With a life lived so immersed in opera, it’s little surprise that Austin Lyric Opera artistic director and principal conductor Richard Buckley quickly conjures the myriad moments Puccini’s “Tosca” ricochets throughout.
Taking a break recently from rehearsals for ALO’s upcoming production, which opens Thursday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, Buckley traces his first “Tosca” experience to an age much younger than most: a role in the opera’s children’s choir at New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company.
“Hey, all of the opera repertoire, if there was a role for kids in it, I probably did it at the Met, or at New York City Opera or at Central City Opera,” Buckley says with a smile and shrugs, in jeans, lounging (for a brief moment at least) in his office in ALO’s warehouse headquarters, random musical moments wafting in from the rehearsal hall.
Buckley is an opera bluebood after all, first being plunked onto stage at age 2 in a child’s role in “Madame Butterfly” that his father, the noted conductor Emerson Buckley, was conducting. His mother, soprano Mary Handerson, had a long busy performing and teaching career of her own. (In 1965, Emerson Buckley gave a then-unknown tenor by the name of Luciano Pavarotti his first American contract.)
Buckley junior, now 60, followed in his father footsteps, arguably carving out a wider professional footprint with international symphonic and operatic credits that include London’s Royal Philharmonic, New York City Opera, L’Opera National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the New York Philharmonic, among dozens of companies.
This season marks Buckley’s 10th with ALO. And coincidentally — or, truthfully not —“Tosca” is the opera with which Buckley made his 2003 Austin debut, impressing not only with his keen musical interpretation but by luring opera great soprano Carol Vaness to the title role.
As a conductor, Buckley’s premiere venture with “Tosca” came in 1982 with the Anchorage Civic Opera.
“It was the first time that company performed an opera in the original Italian; they had always performed operas in English,” Buckley says. “And the concertmaster was a bush pilot by day and would fly in and show up to rehearsals with frozen hands.”
Conducting a 2001 “Tosca” with the Los Angeles Opera — a production that featured luminary singers Catherine Malfitano, Richard Leech and Tom Fox —remains treasured in Buckley’s memory, among the 10 or so productions he’s done.
So, though in his tenure he’s brought ALO national attention for new work such as the American premiere of Philip Glass’ “Waiting for the Barbarians,” why not reprise Puccini’s masterly romantic melodrama to evenly mark a decade.
“When you look at a decade of operas for any company, there’s always a certain roster you need come around to again,” he says.
In selecting this season, Buckley exercised his druthers a bit, opting for an all Italian repertoire — a speciality for which he is much lauded.
First up in November was Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” a paramount nod, Buckley points out, to recognize the composer’s 200th birthday. “It was a push for both the company and our audience, but ‘Don Carlo’ represents the great depth of Verdi’s opera, and is, in my opinion, really his greatest opera.”
In May, it’s Donezetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” a first for ALO.
In the meantime, it’s Puccini’s turn.
“One of the reasons this opera is so popular is the second act of ‘Tosca’ is one of the most sublimely written acts of opera, period,” Buckley says. “Puccini was the master of manipulating a musical dramatic portrayal and having that support the drama. There’s really not a moment in the second act that doesn’t grab you musically in terms of how it communicates so many layers that are not only situational, but what (the characters) are emotionally internalizing. It’s edge-of-the-chair stuff.”
Then there’s the triangular plot machinations of the main characters played out against Rome of 1800, when the city was under threat of invasion by Napoleon’s republican forces.
There’s Cavaradossi, the painter and political activist, a true Romantic who believes in the rights and identity of the individual, whose lover is the opera singer Tosca.
“Tosca is a liberated woman, an opera singer, a star,” Buckley says. “She’s also extremely idealistic about and dedicated to her art, her singing. That’s what her aria in the second act is about (‘Vissi d’Arte,’ or ‘I lived for art’).”
Out to undermine the rebellious lover is the sinister Scarpia, the Roman chief of police. “Scarpia is all about power,” Buckley says. “All about power in every part of his life, he has no scruples in terms of his political control, his control over women, his control over every aspect of his life.”
For the current production, Buckley marshaled a cast that includes Mardi Byers in the title role, Scott Piper as Cavaradossi and Wayne Tigges as Scarpia — all rising stars.
And the current production is the first “Tosca” ALO will present in the Long Center, a fact not lost on Buckley, who was at the table as the design of the performing arts center developed.
“Singers love singing at the Long Center,” Buckley says. “They love the way the sound comes back to them from the back wall and the intimacy, intensity and the immediacy of the hall. So does an audience.”
But now, it’s time for Buckley to return to rehearsals — after tolerating one more question. Does he have a favorite recording of “Tosca”?
“My favorite ‘Tosca’ is always the one in I’m hearing in my head at the moment.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Feb. 2
Where: Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: 512-476-5664, www.austinlyricopera.org