass, is just one of the many things that make for a happy life—a life that must be stretched to include pop music, Charles Bukowski and the Buffalo Bills.

Sitting in an elegant Manhattan living room, Ruminski talks about the circuitous path that led him from choir singing at age eight to the West Coast after high school (where he sold shoes and became a Buddhist), and finally back to Buffalo, and opera, at age 23. The week we met, he was rushing from Rigoletto in New York to Don Giovanni in Philadelphia and back. It turns out that he doesn’t even have a real home—this spacious, art-filled apartment belongs to one of his patrons. Ruminski loves to sing and has willingly given up a “normal” life to do so.

You could say that Ruminski has been training for a career in music since he was very young. Named Martin Matthew Ruminski by his adoptive parents, he grew up in Cheektowaga, New York, listening to Tony Bennett and Leonard Bernstein and, while he lay awake at night, conducting symphonies. “I was an only child, and music filled up a lot of the space,” Ruminski recalls. “I embraced and absorbed it. It’s always been very soulful and liberating for me. It’s a language I can speak. I think in music.”

Ruminski describes his voice as “forward and bright.” He is a “full lyric coloratura basso cantante.” He says this with a flourish. Ruminski recounts the facts of his life with a drama that can be, well, operatic. At eight, he was singing in the St. Paul’s Cathedral choir when Buffalo choral director Frank Scinta was a guest conductor. Impressed, Scinta recommended him for the chorus of Tosca at Shea’s Theater, Buffalo, planting the seeds of his career.

After graduating from Canisius High School, where he performed in the choir (again under Scinta’s direction), Ruminski attended Buffalo State College for a semester, then dropped out and drove to Alaska with a friend. At the time, he was interested in techno pop, and the plan was to raise enough money for equipment. He worked in canneries and on fishing boats before drifting to Los Angeles and getting involved with other things. One night, Ruminski was coming home from his shoe-store job when some people stopped him in the street. They asked if he’d ever heard of chanting. Curious, Ruminski followed them around the corner and into a room where he found Buddhism, which would have a profound effect on his career and on his life.

A few years later, Frank Scinta called about an opening in a Greater Buffalo Opera Company production of Carousel. Ruminski decided to take it. “I came in with a bucket of clams and said, ‘Where’s Nettie?’—it was my first line on stage,” Ruminski recalls with a laugh, before launching into “A Real Nice Clambake.” “It was time to go back to Buffalo too. I didn’t have anywhere else to go but home.” He enrolled at UB in the summer of 1990.

While he sang in the Buffalo Opera chorus and in the UB choir, Ruminski studied sociology and American studies and, finally, music. “I started taking music courses at Baird and eventually started to see that I had a sure thing in my voice,” he says.

“I derived the most benefit from UB because they’d hired the right guy to administer the voice program,” he says. “They were lucky they had Gary Burgess. He’d had an opera career and was running the [Greater] Buffalo Opera Company at the time, so he wasn’t just a teacher.”

Burgess, now retired from UB, wanted Ruminski to attend the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia, so he gave him roles in operas that featured visiting AVA artists. Ruminski was asked to audition and was admitted. Actually failing in music theory and behind in credits, Ruminski crammed 26 hours of coursework into one semester and graduated from UB in time to attend AVA in the fall of 1995.

At AVA, in a four-year, full-scholarship program, Ruminski studied with baritone Louis Quilico (who taught him “the essence of breath in the voice”) and performed in at least two operas a year. In the summers, he apprenticed with the Chautauqua and Santa Fe opera companies. While a student, Ruminski changed his first name from Martin to Valerian, in part to honor his deceased father.

Besides rigorous training and good practical experience, AVA gave Ruminski more confidence in his voice. Yet he continued to struggle with the musical direction he ultimately wanted to take; he still considered pop music his first love. It was Buddhism that helped him find some resolution. “I chanted for a long time to have success in my career, to be connected to the right people, to get the right guidance and advice,” he says.

Ruminski’s career has taken off since graduating from AVA. His role as Zuniga in a New York City Opera production of Carmen led to a faster-than-usual Metropolitan Opera debut. When the artist hired to sing the role of Zuniga at the Met pulled out, Met representatives remembered Ruminski’s rendition at City Opera and offered him the role, the biggest credit on his résumé so far. Ruminski also won several important awards. He received the Lincoln Center Martin Segal Outstanding Debut Artist Award in 1999; a Richard Tucker Career Grant in 2000 (which included his performance in a televised PBS production featuring Placido Domingo); and most recently, a MacAllister Award, which included a $20,000 grant.

Meanwhile, it looks as if Ruminski will never have to choose between opera and life. He goes to the movies, reads books on black holes and roots for the Bills. He is making a name for himself in art song, primarily through an innovative project he developed with Buffalo composer Persis Vehar. Ruminski commissioned Vehar to set the poetry of Charles Bukowski to music. “I got ahold of the publisher and purchased the rights to 25 of his poems that Persis chose,” he says. The first six songs of what will be an 18-song cycle premiered in Los Angeles last fall to glowing reviews.

He continues to record pop music as well (these days it’s “blue-eyed soul”), bringing material he’s recorded on the computer back to Buffalo, where he works with a guitarist and a drummer. You won’t see Ruminski on stage at a rock show, however; he prefers not to perform it. “I could sing opera for hours, but I can’t sing pop music for more than an hour,” he says. “It wears out the larynx.”

So far his favorite operatic role is Figaro, a “Jim Carrey kind of guy.” However, Ruminski has his sights set on something darker. “I want to be Satan,” he says. “There are about eight or nine Satan roles, and a lot of bad guys who are ‘satanesque,’ but number one on my list is Faust.” Satan is attractive to Ruminski because those roles will round out his repertoire. “I play bad guys most of the time because it’s my voice category. You have to take a bass seriously,” Ruminski says. “We’re the heavies.”

Clare O’Shea, M.A. ’87 & B.A. ’84, is a New York City–based freelance writer.

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