San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock today named South Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim, 39, as the company’s music director. Not long ago, conducting assignments and such prominent positions for women were pitifully rare, but in recent years, women have led great orchestras and taken many top positions around the world.
As did her two immediate predecessors at San Francisco Opera, Kim gained the appointment with a sensational debut: Donald Runnicles made a big splash leading one of the season’s four Wagner “Ring” cycles in 1990 and Nicola Luisotti impressed with Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” in 2005.
Kim’s big moment in the War Memorial came with her debut, conducting Dvorák’s “Rusalka” this summer to unanimous acclaim by the orchestra, cast, critics and audiences. A veteran orchestra musician said after Kim’s debut: “She is perhaps the best conductor we’ve had in a long time. So musical and she ‘looks’ like the phrasing. No ego, all music. And she speaks Czech!”
Born in Seoul, she started playing the piano at age 4; her mother discovered that her special musical abilities include perfect pitch. Kim studied composition and conducting at Korea’s Yonsei University, then trained in Stuttgart and Madrid. Kim’s early career in Europe was supported by an impressive array of mentors, including Daniel Barenboim and Kirill Petrenko. Barenboim is the veteran music director of Staatsoper Berlin, where Kim recently has led major productions.
Kim, who leads San Francisco Opera Center’s Adler Fellows Concert at Herbst Theatre on Friday, has a skyrocketing career guest conducting in Europe and the U.S. In the current season alone, she is leading concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L’orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, and the symphony orchestras of San Diego, Oregon and Seattle. In 2020, she’s slated to conduct the company premiere of “Roberto Devereux” at LA Opera; she recently concluded leading “The Magic Flute” at Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.
Kim, who lives in Vienna, made her U.S. conducting debut in 2017 with Houston Grand Opera in a production of “Traviata,” in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which damaged the company’s home, sets and costumes. There, too, the debut was so successful that HGO announced her appointment as principal guest conductor.
She returns to the Berlin Staatsoper to lead “Tosca” and “Salome.” Committed to developing the next generation of aspiring musicians, Kim also conducts the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks for the ARD Musikwettbewerb Prize Winners Concert.
In 2018, Kim conducted the Verdi Requiem at the opening concert of the Cincinnati May Festival, the first female conductor ever to conduct at the 145-year-old festival, previously led by James Levine and James Conlon.
Kim has a busy schedule as guest conductor at major European opera houses, especially the Staatsoper Berlin, where she recently conducted successful productions of “Traviata,” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Un ballo in maschera” and “Il trovatore.”
She has appeared in opera houses across Germany, leading productions at Bayerische Staatsoper, Stuttgart Opera, Semperoper Dresden and Oper Köln. She has been frequently engaged by Oper Frankfurt, where she led “La Sonnambula,” “The Count of Luxembourg,” “La bohème” “Die Csárdásfürstin” and “Der fliegende Holländer.”
IF YOU GO
The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Concert
Where: Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6
Tickets: $30 to $65