Jeff Jardine

Buck Townsend assuming one of key roles in his life

At 71, Erik Buck Townsend knew it was time to slow down a bit.

First, he'd hand off the business side of the Townsend Opera Players to the new executive director the troupe's board plans to hire.

Then, someday, he'd turn over his duties as artistic director. But not just yet. Even though he's been diagnosed with lung cancer and endured his first chemotherapy treatments Monday, the company's founder plans to keep on directing shows and orchestras until he's ready to step down on his terms -- not the disease's.

"I'm sure of it," said Townsend, who created the company 25 years ago and conducted the orchestra recently during the opening week of the Gallo Center for the Arts.

He's attacking his illness with the same attitude that enabled him, in 1983, to build and then sustain an opera company in a valley where Willie Nelson albums probably outsold Luciano Pavarotti.

"It's a challenge," he said of the cancer, "and a medium one."

Lung cancer? Townsend said he's not sure why it picked him. He certainly didn't get it the conventional way. He can remember most of the times he smoked a cigarette in his 71 years, they were so few.

"Once behind the barn when I was a kid, and I got caught," Townsend said. "Once playing a coach (in a performance) at UOP, and once in the San Francisco Opera, as requested by (future "The Godfather" director) Francis Ford Coppola."

The company has mailed out a newsletter telling patrons of his illness, yet exuding his optimism.

"Life has handed me many challenges and this is the most recent," he wrote. "Besides, statistics show 80 percent of those treated for lung cancer survive at least for

10 good productive years."

The purpose of restructur- ing the opera company now, he said, is no different than it would be if he were 81 instead of 71.

"In the event if and when I can no longer do my job, it will continue on," Townsend said. "We have plans, the board and special advisory committee, to secure the future. We're looking to perpetuate opera here in the valley. Whether it does or not, (arts patrons) deserve to make the choice. Thousands of kids every year are exposed to opera."

In fact, Townsend players board President Carl Bengston said, the board began looking toward the future a few years ago -- long before Townsend got cancer.

"Organizationally, it's been in the works for a long time," he said. "(The timing is) purely coincidental. He's been doing all of the artistic work as well as running the company. We knew he couldn't go on like that forever. But we've been dragging our heels. None of us really wanted to deal with the future."

Several years ago, board members began cursory planning for the day Townsend might decide to retire. A few weeks ago, they decided to advertise for a new executive director to run the company with its $400,000 annual budget. They also changed their fund-raising methods in hopes of generating more operating income.

Even so, Townsend is no interchangeable part. He's been the heart and soul of the company from Day One.

Raised in Modesto, he graduated from Modesto High and attended Modesto Junior College before going on to University of the Pacific in Stockton. After a stint in the military, he went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and then on to New York City to pursue an opera career. He earned roles as the lead tenor in productions in the United States and Europe, but gained his footing at the New York City Opera.

"The intrigue was so thick there, you couldn't move," Townsend said. "The intrigue here is nothing like what you had to put up with on Blood Alley -- 57th Street -- where all the auditions take place. Rejections plus."

He figures he was rejected 15 times for every role he got. All performers learn to deal with it. Or not.

He did, and perhaps it helped prepare him for the bad news he received a couple of weeks ago.

"He's pretty darned positive," Bengston said. "That kind of outlook is the best way to approach any kind of malady."

Townsend returned to Modesto and formed the Townsend players in 1983, initially starring in the productions. But he's performed in only a few shows during the past decade, concentrating instead on directing and the music.

Now, he'll try to orchestrate a different kind of performance -- the performance of his life. He'll attack it like every other role he's played. But in no opera did he ever have to play the role of the victim.

"Luckily," Townsend said, "that ends up only happening to the soprano. We tenors end up being the lover."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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