Monday, September 5, 2022

Kip Cranna PART 2: Opera as a living art form

Kip Cranna
Photo: Scott Wall


San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

KC: Next came David Gockley, who had been running Houston Grand Opera for many years and established a reputation of commissioning lots of operas. He carried that forward when he came here. I knew him somewhat. I’d been involved back in the mid 90s when he commissioned an opera on Harvey Milk. He wanted to make sure San Francisco Opera became part of that. It did, along with New York City Opera. In traveling to Houston discussing this opera’s development I met David. It was fascinating working with him. In his mind, his gift to the company during his tenure was survival. He knew the economic future of opera in our American financial system had many challenges and felt it was important to put the company on a firm financial basis. He succeeded with that, despite the subprime mortgage debacle in 2008, which again threw everything into a financial tizzy but we subsequently recovered. A few operas during his tenure were Appomattox by Philip Glass; Bonesetter’s Daughter from Stewart Wallace; Heart of a Soldier from Chris Theofanidis; Secret Garden from Nolan Gasser; Mary Magdalene from Mark Adamo; Dolores Claiborne, Tobias Picker; Two Women, Marco Tutino; and Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng.

David Gockley
Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Opera

EM: Yes, this current season.

KC: David’s other great accomplishment was establishing the Wilsey Center next door to the opera house, in the War Memorial Veterans Building, consolidating a lot of different areas of the company in one space with a wonderful performing and rehearsal space that used to be the Sculpture Court of the Museum of Modern Art, now the Atrium Theatre. We owe it to David’s perseverance in pushing through that project, raising money for it.

EM: I’ve seen it. It’s spectacular.

KC: He also pioneered High-Definition television, raising money to establish a permanent HD facility, hidden cameras to capture things robotically without cameramen getting in the way. As a result, we were able to produce some DVDs and “Plaza Casts.” In Houston in the evening, you can sit outside the opera house and watch a simulcast. When he first suggested that here, he said, “I want to do a simulcast of Madame Butterfly at Civic Center Plaza outside City Hall, a block away from the opera house.” I said, “David, it’s cold at night in San Francisco. The fog rolls in.” [Laughs.] He said, “I don’t care, we’ll do it.” It was quite successful. We had several thousand people out there in parkas and sleeping bags [Laughs]. Later years we moved this to the ballpark where San Francisco Giants play.

EM: I’ve heard those are great events.

KC: David brought with him from Houston this young Englishman Matthew Shilvock, who I’d got to know quite well when he was briefly in San Francisco years earlier as an intern with Opera America, who sends them for brief residencies to various companies. He had gone to Houston, stayed there and joined the staff. A brilliant guy.

EM: He is indeed.

Matthew Shilvock
Photo: Sasha Arutyunova

KC: Very good with things like union negotiations, orchestra personnel matters et al. He really knows the ins and outs of the opera business, very detail oriented. I was quite thrilled when the board chose him to succeed David. He went into the job with his eyes open, knowing all the difficulties it entails and the looming financial challenges. Every year it gets a little harder to balance the budget. San Francisco’s a big union town. They make their best efforts for the best conditions for their members. Costs go up on all sides. We can’t raise ticket prices commensurate with that. Fundraisers fill the gap, particularly finding money from the Endowment to fill in that missing chunk. Matthew has his work cut out for him there. He’s done a lot of fascinating programming. This coming Centennial season, 2022-23, reflects that imagination and his respect for the history of the company as well as his forward-looking outlook.

EM: You’re doing another John Adams world premiere this season. 

Antony and Cleopatra Rehearsal:
John  Adams, Eu Sun Kim (conductor)
Kristen Loken
KC: Antony and Cleopatra will open the season, kick things off for the Centennial. And we’re bringing things back that had an important role in the company’s history. Dialogues of the Carmelites had its 1957 American premiere here shortly after its European premiere. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten had its 1959 American debut here, another company hallmark. We’ve had a good reputation for featuring American artists in their debuts in repertoire that hadn’t been done in this country before. That was a very long answer to your question! [Laughs.]

EM: It was, but so much incredible information. Let’s talk in more detail about commissions.

