Now in his early 30s, Matthew Buckman saw his first opera when he was 24.
Which isn’t that remarkable, even in a time when the art form struggles to connect to younger audiences.
He became executive director of his first opera company when he was 26.
OK. That’s out of the ordinary. Talk about getting bitten by the opera bug.
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As Fresno Grand Opera stages “A Streetcar Named Desire” this afternoon (Sunday, Feb. 15) in the Saroyan Theatre, audiences might not notice any big changes. The format that has evolved over 17 years of the company’s existence remains the same:
• Professional singers are brought in for principal roles.
• Sets, costumes, lighting and other production values are commensurate with what you’d expect from a highly regarded regional opera company.
• Music is played by the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra.
• If there were an opera chorus — there isn’t in “Streetcar” — the singers would be local.
Behind the scenes, however, there is much that is different about “Streetcar.”
It’s the first joint production of Fresno Grand Opera and Modesto’s Townsend Opera. The two companies are collaborating in terms of administrative and creative functions. The partnership was developed last summer. On Dec. 9, Buckman took over as general director of Fresno Grand Opera while retaining his position as general and artistic director in Modesto. (In Fresno, longtime artistic director Joseph Bascetta will remain.) The companies remain distinct, with separate budgets and boards of directors.
The plan is for operas to be rehearsed in Modesto and then performed twice in the 1,200-seat Gallo Center for the Arts. The entire cast, along with sets and costumes, then moves to Fresno for one performance at the Saroyan Theatre, which is roughly twice the size of the Gallo. (There will be different professional orchestras in each city. The Fresno Grand Opera orchestra is covered by collective bargaining, while the Modesto musicians aren’t.)
“When this opportunity came up with Matt to be in a collaboration with Modesto, it seemed like a great opportunity to sustain both companies,” says Edward D. Fanucchi, president of the Fresno Grand Opera board.
The biggest change of all, though, is likely to be in terms of programming and marketing. Buckman is determined to reach new and younger audiences. He wants to bring the art form into the 21st century by making it fun, gripping, entertaining and relevant to people’s lives.
“The evidence is out there very clearly that in the opera world if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll eventually just die on the vine,” he says.
The new arrangement could turn out to be very smart for Fresno Grand Opera, which has been struggling for direction in recent years as it bounced between traditional 19th-century European opera, musical theater and concerts featuring famed singers such as Renée Fleming and Juan Diego Flórez. It means that the company will be able to stage a high-quality production in the Saroyan without worrying about how to fill two performances in that massive house, which was a challenge before. (At one point the company ditched the Saroyan entirely, moving to the cheaper 800-seat Shaghoian Hall, but the deficiencies of that venue in terms of opera became abundantly clear.)
By sharing production costs between the two companies, each company will be able to reduce their financial commitments while maintaining the same level of quality.
Budgets for individual shows in Fresno had been in the $300,000 range. With the new collaboration, budgets for the joint shows will be in the mid-$200,000 range, which Fresno and Modesto will split.
Probably gone will be the hugely ambitious Fresno productions that have been tried in the past, such as last year’s homegrown version of “Les Miserables,” which had a publicly announced budget of $800,000, though the whispers (and there were many) were that it approached $1 million.
And what kinds of titles will be coming in the future?
Carrie Hennessey, who plays Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar,” says she’s spent hours discussing the future of opera with Buckman.
“He’s so passionate about it, and he’s an innovative thinker,” she says. “He’s been willing to take risks where other people aren’t.”
One such risk: the Modesto company’s annual “Opera Remix” concerts, which pair opera arias with classic rock tunes, all orchestrated for a “rock orchestra.”
“We really showed that these arias that we sang 200 years ago are talking about the same things that rock musicians are singing about today,” Buckman says.
In 2013, the company produced “La Traviata” set in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s San Francisco. Last year it offered the world premiere of “Tawawa House,” about a stop on the Underground Railroad at the onset of the Civil War.
Such concepts and titles aren’t always an easy sell for folks used to curling up with a comfortable “Boheme.”
John Ervin is director of the Sanfoka Theatre Company, which partnered with Townsend Opera on “Tawawa House.” He says that because it was a new opera, the response from audiences was mixed.
“It was a challenge,” Ervin says. “I think that’s one of those areas where you just keep bringing the new material to them.”
Don’t get the wrong idea: Buckman isn’t proposing to turn Modesto and Fresno into a hotbed of avant-garde opera with productions boasting dissonant scores and abstract themes.
“Programming for the Central Valley is a delicate balance,” he says.
A point he makes, time and again, is that we can’t be stuck in the past. (“Streetcar” made its world premiere in 1998.)
“In a lot of ways we’ve fetishized the art form,” Buckman says. “We froze it in time in the early 1900s, just put it on a pedestal, and we haven’t allowed it to be changed.”
The good news: The days of modern operas that “sound unpleasant, frankly,” as he puts it, are past us. Younger American composers today such as Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon are writing works that are lush, romantic, hummable and in English — but with themes that feel contemporary, such as gay marriage and the death penalty.
Hennessey says several people she talked to during the Modesto run of “Streetcar” came to it “kicking and screaming. And they told me afterward, ‘I can’t believe that I could have missed this because I was being so stubborn.’ ”
A native of Fresno, Buckman graduated in 1999 from Edison High School, where he was a self-described “music nerd.” He got a degree in instrumental performance from California State University, Stanislaus, and worked for the Modesto Symphony before joining Townsend Opera in 2008.
He’s used to bridging different worlds in terms of interests and ages. He played soccer for both Fresno City College and Stanislaus State, and he continues to work as a national referee for the United States Soccer Association as a hobby.
His peer group outside of work thinks he’s, well, nuts.
“The locker room and the band room are two very different worlds, let me tell you,” he says.
But the rough-and-tumble crossover between his worlds has become an advantage in his career.
Buckman recently attended a performance of a Handel opera at San Francisco Opera. One startling aspect of the set design was a big, bright wall that lit up the audience.
“It was jarring, in a way, because I realized that I was surrounded by people who were sharing the experience with me,” he says. “When you’re in the dark, it’s just you, by yourself. In the light, you could see the reactions of other people. It was revelatory for me. Being able to see the people around me changed significantly that experience. We often canonize arts in our culture; we make the music something we can’t touch. But it was never supposed to be like that.”