Richard Buckley's conduct was a problem for years, women say

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In the weeks since Austin Opera’s conductor was fired amid allegations of harassment, seven women have come forward to describe a culture of permissiveness that they say allowed Richard Buckley to touch women inappropriately and engage in lewd talk because he was a star.

The women told the American-Statesman that Buckley — who served as the opera’s conductor and artistic director for 14 years — regularly touched women’s buttocks, commented on their bodies in a sexual manner, made crass jokes and gave employees unwanted massages. Opera executives and board members knew about Buckley’s behavior but failed to intervene because of the celebrated maestro’s talent, the women said.

Buckley’s sudden departure was announced Feb. 1. In a short statement, the opera said that Buckley had engaged in “inappropriate behavior in violation of the company’s policy on harassment.” Officials said they would not provide more details out of respect for those affected by the behavior.

Buckley said he never intended to offend anyone.

“These accusations are very serious and upsetting,” Buckley said in a statement to the newspaper. “I ask for excellence from myself and everyone I work with, and at times use humor to release pressure and defuse tension. If I have ever said or done anything that has offended anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I deeply apologize.”

How much the opera board of trustees knew about allegations of improper behavior over the years is unclear. Board members declined to comment to the Statesman or did not return phone calls.

Several women who were interviewed said they heard Buckley making inappropriate comments in front of board members but said such remarks were so commonplace, they could not say specifically which board members were present to hear them.

Buckley’s firing was announced amid a national conversation about sexual misconduct in the workplace. The movement picked up steam in October, when movie producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of assaulting numerous women and of secretly paying some of them off for nearly 30 years before his conduct was revealed to the public, according to The New York Times. Since then, numerous high-profile celebrities, businessmen, sports figures and lawmakers have been accused of sexual improprieties with women.

Such complaints have hit the Texas Legislature, with women accusing several lawmakers of sexual harassment. Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for changes to the way sexual misconduct complaints against legislators, judges and other elected officials are handled. Currently, allegations are reported to state Senate and House personnel. Under Abbott’s proposal, they would be investigated by the Texas Rangers.

Buckley’s termination from Austin Opera came out of the blue for some people outside the arts community. But many who worked with the opera say Buckley had touched and spoken to women inappropriately for years.

Buckley still doesn’t know about the complaints that led to his firing, said his lawyer, Blayre Peña. The conductor was not told what the allegations against him were or who made them and was not given a chance to respond, she said. Peña said the root of the problem is tension between Buckley and General Director and CEO Annie Burridge, who arrived at the opera about a year ago.

“Richard’s termination was not about harassment, but instead an ax to grind by the opera’s new CEO,” Peña said. “During the new CEO’s tenure, Richard raised legitimate concerns about opera events and, rather than using those comments constructively, the new CEO viewed it as undermining her authority and repeatedly stifled Richard’s input.”

Austin Opera denies that.

“Austin Opera leadership properly and appropriately terminated Richard Buckley’s contract — consistent with its terms — based on his inappropriate behavior in violation of the opera’s harassment policy,” said Julie A. Springer, the opera’s attorney. “The notion that the termination of his contract was the result of any sort of power struggle is pure fiction.”

The inappropriate behavior started a few months after Buckley arrived at the organization, said Susan Threadgill, who worked at the opera for 17 years before taking another job in 2010. She was in the office, copying an opera score, when Buckley walked past her and grabbed her buttocks, she said.

Threadgill said she immediately confronted him.

“I said, ‘Excuse me! Sexual harassment!’” she said. “And he turned around like he was stunned. He said, ‘You know I didn’t mean anything by that,’ and I said, ‘That makes it worse.’”

Buckley never touched her again, but the behavior continued with other women, Threadgill said. Singers regularly went to her with complaints about Buckley’s remarks and behavior, then begged her not to say anything because they were afraid they would not get hired again, Threadgill said.

Two women who worked with the opera asked that their names not be published because they are afraid speaking publicly would negatively affect their careers. One woman, a performer, said that when she complained to other people in the company, she was dismissed as being too sensitive.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just his sense of humor. If you’re going to work in this profession, you’re going to need to toughen up,’” the woman said.

‘He was untouchable’

As the son of a distinguished conductor and a singer, Buckley had followed in his family’s footsteps to become a lauded maestro. Even after he took the Austin job, he continued to conduct operas and symphonies across the world.

“He lifts the orchestra with incontestable spirit, rhythm and presence,” Le Figaro newspaper in Paris once wrote. “We have here a real artist.”

Austin Opera is a $4.5 million annual operation that employs 14 staff members, 60 orchestra musicians and 40 performers in the chorus. An additional 90 to 100 people are brought in to work during the opera season. Buckley supervised all the musicians and performers.

The organization has struggled financially for years. Over the past decade, it has operated in the red off and on, only recently having stabilized — thanks in part to Buckley.

