Written by The Business Journal Staff
Matthew Buckman, General Director
Fresno Grand Opera
What we do: Fresno Grand Opera is a professional opera company that produces and presents world class performing arts for the residents of Fresno and California’s entire Central Valley region. It provides educational as well as career development opportunities for young artists and serves as a catalyst and resource for the cultural growth of Central California.
Education: Bachelor of Music from CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, CA
Family: Single, no children.
How did you become executive director of the Townsend Opera in Modesto at age 26, Matthew?
I began working in my field as an intern with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra (MSO) when I was in college, and was fortunate to have multiple professional opportunities with the MSO when I finished my degree. I spent time working in development, facility operations and orchestra management before becoming director of development of the MSO when I was 24. After spending 18 months in that role, I was hired by Townsend Opera in February 2008 to replace the founder of the company, who was battling lung cancer at the time and would ultimately pass away seven months later.
What are the duties of an opera company’s general/artistic director, Matthew?
The general director of an opera company serves as the CEO of the organization while guiding the artistic vision of the company. It is an interesting combination of business acumen and artistic programming. In my role, I am responsible for programming and casting the company’s artistic activities, fundraising, guiding our marketing efforts, overseeing upwards of 75-100 contract employees and advocating for the art form in our community.
How did you become general director of the Fresno Grand Opera, Matthew?
In planning for the 2014/15 season, Townsend Opera and Fresno Grand Opera developed an artistic partnership to co-produce the two operas seen in each community. When the artistic partnership was finalized, I was approached by the FGO board of directors and asked to replace founding General Director Ron Eichman, who had been looking to leave the company after 16 years to work on a new project in the community. I view my assuming this position as a further extension of what I believe is a smart artistic partnership between the opera companies of our two communities.
Can you tell us a little about the Opera Remix Initiative, and if we can expect to see some of that in Fresno, Matthew?
Opera Remix was created in 2011 to experiment with how opera can connect with a 21st century American audience. As much as I adore the art form, I believe opera lacks cultural relevance in our country, and my goal is to try to find ways for our company to better connect with and serve our community. We have experimented with a number of different ideas and projects under the auspices of Opera Remix, some with great success and others not. But we are constantly working to make opera more relevant in our culture.
I am personally very driven by my desire to better connect opera to my time and place in the world, so I anticipate Opera Remix will be a part of my work in Fresno as well.
What are some other new things Fresno opera fans can expect under your leadership, Matthew?
I think there are two areas where we will see some new things happening. First, I imagine we will start to explore different kinds of repertoire that are new to the company. We have done a lot of the 19th century Italian operas over the years, so I would like to see us explore some of the American operatic repertoire. There has been a lot of great opera written in this country in the last 20 years, and I would like to see our company begin to explore that a little bit.
Second, I believe we will start to find new ways to add value to our community through the work of the opera. There are a lot of organizations that serve the less fortunate in our community and I would like to see the opera partnering with them to improve people’s lives through the arts.
What are the challenges and opportunities of overseeing two separate opera companies, Matthew?
There are some significant opportunities as a result of overseeing two separate opera companies. First and foremost, our companies become much more sustainable as we continue to navigate the post-recession economy. There are also a lot more opportunities to do different kinds of projects that might have been beyond the grasp of one of the companies individually. We are also gaining national attention for our opera companies by exploring this new management model, as this has potential to be implemented in other places around the country.
There are definitely challenges as well, both personal and structural. I like to be deeply involved in every aspect of what our companies do, which becomes much more challenging when overseeing two companies. There is also the geographic limitation of not being able to be in two places at the same time. Technology makes it very easy to work remotely, but there is no replacement for being physically present at all times.
What was the best advice you ever received, Matthew?
Follow your heart and chase your dreams. You’ll never be disappointed.
What are your roots in the Central Valley, Matthew?
I was born and raised in Fresno, and have never lived outside of the valley. I attended Easterby and Centennial Elementary Schools, Computech Middle School, Edison High School and Fresno City College. My entire family lives in Fresno. My mom is the principal of Fort Miller Junior High School, my uncle is the principal of McLane High School, and my dad works for Mitchell Aire, a locally owned air conditioning company in Fresno.
What was your very first job and what did you learn from it, Matthew?
My very first job (which continues as a hobby to this day) was refereeing soccer. In that job, I learned how (and continue to learn how) to deal with all kinds of people, personalities and cultures in all kinds of different situations. There is a lot of intensity in the game of soccer, and I have learned the subtle art of conflict resolution in my time on the soccer field.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Matthew?
Oddly enough, I referee professional and Division 1 college soccer as a hobby. I played soccer at the collegiate level and began refereeing soccer when I was 14 years old. I now referee in the second division professional league in this country and referee in all of the Division 1 conferences on the West Coast, including the Pac 12, Mountain West, Big West, and Western Athletic conferences.