Interview with Kip Cranna, San Francisco Opera’s Director of Music Administration

In June 2008 Clifford (Kip) Cranna, Ph.D., San Francisco Opera’s Director of Music Administration, became the 35th person to be awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, an honor created 38 years ago.  It was the first medal to be awarded since 2005, and thus the first of General Director David Gockley’s tenure. (A few days later soprano Ruth Ann Swenson was similarly honored.)

[Below: Dr Clifford (Kip) Cranna, Director of Music Administration, San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on photograph from San Francisco Opera.]

Cranna is well known to San Francisco Opera audiences as one of most informative (and obviously erudite) of the persons who give pre-opera lectures.  Only a few of those audiences are aware that he has been involved in the administration of the San Francisco Opera since 1979, and therefore has served under every one of San Francisco Opera’s general directors except the opera’s founder, Gaetano Merola.

This series of interviews has sought to interview people who are engaged at different levels of opera production. With my particular interest in the history of the San Francisco Opera, it was a special pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with someone who had worked closely with five San Francisco Opera directors.

I arranged to interview Kip in his fourth floor office above the San Francisco Opera stage after the first of two family matinee performances of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love”.  Before the interview began, he was engaged in a post-performance critique of the English supertitles shown above the stage proscenium.

(Although the performance was in English, it is the custom in San Francisco to have English supertitles for every performance, regardless of the language being sung. Some of the English words sung in the family matinee “Elixir” were revisions of the translation from the Italian in the edition being used. However, there had been obvious discrepancies during the performance between the supertitles being shown and the words being sung. Cranna, showing grace and obvious disappointment, established that the person who had entered changes in the supertitle computer program to conform to the newly translated passages forgot to save the changes electronically.)

Wm: Congratulations on your receiving the San Francisco Opera Medal last June, and also for your recent appointment as “Director of Music Administration”.

How did you come to be interested in opera?

KC: Well, pretty much like other people, I was introduced to opera through operatic performances. I happened to be in junior high school in Devils Lake, North Dakota, where I had been influenced by the kind of music teacher that was exemplified in the film “Mr Holland’s Opus”.  I was encouraged by my own “Mr Holland” to take part in choral music. Then I came to know opera through a traveling troupe’s presentation at our high school’s of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. 

I attended college at the University of North Dakota, where I became interested in Renaissance and Baroque era music. There I had mute parts in Wolf-Ferrari’s opera “The Secret of Suzanne” and Menotti’s “The Medium”. I had a particular interest in the Spanish Renaissance, and an adequate fluency in Spanish.

But after college I became an officer in the United States Navy, serving off the coast of Vietnam in 1970. When I had a chance to transfer to another duty station, I requested London, England, but got an assignment to Naples, Italy. American servicemen in Naples lived “on the local economy”, rather than a military base, so I became immersed in the Italian countryside.

After military service, I entered Stanford University, with the idea of pursuing my interest in the Spanish Renaissance. However, this was 1972 and Spain was governed by Generalissimo Franco, who had no interest in non-Spaniards doing historical research in his country. You could not get access to the libraries you needed.

At Stanford I had a professor who specialized in Bolognese composers, who re-directed my interests to the Italian Renaissance. Italy had no problems at all with Americans or other non-Italians doing research there. I met Bruce Lamott, another early Renaissance scholar, and we became partners. By now, it was the late 1970s, the United States economy was weak, and there were no jobs. Bruce got temporary work at the University of California Davis and I looked for jobs in music-related fields.

Prior to that, to make ends meet, Bruce and I worked at Sequoia Hospital’s Emergency Room, handling the waiting room clipboards used to manage and triage patients. In time, I worked in Sequoia Hospital’s business office, and continued working on my Ph.D. at Stanford.

