A Life at the Opera
A Life at the Opera
By Milo Smith, Editor UND Alumni Review
A traveling production of the “The Barber of Seville” performed in Devils Lake, N.D., had such a profound impact on a young Kip Cranna that he turned his love of opera into a career.
“Opera can be kind of an addictive thing,” says Cranna, ’69, the director of Musical Administration at the San Francisco Opera. “You can get hooked on it and it’s sort of incurable after that. People who do get into opera do remember their first experience, and that was mine.”
That first exposure to Figaro, Count Almaviva and Rosina in junior high set Cranna on a path to UND, where he immersed himself in music and theater. While getting his Bachelor of Arts in Music with an emphasis on choral conducting, Cranna sang with the Varsity Bards and Concert Choir. He was a founding member of the Bards’ offshoot, the Goliards, and he got involved in theater productions as well.
Cranna says some of the performances were quite avant-garde. “This was the ’60s and anything goes in those days in terms of what could be done in a concert,” he says. “Chant music. Random sounds. We’d hand out slips of paper to the audience and they were supposed to jingle their keys or stomp their feet when directed. Lots of weird stuff like that.”
After graduation, Cranna joined the Navy and spent time on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. He then ended up in Naples, Italy — an opera lover’s dream. When he returned state-side, he enrolled in Stanford University and while finishing his doctoral work landed a job in the San Francisco Opera’s business office. Soon after getting his Ph.D., he moved to music administration, where he has remained ever since.
He describes his job as the “how” and “when” person who manages the music side of the opera. That can mean everything from working with conductors to commissioning new operas to making sure there’s a cannon to fire off during a production.
The San Francisco Opera is the second-largest company in the U.S. in terms of budget and schedule, meaning that wide-eyed junior high student watching “The Barber of Seville” in Devils Lake now works at the top of his profession.
“I think about that all the time,” Cranna says of his small-town beginnings. “When I first got the job here, I was really in shock. I would drive by and look at the building and think ‘I can’t believe I’m going to work there!’”
And he says he still gets that thrill today. “There are times when it’s a struggle, especially nowadays when the economic climate is tough,” Cranna says. “It’s always a challenge to meet the budget or to cut the budget. But when you have a good show and the curtain goes up and the audience is enjoying it, that’s always a wonderful feeling.”
The stature of the San Francisco Opera means Cranna has worked with some of the world’s most famous singers including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Renée Fleming. Cranna says his job “is not the caring and feeding of singers,” but he does get to work with them on various aspects of their performances.
“That part is exciting,” he admits. “You find that opera singers, even the very famous ones, are pretty diligent and pretty professional. The idea of the temperamental, hot-headed diva is the exception that proves the rule. They are mostly pros who are hard working, who show up and do their job, and are cooperative — most of the time.”
Cranna says when he finished up a “great experience” at UND, he figured he’d end up teaching music. All these years later, he teaches a class on career development at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “One of the things I tell them is to be aware that their career path will not be a direct line from where you are now to where you expect to be,” he says. “Life presents you opportunities you had no thought of considering and you have to be open to those and take advantage of them when they do.”
University of North Dakota, "A Life at the Opera" (2011). UND News Features. 94.