When David Gockley announced his departure as San Francisco Opera’s General Director by the end of the 2015–16 Season, it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who knows him—least of all Kip Cranna, the Company’s dramaturg who has worked alongside Gockley for the past decade. “I have known David to be very decisive, determined and able to make decisions that he can follow through on. And he always said he was only going to stay for ten years,” says Cranna.
Cranna has served the Company for 37 years (and counting). He was still in grade school when San Francisco Opera’s founder and first director Gaetano Merola passed away, but when he joined the Company in 1979, Kurt Adler, Merola’s successor, was still in charge. Having worked for—and with—every General Director since, Cranna provides a uniquely nuanced perspective on Gockley’s years with San Francisco Opera.
Taking the Helm
Gockley joined the Company in 2006, but that was not the first time he and Cranna met. “David was very well known for running Houston Grand Opera, where he started in his twenties and did many great things. The first time I actually met him was in 1992; we were asked to co-commission the opera Harvey Milk, so I went to Houston to confer about that. The opera premiered in Houston in 1995 and was produced in San Francisco one year later. It didn’t occur to me that David was going to be my boss at some point, but he was the logical choice when the time came.”
Navigating Stormy Waters
When Gockley arrived at San Francisco Opera, the Company was facing some financial hurdles, Cranna explains. “In 2003, our Company had gone through what David later called ‘a near death experience.’ We had huge deficits and almost a third of the staff was laid off. It was very demoralizing. The board knew that we needed someone to stabilize the company and build a firm foundation. That was one of David’s priorities: to guarantee survival. And he was very determined to honor the past and the traditions of the Company while moving forward.”
Leaving a Lasting Impact
Unlike their European counterparts, American opera companies tend to combine the administrative and artistic directorships in one person. Cranna explains, “The job requires a rare individual: someone who really knows the artistic side of opera, and who is also fiscally sound and knows how to raise money. David had a background as a singer, but he was also trained in business finance. Building up an endowment was an important aspect of his survival strategy.” Another of Gockley’s noteworthy achievements was his plan to bring San Francisco Opera before new audiences via DVD releases, television broadcasts and simulcasts in movie theaters and large public venues like AT&T Park. These efforts have attracted an enormous amount of first-time opera visitors. But as far as Cranna is concerned, Gockley will be best remembered for bringing stability and reinvigoration to the Company. “Survival is no longer a question. And that is saying something.”
Commissioning New Work
According to Cranna, Gockley has not only been instrumental in reinventing opera as an experience—“from buying a ticket to finding your seat and getting a drink at intermission”—but also in shaping the future of the art form itself. “We have an obligation to keep revitalizing the art form by trying new work. Commissioning is an important part of David’s legacy. In my career I have worked on well over twenty new commissions, and almost half of those were with David. We did Appomattox, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Heart of a Soldier, Mary Magdalene and Dolores Claiborne, to name a few.” Gockley also expanded the repertoire by bringing productions from American musical theater to the opera stage, including Porgy and Bess, Showboat and Sweeney Todd.
Making Room for Innovation
Cranna recalls, “One of the first things I remember from right after David arrived is being dragged around to all the small theaters in town. David was very interested in seeing what other venues would be suitable for opera; not many, as it turned out. With the Wilsey Center, we now have a small venue that is ours to use. Among the many major Gockley accomplishments, this will be an enduring one.”
Paving the Way Forward
“David has a strong commitment to the history of this company and the nature of its audience: the fiercely loyal, highly knowledgeable, very demanding audience that we have created for ourselves,” says Cranna. He is confident that the transition to San Francisco Opera’s seventh General Director, Matthew Shilvock, will be a smooth one. “To some extent, Matthew was a protégée of David; they worked together in Houston and he has been David’s right-hand man in San Francisco as well. He is obviously a very different person and will go his own direction, but it is not going to be a wrenching change for the staff, the audience and the Company. The grand tradition will go forward. ”