We had been teaching assistants at Stanford for its famous conductor and professor, Sandor Salgo, who was teaching a course on Beethoven, for which 350 students had enrolled. Salgo brought Bruce to Carmel to be the Carmel Bach Festival’s harpsichordist. Bruce also accompanied recitals by James H. Schwabacher, Jr. It was Schwabacher, who had such an important relationship with the San Francisco Opera, that mentioned to me that a person at San Francisco Opera was looking for an assistant.

I was hired to handle a number of administrative details. I had responsibility for the arrangements of the San Francisco Opera’s winter 1979-80 tour of the Philippines. Other duties included contracting for facilities, and taking notes in the bargaining sessions with the Opera’s labor organizations.

At the Opera, I was shifted to the musical administration side.  Across the hall from my office was Terrence McEwen, who, having been designated as the successor to the then General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, was serving a year and a half apprenticeship. McEwen told me he wanted me to become his Musical Administrator. When I assumed the job in the early 1980s I was involved with the “nuts and bolts” of operatic planning.

Wm: You had responsibility for the telecasts of 1979 through 1981.

KC: Handling administrative details for the telecasts was a very big part of my job, beginning with the 1979 telecast of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” with Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti.

Wm: The 1980 telecast of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett was telecast on the Public Broadcasting System and has been released on DVD. The 1981 telecast of “Aida” with Margaret Price and Pavarotti was shown in Europe, but not PBS, but is also available on DVD. Why hasn’t the 1979 “Gioconda”, which was shown on PBS and won many Emmys, ever been released?

KC: My belief is that the first telecast became ensnared in a dispute over who has the rights to what. 

Wm: Perhaps this website can try to figure out with the lead PBS station as to what the issues are that are preventing its release.

KC: Other archival recordings where rights issues come into play are the San Francisco Opera broadcasts of 1970 through 1982. The broadcast masters are on the monstrous old tapes. For the opera company to digitize them, so as to preserve them until such time as they can be released, is a very expensive process.

Wm: No one has your vantage point in working with the last five San Francisco Opera directors. How would you characterize them? If you prefer, you can limit your remarks to those that have passed on.

KC: I’ll tackle all five. First, Kurt Herbert Adler: It is my belief that Adler’s greatest gift was being lucky. He was a tyrant that took incredible chances, most of which paid off. He had the ability to convince people to do things that they normally would not have done.  Much of what he strived for, over time, the company achieved, and, by those efforts, he made the San Francisco Opera great.

Terry McEwen was lots of fun, very friendly, a larger than life raconteur who loved wonderful singing. His great achievements in San Francisco were the new production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and the development of the San Francisco Opera Center for young singers.

Lotfi Mansouri was the right guy to run the company during the 1990s. He was a close friend, and Bruce and I still go to his house for dinner on occasion. Mansouri, like our current General Director David Gockley, believed that opera was for everyone, and, of course, is known for promoting “supertitles” which he pioneered while running the Canadian Opera in Toronto. (They were established at San Francisco in McEwen’s administration).

One of Lotfi’s greatest achievements was the brilliant way he managed the 18-month “out-of-house” period in 1996-97 while the Opera House was closed for renovation.

Pamela Rosenberg had such wide-ranging interests that she seemed interested in all things, especially new music and innovative productions. She had been married to an avant-garde composer and made the San Francisco Opera premiere of Messiaen’s “Saint Francoise” the hallmark of her years here. But she faced many challenges, of course including a severe budget deficit, and could not make the things happen that she wished to see.

David Gockley, I have already compared to Lotfi Mansouri in his determination to find new audiences for opera, and he is like McEwen in his enthusiasm for great singing, and the excitement of having the leading stars of opera performing in San Francisco. Gockley has a strong belief in technology. He is also thoroughly committed to new works, as evidenced by Glass’ “Appomattox” in 2007, Wallace’s “Bonesetter’s Daughter” in 2008 and the upcoming commission of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” in coordination with the Dallas and San Diego Operas.

Wm: What are your favorite operas?

KC: Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” is my favorite and all of Mozart’s four main operas (including “Cosi Fan Tutte”, “Don Giovanni” and “Die Zauberfloete”) would be in the top ten. My other favorites would include Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”, Britten’s “Billy Budd”, Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Rossini’s “Cenerentola”. In addition to these, I love the baroque operas.

