- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Austin Opera has terminated the contract of artistic director and principal conductor Richard Buckley, citing unspecified inappropriate behavior in a statement Thursday.
The opera said that the termination was effective immediately and that it came after an outside investigation determined that “inappropriate behavior in violation of the company’s policy on harassment had occurred that was not consistent with the values and standards of Austin Opera.”
Out of respect for those affected by Buckley’s conduct, Austin Opera trustees said its “staff will not disclose further details about the incidents that occurred.”
Buckley, who also conducts on the international operatic circuit, had held the Austin position since 2004.
“The allegations are baseless and without merit,” Buckley’s spokeswoman, Stefanie Scott, said Thursday. “Richard is deeply saddened by this turn of events. He has great difficulty understanding these accusations because he was not given any information related to what he allegedly did and who made the accusations. Richard intends to explore all his legal options.”
Two women spoke on the record with the American-Statesman on Thursday about Buckley’s behavior while he was artistic director.
“Richard Buckley engaged me in unwanted sexual behavior repeatedly during my one season at Austin Opera, and he was a big reason that I did not continue working there,” said Ellen Mason, who worked at Austin Opera as manager of marketing and communications from July 2012 to May 2013 before moving on to Texas Cultural Trust and then to the private sector. “After I resigned, I stopped by to pick up a couple of things that I accidentally left behind. Richard walked in and upon seeing me exclaimed: ‘You no longer work here so it is no longer sexual harassment!’ then proceeded to hug me so tightly that my breasts were smashed against his chest and I could (feel) certain parts of his anatomy, and then he started twisting his body right to left and rubbing himself all over me. My arms were trapped by my sides and I could not break free. This happened out in the open, in front of other staff.”
Monica Maldonado Williams, editor of GivingCity, a publication about the nonprofit world, and a former employee of Austin Opera, said Thursday that she had witnessed inappropriate touching, such as unwanted shoulder rubs, and inappropriate comments about women’s bodies about staff members as well as performers.
“Nonprofits can be especially prone to harassment situations because of the nature of the relationship between the staff, board members and executives,” said Williams, who writes a freelance column on Austin nonprofits published on Sundays in the Statesman. “Usually board members and important donors expect to be catered to, and staff feels compelled to oblige. In this case, the artistic director was a star and the darling of a few important donors, which often happens at an arts nonprofit. When someone feels like a star, they can believe they’re immune to criticism and above certain policies. It’s always better when a nonprofit takes steps to improve the workplace, because mission-focused work can already be so challenging.”
Buckley, the son of a famous conductor, was known for leading symphonies and operas far afield and was part of at least 40 Austin Opera productions.
As recently as March of last year, Buckley’s conducting earned a $1 million commitment from backers Ernest and Sarah Butler, namesakes of the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, to support the position of artistic director.
On Thursday, the Butlers wrote Annie Burridge, the opera’s CEO and general director, an email in support of the termination: “We are solidly behind the board of Austin Opera and you.”
Performances of Austin Opera’s current show, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” will continue with conductor Robert Mollicone.