An Interview with SF Opera’s Kip Cranna, Part 1

How SF Opera Organizes its Season

An Interview with SFO’s Musical Administrator Kip Cranna

A historian by background, Kip Cranna organizes the opera house’s complicated schedules. He was recently awarded the prestigious SF Opera Award and given the title of Director of Musical Administration. In this first part of the interview he talks about his work at SFO and reveals some of the ways in which the company construct a season. The second part of the interview talks about General Director David Gockley and commissioning new operas.

Post: Could you describe your role at the opera house?

Kip Cranna: The fundamental job hasn’t changed, which I summarize by calling myself the “how-and-when person.” David Gockley, or whoever is general director, is the “who-and-why person.” He decides what he wants to produce and who he wants to engage to sing, working with his casting person, Greg Hinckle, It’s my job to take that info, which is a list of repertoire and a few essential dates of who is available when, and construct a season.

Core to the job is managing the music staff. Of course, the musical director, Donald Runnicles, is in charge of who is on the music staff, and the vast majority of our musicians are Runnicles selectees. This coming fall, 2009, Nicola Luisotti will become our music director. He’s done Forza with us (2005) and got to know a lot of our music staff; he was very impressed with them.

My job is contracting the musicians, assigning which operas they are going to work on and trying to balance out their preferences. I’m also in charge of what is actually on the page to be performed: critical editions, cuts, transpositions, negotiating with publishers.

Post: You’ve mentioned that General Director David Gockley decides which operas are chosen; can you talk about the rationale behind his choices?

Cranna: Right, he’s not operating in a vacuum. There are certain givens that we have to do to satisfy our subscribers and our public: Puccini, Verdi, Mozart. And if it’s not a Mozart year, you have to come up with something close to it: Glück, Handel, occasionally Rossini. We also have the Wagnerians, who are very vocal and determined, and enthusiastic. There’s got to be a solid core German rep piece. And almost always something French.

There needs to be something newish, maybe not modernish but late 20th century. And Russian rep is very popular in San Francisco. We started our collaboration with the Kirov Opera before the Soviet Union fell apart. We were doing War and Peace when that was happening, and the cast didn’t want to come to rehearsal—they just wanted to watch TV in their hotel.

There is a large segment of the audience that prefers the tried and true. There is also a large chunk of our loyal subscribers that would prefer not to have another Traviata. That leaves only a few wild card slots to stick in whatever you’d like, but it’s enough to play around with.

Singers often drive our choices. We will get a singer committed for a period and figure out later what production we will do based on where that singer’s repertoire is going, what we haven’t done recently, or what productions are available.

The third element is productions. You can come up with an ideal list of shows you’d like to do but if only one is in our repertoire that isn’t going to work. At least two or three have to be put on with a minimum amount of stage time.

We always make sure the music director is satisfied with the amount of time he has. If it’s a revival of something we did last year then that’s going to have less rehearsal, it’s what I call a “brown-and-serve.” Not that we compromise on the quality, it’s just that we know we can remount the show with a minimum of time.

Post: How many years are needed to organize a season?

Cranna: In terms of a list of repertoire with key artists: as far as five years out. Scheduling key artists about five years out is a gamble because someone at the top of their career may not be there in five years, and you also don’t know who the hot new talent is going to be. It’s terrible when you hear someone in audition and you think “My god, you are fantastic! What are you doing six years from now?” We leave some slots open in the secondary roles a few years out, some even in the last year.

Once I have a plan that is more or less certain, I start circulating it among costumes, technical, the musical director, the casting person and, of course, our marketing people. Everyone chimes in: “The first onstage rehearsal is too early,” “this singer isn’t coming in time for that rehearsal.” It goes back and forth through many iterations. Even through rehearsal it’s an ongoing work in progress.

Post: And in the case of a changeover, say between Pamela Rosenberg and David Gockley, how does that work?

Cranna: With a little delicate maneuvering. Pamela knew enough in advance so that she stopped planning too far in the future, but you can’t stop completely, you can’t hand over a blank slate because life must go on. When Pamela took over, we had Deborah Voight lined up to do Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. Pamela decided that was not a piece she wanted to produce, so we turned it into Ariadne auf Naxos—a logical switch—with the same singers. When David took over he decided there were too many Carmens scheduled so he turned some into Fledermaus.

It’s a matter of looking at the singers contracted and who can be moved into another cast. If there is someone who can’t be fit in, you offer him or her something else in a different season.

—Jaime Robles

A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post