KC: What was a fascinating challenge for me to watch was that in every situation the relationship and dynamic between composer and librettist tended to be different. How the composer treated the text, what sort of dramatic effect they were looking for, was always based on the individual artistic creativity of the composer. Only one composer, Mark Adamo, wrote his own libretto for Mary Magdalene. In other cases, I did some refereeing, as in Streetcar between André and Philip, but mostly facilitating, making sure the communication went back and forth, contracts signed, checks were cut when deadlines were met. In some cases, it was dealing with a literary source, like the Tennessee Williams estate or dealing with publishers and trying to persuade them it was a good idea to license their work for development as an opera. To some extent input from the general director was also a factor. David was very hands-on with composers and librettists, telling them straight out what he thought worked and what didn’t. Sometimes it was up to me to encourage a compromise, a meeting of the minds to move the project forward. Fascinating experience in every case.

EM: What part did you play in supertitles, when was it, and how did patrons and press initially react to this phenomenon?

KC: I take no credit at all for the idea. That came from Francesca Zambello, an assistant director with the company, in 1983; and Jerry Sherk, our production stage manager at the time, who unfortunately died of cancer a few years ago. We were developing the Lehnhoff Ring—in 1983 Rheingold and Walküre, in 1984 Siegfried and finally the whole Ring in 1985. In 1983 Francesca was doing a student matinee of La Traviata. In those days when we had a standard rep piece during the main season it was common to use our young singers in the Adler Fellowship Program to do a low-priced family version of a show, sometimes in English. Francesca persuaded Terry McEwen we should do supertitles, which had been tried already in Europe, at New York City Opera and Canadian Opera in Toronto. It was quite a phenomenon in Traviata with the students and families.
Francesca  Zambello

The technology by today’s standards was primitive. You printed out a script and literally took a picture of the supertitle. It was developed onto a slide which you slid onto a carousel. I was involved writing scripts when we started doing supertitles for other shows. We learned by doing, that you could make terrible mistakes by getting your phrasing wrong. But it was a revolutionary approach and the audiences embraced it quite soon. 

When we did the Ring in 1985, some cycles had supertitles and some not. The ones with supertitles sold more quickly. We realized people were voting with their pocketbooks and wanted the shows with titles, a great audience pleaser. Lots of challenges, of course. In those days a carousel could only hold 70 slides. When you were writing your script and got into the 60s you had to find a spot that didn’t need titles, typically a long orchestral interlude or repeated passage in a chorus, to put in a new carousel. The carousels had to be kept warm, otherwise the slides would have moisture on them and were cloudy when being showed. You wrapped them in an electric blanket before showing. Now of course it’s done digitally with things like PowerPoint. Then, if you wanted to change a slide, it was a big deal. In rehearsal if the slide said, “Take this dagger and stab me in the heart!” but the person is holding a sword or gun, you had to change that title. But that meant printing it out, taking a picture of it, going to Walgreens, and getting it developed onto a slide [Laughs], numbering the slide, making sure it’s in the right order, not upside down or backwards, and getting it onto the carousel. Now it’s done instantly.

EM: Sounds like quite an ordeal.

KC: I was very pleased to be present at the creation of supertitles, but I give credit to Francesca and Jerry for pushing the idea forward. I think it revolutionized the approach to opera. Many people had been going to opera and viewing in a kind of ceremonial manner not really knowing what was going on. Kind of like attending a Mass in Latin [Laughs], not quite sure what’s happening but enjoying it anyway. It brought a much greater degree of audience involvement into the plotlines. I wrote a lot of supertitle scripts and became editor-in-chief of supertitles. I started noticing how important it was to make sure the titles matched the action. I still sometimes attend performances in theatres where not a lot of attention is paid to that. A good example is if a character says, “This letter will prove she’s innocent,” but at that time the letter has already been handed over to the other person, then the title needs to be “That letter proves she’s innocent.” Subtleties like that make the supertitle really improve the opera experience rather than go against it. It’s a certain cognitive distance when the reading doesn’t make sense compared to what you’ve witnessed onstage.

EM: That’s even more complicated than I imagined. Can you talk more about the season, including the Bay Area premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s opera along with old favorites?

Gabriela Lena Frank
Photo: Mariah Tauger
KC: John Adams is a Bay Area resident, and we have done all his major operas in the theatre. Antony and Cleopatra is the 3rd world premiere of his we’re doing. We’re part of the original commissioners of Klinghoffer. We’ve done Nixon, Doctor Atomic. Girls of the Golden West, now Antony and Cleopatra, those last three all world premieres of his works. The newest comes from Shakespeare but John is adapting the text himself with dramaturg Lucia Scheckner. That’s a really exciting addition to the repertoire, a good way to kick off a season. 

