Richard Buckley has a special affinity for Italian opera. Although the artistic director and principal conductor of Austin Lyric Opera is an equal-opportunity opera lover, he admits that the Italian masters hold a special place in his heart. "It was the first language I learned to really speak, besides ordering food or asking where the bathroom was," he says. "The language is a little more near and dear to me."
Perhaps this is the reason that Buckley chose three Italian operas for ALO's 2013-14 season. Verdi's Don Carlo will open the season on November 16, followed by Buckley's re-creation of Tosca by Puccini, one of the operas he selected in his first season with ALO, 10 years ago. The third production to round out the season will be The Elixir of Love by Donizetti. In fact, it is this celebration of his decade anniversary with the Austin opera company that led him to this all-Italian selection. "It wouldn't normally be done, but it was my gift to myself," he says.
"Austin audiences are very supportive of the opera. There is a great combination of people who have been longtime aficionados and who know a lot about opera, as well as those relatively new to the genre. It makes for a wonderful, diverse audience mix." — ALO conductor Richard Buckley
Buckley is internationally acclaimed for his exquisite interpretations of Italian composers, and he's one of the busiest conductors in North America. In a career spanning 40 years, he has led 40 different orchestras in 28 cities across 12 countries. Over the past decade with ALO, Buckley has led 10 operas — including Marriage of Figaro, Turandot, Waiting for the Barbarians and La Bohème to name a few — all the while commanding the 50-plus-member ALO Orchestra. He will be officially recognized by the city of Austin on October 17, when it issues its proclamation celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Richard Buckley with ALO.
"I think Austin audiences are very supportive of the opera," Buckley says. "There is a great combination of people who have been longtime aficionados and who know a lot about opera, as well as those relatively new to the genre. It makes for a wonderful, diverse audience mix. I am very appreciative of the support from this community and all the great talent we have been able to attract."
Buckley appreciates Austin as a hometown as well; he says that the move here gave him the chance to settle down. "My wife and I both had been traveling and performing separately, all over the world. Taking the position at ALO and moving to Austin gave us the chance to make a home, and we got married five years ago."
The maestro has conducting in his blood; he is the son of the late Emerson Buckley, who was Luciano Pavorotti’s conductor of choice. In his first season with ALO, Buckley selected some of the greatest opera works of all time, including Elektra by Strauss and The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. The highlight of that season was his luring of opera great Carol Vaness, one of the finest vocal talents to ever grace an Austin stage, in the title role of Tosca.
"Maestro Buckley is the heart and soul of Austin Lyric Opera," says Wendi Kushner, ALO board chair. "His international reputation in the opera world has put us on the map, and artists from around the world are eager to come to Austin for the chance to work with him. In addition to being a superb musician, the guy really enjoys good food, wine and conversation. He's usually the last to leave a party — there's even a section of our wine cellar designated for him!"
Kushner adds that Buckley is a major reason that the Austin opera attracts the caliber of performers that it does. "Singers who grace our stage also perform at the Met, la Scala, Vienna, Houston Grand and the other elite opera companies around the world. They sing at these places to advance their careers — and they sing in Austin because they want to. Getting to work with Richard Buckley is a huge part of that."
She cites the upcoming November performance of Don Carlo as an example. Buckley has lured James Valenti, a highly in-demand Met Opera tenor, for the title role. "It's a big opera, a challenging piece musically and one of Richard's favorites," she says. "We raised a lot of extra money to enable this production to come to Austin, and our patrons were happy to support this effort to honor Richard."
Buckley is a major reason that Joseph Specter made the decision to accept the position of general director with ALO last year. He was visiting Austin in the final stages of conversation about joining the company, and his last stop before getting back on the plane to New York was the opera's performance of Lucia di Lammermoor.
"Lucia is an opera close to my heart, and I knew of Maestro Buckley’s strong reputation as a conductor from my days as a singer, so I was excited about attending that performance," Specter recalls. "The power of that Lucia from both singers and orchestra alike was incredible, and Richard’s pacing was electric. That kind of gripping performance is only possible when someone of truly great artistry is at the helm in the pit. That performance was a key factor in my decision to leave the Metropolitan Opera and join ALO. So much is possible for a performing arts organization when it is capable of producing such excellent work on the stage."
"Maestro Buckley is the heart and soul of Austin Lyric Opera." — Wendi Kushner, Austin Lyric Opera board chair
Buckley will be the first to admit that things haven't always been perfect throughout the past 10 years. "There have been some challenges," he says. "Back in 2008, for example, after the economic downturn, we all had to tighten our belts. Things were a little tough for a while, but I think we're leaner and stronger for it today. We’ve been through a lot, but Austin Lyric Opera is in a really good place now. And I’m especially proud of the art we make on stage.”
Elisbeth Challener, managing director of ZACH theater, says that Buckley has been the driving force in ensuring that opera is a part of the Austin cultural DNA: "Richard is a thoughtful curator of opera for Austin audiences, balancing fully realized, lush productions of audience favorites by Puccini, Mozart and Verdi alongside operas that make you think musically and emotionally. And all the while, showcasing young talent that Austin audiences will see on the international opera scene in years to come. It’s that commitment to his work, combined with a desire for producing the very best art that’s possible — with whatever budget he has — that makes him so important to Austin’s creative community."
Kushner adds that the Austin audience notices and appreciates Buckley's contributions to the opera and the local arts scene. "I have told Richard this many times, and I don't think he really believes me," he says, "but every time he walks into the orchestra pit at an ALO performance, the applause is unlike any I've ever heard for any other conductor."
Tickets for the 2013-14 season of Austin Lyric Opera can be purchased at www.austinlyricopera.org. Season tickets are the best bet — by subscribing, you see all three ALO operas for the price of two.