President McKinley is a Hearty Character in Opera Premiere
Mary Kunz- Buffalo News June 12, 2016
By the end of “Shot!,” you will know all about the assassination of President William McKinley. It will be in your head and under your skin.
The ambitious two-act opera, composed by Persis Vehar and being premiered at Shea’s Performing Arts Center by Nickel City Opera, was meticulously researched. The libretto, by Vehar’s daughter, Gabrielle, is clever and works in a tremendous amount of information.
The creative sets vividly bring back a long-gone Buffalo. Generous video footage shows long-dead people milling about the Pan-Am, and the Electric Tower emitting beams. It’s ghostly to see the Milburn House, demolished years ago, reappear in almost a life-sized vision. The scene changes cleverly so first you are outside the house, and then you are inside, with windows looking out over Delaware Avenue in the distant past.
Most vividly of all, the opera impresses on you the hearty character of McKinley.
Valerian Ruminski, the barrel-voiced bass who founded and leads Nickel City Opera, plays the president, and you could not imagine better casting. Ruminski has his own star power. He owns the role, and plays it with heart and enthusiasm. You will never see McKinley in the same way again.
Vehar tailored the music to Ruminski and it fits him like a fine suit. The scenes involving McKinley are the best in the show. Watching him wave away security and greet the crowd with leisurely grace, hearing him on his deathbed calling for a cigar – you keep wishing things had turned out differently.
Alas, they didn’t.
That’s a pity, and it’s the biggest flaw in this admirable project. The subject is too dreary, too sad. The cheeriness of the opening scene, with Buffalonians celebrating, only turns the knife. Sardonic vaudeville numbers between scenes – featuring Stephen MacDonald, the lead singer of the rock band Cock Robin – struck me as kind of grotesque. It’s not MacDonald’s fault. They just didn’t fit.
Though the music is tonal and the orchestration is lovely, the singing is for the most part a kind of meandering recitative, and doesn’t give you a lot to grab on to. There are high points: It’s fun, at least to a point, to see McKinley declaiming his speech at the Pan-Am. The music incorporates the actual words that the president spoke. The final love duet between McKinley and his wife is genuinely affecting – they are such a sweet couple, not irritating or smarmy, and the opera brings that out.
In its entirety, though, the show grows onerous. It’s far too long. One scene, showing assassin Leon Czolgosz in his cell dreaming about anarchist Emma Goldman, especially drags. Michele Capalbo, the soprano who portrays Goldman, has a beautiful, clear voice, so that’s a pleasure. John Packard, as Czolgosz, also has clarity and intensity. And there are moments of humor, as there are throughout the opera. Still it stretches on, and who wants to hear sermons about anarchy? It segues into another lengthy scene showing Czolgosz being interrogated by police.
The final scene, too, stretches on, as it did in real life. There is a lot of choreographed back-and-forth between gaggles of reporters and doctors, and creative as it is, it should have been edited.
There is a payoff, though, in the end. You will know what happened, and you will know President McKinley as you would not know him by reading a book. The show brings an old story alive in a new way.
The production is high quality. Surtitles are a plus, because it’s hard even for seasoned opera voices to fill Shea’s, and though the orchestra carries beautifully, sometimes even these very good singers sound thin. And they are fine singers. Maria Teresa Magisano is wonderful as Ida McKinley, and so is Jacqueline Quirk as Mrs. Milburn. Stephen Salters has a memorable cameo of James Parker, a patriot who tries to save the president’s life.
The large chorus and 25-piece orchestra are extremely good, particularly when you consider the demands they face. Michael Ching does a remarkable job of conducting a complex score.