Buffalo’s longtime opera-goers are mourning the death of a tenor who was a major figure in the city’s opera past. Gary Burgess, who founded the opera program at SUNY Buffalo and also led the Greater Buffalo Opera Company, died Friday in Bermuda of undisclosed causes. Burgess, who was born in Bermuda, was 76.
Founded in 1988, the Greater Buffalo Opera Company was the result of a merger of the Western New York Opera Theater and Burgess’ own Buffalo Lyric Opera Theater, and was at the time the Niagara Frontier’s only professional opera company. Burgess staged more than 40 operas here including Puccini’s “Tosca,” Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Lehar’s popular “The Merry Widow” starring the famous soprano Roberta Peters. Colorful novelties included “Straszny Dwor” (“The Haunted Manor”) by Stanislaw Moniuszko, and Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger.” In 1991, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening gala was a co-production with the GBOC of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
The GBOC also arranged for and produced vocal recitals by singers including Samuel Ramey and Thomas Hampson, and productions by visiting companies, including the New York City Opera.
With his resonant voice and passionate presence, Burgess cut a striking figure on the opera stage. He starred in the title role of Verdi’s “Othello” at Shea’s Performing Arts Center and gave an intense, shirtless portrayal of Samson in an Opera Sacra production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah” at St. Joseph University Church.
Burgess taught for 23 years at UB. He coached countless young singers including Rochester native Renee Fleming; Nickel City Opera head Valerian Ruminski; and internationally renowned coloratura soprano Laura Aikin, who grew up in Clarence. Aikin sang at a gallery fundraiser in Bermuda in 2012 as thanks to Burgess for his help and encouragement.
Tenor David MacAdam, who recently gave a recital on the Friends of Vienna concert series, paid tribute to Burgess on Facebook.
“As a teacher and mentor, Dr. Burgess made a profound impression in so many lives, shaping and guiding his protégés not only as singers and musicians, but as individuals,” MacAdam wrote.
Ruminski wrote: “His dedication to opera and the arts in Buffalo and the world will be sorely missed. He is the reason I became an opera singer.”
Burgess earned degrees from the Juilliard School, the all-scholarship Curtis Institute and the University of Indiana at Bloomington. He also received a diploma from the Academia di Santa Cecelia from Rome, Italy in 1965. He sang with the Metropolitan Opera, the Houston Opera, the Philadelphia Opera and other American companies. In 1973, he made his debut in Europe with the Greek National Opera, singing the leading tenor roles in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
According to Bermuda’s Royal Gazette, he returned to Bermuda in 1998 and spent six years working for the Cultural Affairs Department before retiring. The paper added that despite his retirement, Burgess remained busy: The Chinese government hired him to direct Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” for the opening of the Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing in 2008. That same year, he appeared as the guest soloist with The Ensemble Singers during their tour of Barbados.