Eun Sun Kim
Photo: Sasha Arutyunova

I’ve already mentioned our long history with Russian operas. Russian opera has always had a big following here, lots of fans, and we’ve had good success. We first did Onegin in 1971, I believe in English. This is an exciting back entry representation of Russian opera in our season. Onegin is one of my 10 favorite operas.

EM: One of my top 5. What others are coming up?

KC: Carmelites. We’ve done the American premiere. On our website are audio clips I selected if you want to know what these operas sound like. The recordings are from a 1982 performance in English with a very young Carol Vaness as Blanche, Leontyne Price as the Prioress. It’s fascinating to go back that far, 40 years ago, hearing these historical broadcasts, realizing we’re honoring the past but going forward with a new production coming from the Champs Elysées in Paris. 
Traviata, our standard rep, these basic pieces that have to come around every 3 or 4 years. It’s important to revitalize the repertoire there. This is a new production by Shawna Lucey, who’s had a good role working with us in the past. She’s now general director of San José Opera here in the Bay Area. We’re glad to have her involved in this new production. Traviata was part of the 2nd season here, 1924, with Claudia Muzio. She opened the theatre when the company began in its new home at the War Memorial Opera House in 1932, singing Tosca. A big presence for the company. 

 La Traviata Act 1 

Model by Robert Innes Hopkins, prod. Shawna Lucey

We only did Gluck's Orpheus onstage once before, in 1959 with Blanche Thebom singing Orpheus as a trouser role. We did a concert version of Gluck’s French adaptation, Orphée, some years ago. There’s an audio recording of that but we didn’t stage it. This is the first time since the 50s we’ve staged this great historically important opera. 
Madame Butterfly, another new production, co-produced with Copenhagen and Dresden. This is also something that has to be in the rep every few years. Butterfly becomes more and more controversial because of its depiction of Asian artists onstage, but it’s just a great piece and deserves a hearing every so often. The company’s founder, Gaetano Merola, died conducting Un bel dì from that opera in a concert at Stern Grove, an outdoor amphitheater here. What a way to go.

Madame Butterfly
Tokyo Nikikiai Opera Foundation Chikashi Saegusa 
EM: And when the soprano was singing, “Morire.”

KC: Butterfly sings about how she’s going to greet Pinkerton when he comes up the hill to greet her, which of course he doesn’t do, but she’s waiting all night for him, thinking she’ll remain silent because she doesn’t want to die in her first encounter with him of the passion of the moment. Very operatic way for Maestro Merola to go.

Gaetano Merola, 1933

EM: You can’t make this stuff up.

KC: Really. It’s going to be exciting to see Frau ohne Schatten come back, a production from Los Angeles Opera that we are bringing here. Donald Runnicles, who was a longtime music director of the company, a famed Wagnerian who’s conducted all our recent Rings, will conduct this. Something to look forward to, Donald’s return.

Die Frau ohne Schatten
Photo: Robert Millard

Then we’re part of a consortium of commissioners with a new opera by Gabriela Lena Frank, a Bay Area artist of Peruvian ancestry. An imagining of the last days of the artist Diego Rivera, who sees a vision of his wife Frida Kahlo. It’s called The Last Dream of Frida and Diego, El Último sueño de Frida y Diego. This will be the first time ever that we’ve produced an opera in Spanish. I would say it’s about time. So, we start and end the season with new premieres, a fascinating way to bookend the season, the new embracing the old.

EM: What would you personally like to take away from this historical Centennial celebration?

KC: What I would urge everyone to take away from it is to embrace the ongoing vitality of opera, particularly in America, the creativity that American opera represents, along with honoring the fine tradition of producing the standard repertoire at the highest possible level. Opera is a living art form, not a museum, with creativity on all levels: fascinating new singers, new productions, exciting conductors, and invigorated repertoire. All these important elements that put together a season worth remembering.

EM: No question that this season will be memorable, Kip. I applaud you and everyone in the company for this immense effort. You have taken on enormously ambitious projects. The whole scope of the season is astonishing. I wish you all the most marvelous season ever.

KC: Thank you, Erica. We have a lot of work ahead, but it will be exciting to see it all come to fruition. 

War Memorial Opera House
Photo: Cesar Rubio


Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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