Eun Sun Kim made national headlines in December when the San Francisco Opera (sfopera.com) announced she would be its next music director, effective Aug. 1, 2021—marking the first time in our country’s history that a woman has been appointed to the coveted role at an elite opera company. The long tenure usually associated with the role will be a first for the 39-year-old, who has been guest conducting around the world for the past decade with various companies including Oper Frankfurt (2012), Cincinnati Symphony, Washington National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, where she was appointed the principal guest conductor in 2018. We spoke with Kim, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, about her groundbreaking new role and what she envisions for the future of San Francisco Opera.
Eun Sun Kim and San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock
Much has been made of you being the first female music director of a top-tier opera company, and the first Asian woman to lead any opera company. How do you feel about holding these two distinctions? While I generally stay focused on the work itself, I’ve been so touched by the number of women —particularly Asian women—and students who have approached me to say how much this appointment has meant to them. They feel like more doors are open to them now, and that is very gratifying.
What impact do you hope to make with the San Francisco Opera, and with the wider community? I’ve said before that I hope we can give our community moments of humanity that technology cannot give. Opera is capable of offering not only escapism, but transformative experiences— catharsis, actually. It reminds us that many aspects of human experience are shared, something I think we’re all more aware of with everything going on in the world right now.
Given the traditional longevity of tenures at a company, what made you comfortable with making San Francisco your home base? It’s honestly kind of like falling in love—you feel that it is right and that it’s natural, and you just know. It was that way with San Francisco Opera, and also with the city itself. Sometimes when you land in a place, it’s clear that you will just work and leave—there’s no real chemistry. It was the opposite for me in San Francisco. It also helped that the city felt familiar to me, both because it’s built more like a European city and because I’d seen shows and movies set here.
How did you feel about your San Francisco debut of Dvorak’s Rusalka? When I’m in the pit, I have to remain almost cold, or detached, in order to smoothly coordinate all the moving parts onstage and in the orchestra. If I allowed myself to get swept up in the emotion and drama of the score, that energy might not make it across to the audience. But it’s been really incredible to hear the stories of so many longtime audience members in San Francisco who really experienced something transformative with that production.
How are you preparing for the upcoming season (what can SF Opera audiences look forward to)? Right now I’m reading a book about Goethe and Schiller, two big thinkers who were contemporaries of Beethoven. Beethoven admired Goethe tremendously and used both Goethe’s and Schiller’s work quite a lot for his music. Fidelio is a piece about freedom and love—with a heroine doing the rescuing!—and I want to understand how Beethoven might have thought about those ideas in his own time. I think this is a crucial part of musical preparation—it isn’t just the notes on the page that can help us understand what the composer was trying to communicate.
Photography by: Marc Olivier le Blanc/San Francisco Opera