Last year, philanthropists Ernest and Sarah Butler donated $1 million to support the position of artistic director. According to the opera’s most recent tax forms, Buckley earned $165,000 a year. He has conducted at least 40 Austin Opera productions.

After his arrival, Buckley quickly became known for his casual sexual remarks, Threadgill said. Once, in front of at least six board members and donors, Buckley told a tenor having trouble with his timing, “‘You’re coming too soon. We’ll talk to your wife about that later,’” she said.

She could not remember which board members were present.

“He’s such a fabulous musician, and this is why people were turning their heads,” Threadgill said. “They were afraid we were going to lose him.”

Women who worked at the opera over the years said that Buckley regularly remarked on their bodies, women’s cleavage and their clothing. Ellen Mason, who worked as the opera’s manager of marketing and communications from July 2012 to May 2013, said she was once talking to her friends about taking an exercise class when Buckley walked by and slapped her on the buttocks.

Over the months, he gave her unwanted massages — sometimes under her arms and grazing her breasts — and regularly made sexual remarks to her, Mason said. She said that, at the time, she blamed herself for the behavior.

“I stopped wearing my makeup,” Mason said. “I started wearing messy buns. I started wearing sneakers. I tried everything in the women’s arsenal, and none of it worked.”

Peña said that Buckley gave shoulder rubs to both men and women, as did other people in the company. Many people enjoyed it, she said.

“During long, grueling hours of rehearsals, people’s shoulders and neck tense up,” she said. “If someone didn’t want a shoulder rub, they could tell Richard, and he would stop.”

Mason said she didn’t quit because she was worried about her career. She ultimately left for health reasons, which were partly caused by stress at the opera, she said.

“After I resigned, I stopped by to pick up a couple of things that I accidentally left behind,” Mason said. “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.”

Meredith Morrow, who was the group’s grant writer and corporate fundraiser from January 2011 to April 2014, said she saw that hug. Buckley routinely made lewd remarks in front of opera leadership, she said, so she believed there was no point in complaining.

The opera board and donors loved Buckley for his talent, Mason said, and his behavior was treated as a joke by those who witnessed it.

“He was the darling,” she said. “At that time they were running scared for money, and Richard Buckley was a major reason why people kept coming back. He was untouchable.”

‘It wasn’t hidden’

In 2015, substitute cellist Margaret Coltman complained to the orchestra manager that Buckley joked at a rehearsal that women should wear garters to an upcoming performance. According to text messages provided to the Statesman, the manager responded that she was sorry Coltman was offended.

“We’re all used to Richard’s joking and most give it right back,” the manager wrote.

The orchestra manager who texted with Coltman said she would ask Buckley to apologize to her, but Coltman said that Buckley never did. Coltman said she felt dismissed.

Peña said that Buckley had no idea that Coltman was offended until she posted something on Facebook.

Former board Chairwoman Wendi Kushner remembered the situation.

“When this incident happened, I was chairman of the board,” she said in a statement to the newspaper. “I was immediately informed by Maestro Buckley and the orchestra manager. This extra musician in question never filed a complaint to the organization. The comment was clearly not directed to any one person. Maestro Buckley immediately apologized to the entire orchestra. The national #metoo dialogue is very important, but so is the ability to recognize that humor is clearly not abuse.”

Austin Opera officials have remained mum about what caused them to fire Buckley. Michael Solomon, director of audience experience and the opera’s appointed spokesman, said the decision came from the board after an outside investigation was conducted.

“As soon as the current board leadership became aware, appropriate action was taken to uphold the values and standards of Austin Opera,” Solomon said.

Peña said she doubts the credibility of the investigation.

“The information we have been provided seriously calls into question the ‘outside investigation’ that was allegedly conducted,” Peña said. “Our sources have revealed that the ‘investigation’ was conducted by none other than the new CEO, who had been trying to oust Richard for some time, and a staff person she supervised.”

Opera officials would not say whether they have lost any supporters or financial backers since Buckley was fired. Earlier this month, the organization released a statement from the Butlers saying they fully support the decision.

“The opera is confident that its donors and the artistic community will continue to support the mission of the company, as evidenced by the recent statement of encouragement from Sarah and Ernest Butler and the number of messages of support we have received in recent days,” Solomon said.

Morrow said she was floored when she found out that Buckley had been fired because she didn’t believe it would ever happen.

“He is a very talented conductor and musician, but talent shouldn’t excuse sexual harassment,” she said. “It was not a secret. It’s just disappointing that it took this long to stop it.”

Statesman staff writer Michael Barnes contributed to this report.

How we got the story

The American-Statesman interviewed nine women who worked with Austin Opera, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Statesman verified their employment with the opera, checked public records and sought verification of complaints through the opera and its board. Former opera director Richard Buckley’s attorneys were provided with a detailed description of the complaints so he could respond to them.