SF Opera Hires First Woman Music Director, Makes History

Eun Sun Kim

The San Francisco Opera has a new music director. It’s the first time a top-tier opera company in the United States has hired a woman in this role.

An accomplished orchestral conductor, Eun Sun Kim is originally from South Korea, and is under 40. She stands out among the other people holding key artistic positions in the opera world, who are mostly white, male and older.

"It's very unusual to have a female conductor for any major opera house or symphony. San Francisco Opera only had their first main stage woman conductor in 2004—Sara Jobin, with Tosca—and only has had a handful since," said Bay Area-based opera commentator Charlise Tiee, who blogs at The Opera Tattler. "I think it's a great choice and it's a long time coming."

Indeed, the roster of women in top artistic roles with opera companies around the country is pitifully short. The Chicago Opera Theater, a smaller company than the San Francisco Opera, also has a woman music director, Lidiya Yankovskaya. Karen Keltner was a resident conductor with the San Diego Opera for many years, a role with fewer responsibilities than music director. Francesca Zambello, who often directs productions in San Francisco, stands alone as an artistic director of a major U.S. opera company: she leads the Washington National Opera.

Kim is the fourth person to have held the role of music director with the nearly 100-year-old San Francisco Opera. She succeeds Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, who left in 2018.

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"From my very first moments at San Francisco Opera, I felt this was home," said Kim in a press release. "There was an unusual feeling of open collaboration across so many facets of the company—a real sense of professional alchemy."

Kim's career includes significant credits as a conductor in both opera houses and concert halls. She has led productions for major opera companies like the Washington National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. Her symphonic appearances include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and she has upcoming engagements with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera House.

"I am moved to hear that my gifted colleague Eun Sun Kim, in addition to being Houston Grand Opera's principal guest conductor, will be the new music director of San Francisco Opera," said Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, in an email. "She is a brilliant musician, a superb conductor, a keen judge of talent and an empathic and gracious colleague. She is the perfect person at the perfect time for beloved company."

Kim, who conducted the San Francisco Opera's recent production of Rusalka, officially begins her tenure in August 2021. Her responsibilities will include leading the opera’s orchestra, chorus and music staff as well as helping with artistic planning.

She’ll be making an early appearance with the company this Friday, Dec. 6, leading some of its young resident artists—the Adler Fellows—in their final concert of the year.

"Eun Sun Kim brings a unique energy to San Francisco Opera," said the company's director general, Matthew Shilvock, in a press statement. "She connects all of us—audiences, artists, technicians, administrators—in the pursuit of one singular artistic journey, bringing thoughtful leadership, deep compassion and an incredible respect for everyone in the theater."