Wm: This website in late December will be observing the 50th anniversary of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s American operatic debut, in his capacity as set designer for a San Francisco Opera double bill of Carl Orff’s works. By the time you joined San Francisco Opera, Ponnelle had become both the production designer and stage director of the operas on which he worked. What was it like working with him?

KC: Jean-Pierre was an incredible genius, whose operatic productions would often show deep insight into those works. However, he could be a real tyrant, very demanding and difficult to work with. But that said, he produced fabulous shows. The 1981 production of Bizet’s “Carmen” in the original Ponnelle sets (rather than the what we refer to as the mini-Ponnelle sets from Zurich that we now use) and the 1985 production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” (which San Francisco Opera still possesses) were fabulous shows.

Wm:  A major part of your job is working with the conductors.

KC:  Yes, I do get involved in details – such as whether a second harp really is justified. But the work with the conductors is extraordinarily satisfying. Donald Runnicles is an extraordinary talent. Edo de Waart was the original conductor for the Lehnhoff production of Wagner’s “Ring” and did a great job. I thoroughly enjoyed the relationship with Sir Charles Mackerras, who had been our Principal Guest Conductor and later Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus. He was versatile, but very demanding.

I remember with fondness John Pritchard, although we were not aware at the time that he was dying of lung cancer, and was no longer the vigorous conductor who could match his reputation. Nicola Luisotti, who will be the new principal conductor, is very popular with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, as was Nello Santi and Maurizio Arena.

However, not every conductor left me with a pleasant memory. Christoph von Dohnanyi was very difficult; he terrorized me.

Wm: With which artists of the past did you especially enjoy working?

KC: There are some obvious favorites. Marilyn Horne was wonderful. Luciano Pavarotti was unmatched – he was a great performer, about whom you never worried. Frederica von Stade – “Flicka” – is still performing, but since she has announced she will be retiring, I will put her on this list of my favorites from the past. Paolo Montarsolo and Alfredo Kraus belong there also. Among current performers, I would list Ruth Ann Swenson.

Wm: One of this website’s themes is that the best singers of the current day are as good as the best singers of the previous generations.

KC: I absolutely agree, and, in fact, have made speeches that have demonstrated that every generation has critics that deplore the current state of singing, when compared to the group of singers that were performing in the generation before them. 

Wm: May I congratulate you on the family matinee of Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love”? This was the first I had ever attended.

KC: I do think the performances in English are accomplishing something.  Pamela Rosenberg developed a one hour performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” designed for toddlers. This year we have arranged for hundreds of children to attend the rehearsals of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. 

It is a David Gockley innovation to shift the focus of the family matinees from the children to the parents. For large numbers of the parents in this audience, their only previous knowledge about opera had been of the stereotypes about it. Being able to experience an interesting and absorbing performance with their children will change a lot of minds about opera.

Wm: What do you see as the future of opera performance?

KC: I am an optimist in the short term, and a pessimist in the long term. I do not believe it will survive – at least in the form we are used to it – because of the marginalization of classical music in our society. What is missing is the degree of media enthusiasm for the great singers of our present day that one saw for Maria Callas, or Beverly Sills, or THE THREE TENORS. Will the next generation care about great opera singers at all?

I do not think that our present economic formula for producing opera, with its strong reliance on the nonprofit sector, will survive past 2050, unless we find a way to change our system. Right now, there are only a handful of individuals that provide the contributions that keep the opera companies going. Even when the present economic turmoil abates, the large range of choices for an individual’s personal giving will remain a problem for opera. Those rich enough to fund the arts, may wish instead to contribute to causes that promote social justice, medical research, or the environment. 

The high ticket prices that opera companies must charge for live performances are a great concern. It could very well be that cinemacasts may eventually replace live opera performance.

Wm: Kip, thank you for your time.

KC:  It was a pleasure.