Kip Cranna Plays Unique Role as SFO Dramaturg

As noted elsewhere on our site, San Francisco Opera’s dramaturg Kip Cranna will help educate audiences this season with a series of pre-performance lectures. In this exclusive interview, he shares some of his reflections on his current role at SFO.

Cultural Currents: Can you tell us how your duties as dramaturg differs from the traditional job description?

Kip Cranna: In European opera companies a dramaturg usually comes from a theater background and deals with production-related issues like staging concepts.  I’m a musicologist by background, so I rarely get involved with staging issues, but work on the musical side of things and act as the “musicologist in residence” as a resource for questions about the actual musical score.  I also do a lot of teaching, writing, and public speaking.

CC: Your work on the “Moby Dick” commission brought seafaring alive for our readers. How will the company do the same thing with “Girls of the Golden West”?

Cranna: “Moby Dick” of course dealt with the adventures of men at sea on a whaling ship.  “Girls of the Golden West” deals with different adventures and is based on the real-life situations of women braving the harsh conditions and experiencing the wild excitement of the California Gold Rush.

CC: If it’s not too far a stretch, one might note that “Red Chamber” also spoke to waterfront culture? Any thoughts about that?

Cranna: “Dream of the Red Chamber” was based on a classic Chinese novel from the 18th century. In our beautiful production, we saw the orphaned heroine arrive to live with her wealthy new family by gliding across a lake on an elegant barge.

CC: How do you keep publishers on deadline? What if someone fails to deliver?

Cranna: Managing the nuts and bolts of a newly-commissioned opera is a big part of my job. Composers sometimes fall behind schedule, so I work with their publishers to be sure the singers can get enough musical score material to learn their parts. Unlike the theater world where actors convene and learn their roles together, opera singers are expected to show up on the first day knowing their roles cold.

CC:What were the most important lessons learned when researching this subject?

Cranna: I’ve learned that what most people know about the California Gold Rush is romanticized and to some extent glamorized fantasy. “Girls of the Golden West” goes beyond the “spaghetti Western” to explore real-life people from the Gold Rush days and their actual struggles, conflicts, and exploits.

CC: Any startling discoveries?

Cranna: I learned that the burning question “What does it mean to be an American?” was as hot a topic in the 1850s as it is now.

CC: What were the main challenges in the creative process?

Cranna: In this opera, the main challenges will be musical. John Adams’ music is ebulliently rhythmic and energetic, but also very difficult, especially for the chorus. Just memorizing his tricky rhythmic patterns is both a challenge and a thrill, and the opera will convey an excitement that I know the audience will sense immediately.

CC: How are the principal performers preparing for various roles? Some must be more difficult than others…can you describe for us?

Cranna: The opera doesn’t open until late November, but we had an early rehearsal week in August so that the singers could get acquainted with their musical roles, which are highly differentiated.  Among our characters we have a highly educated New England woman, “Dame Shirley,” as our main eye-witness to the Gold Rush adventure, but we also have a Chinese prostitute (a high coloratura part), a Mexican bar maid (who sings in Spanish poetry), and the famous dancer Lola Montez (a role for a solo dancer).  These are the “Girls of the Golden West,” each very different from the others.

CC: Finally, how should the audience prepare? Your lectures, of course, are always a good start.

Cranna: Any background information about the California Gold Rush you can put your hands on will be valuable. The letters of “Dame Shirley,” our main character, are a great resource.  Google “The Shirley Letters” and you will see what I mean. Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” is another great read.