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She's making history in opera. Can she help ensure its future?
The music director Eun Sun Kim at the San Francisco Opera, Oct. 7, 2021. Kim is the first woman to serve as music director of one of America’s largest opera companies. She aims to broaden the art form’s appeal in the digital age. Kelsey McClellan/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The curtain had just fallen on San Francisco Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and the mood was celebratory. Cast members embraced, the audience gave a prolonged ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” echoed through War Memorial Opera House.

But as she exited the theater after the performance Oct. 14, the company’s music director, Eun Sun Kim, was subdued. She was already considering areas she wanted to work on, including how to reshape the opening of the second act to better capture a sense of despair and ways to avoid being distracted by technical cues.

“An artist is never satisfied,” she said, smiling, as she walked across the granite floors.

The stakes are high for Kim, who in August became the first woman to hold the post of music director at one of the country’s largest opera companies. Born in South Korea, she is also the first Asian to assume such a role.

Her appointment has been celebrated as a sign of change in the classical music industry. She is one of several women who have recently taken top jobs at orchestras, a world that, despite some pioneers — such as Sarah Caldwell, who founded the Opera Company of Boston — has long been dominated by male maestros. (At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Kim will lead Puccini’s “La Bohème” this winter and again in May.)

But Kim, who turns 41 on Saturday, is uneasy about the attention. She recalled the example of her grandmother, a pioneering obstetrician in South Korea who longed for the day when she would be called simply a doctor, rather than a female doctor.

“It’s a hard job, it’s a big job, whether you’re a woman or a man,” she said. “I want to be seen just as a conductor.”

The challenges are formidable. Kim is working to help San Francisco Opera recover from the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of 57 performances and the loss of more than $20 million in anticipated ticket revenue. While live performances are back, it is unclear if audiences will return in force. Only about 6 out of every 10 seats were full on opening night of “Fidelio,” although a matinee performance a few days later was more crowded.

More broadly, Kim must confront existential questions about opera’s future. San Francisco Opera faced financial pressures even before the pandemic. Attendance has been steadily declining in recent years, a problem faced by many opera companies. In 2019, San Francisco took in 76% of its potential box-office income, down from 81% in 2014. Its subscriber base skews older, with an average age of 67. The company’s audiences are about 70% white, according to a 2018 survey, while the city of San Francisco is 53% white. There is a noticeable dearth of Black and Latino patrons.

The company hopes the appointment of Kim will help broaden its appeal. It has produced advertisements featuring her that hang from streetlights around the city. “A new era begins,” they say.

“There’s a wonderful energy that things are changing, that storytellers are changing,” said Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s general director. “This should be a building where everybody in the community feels that they can come and experience something deep and profound.”

It remains to be seen whether the city’s residents will respond, especially with the delta variant of the coronavirus still posing a threat. But Kim said that she is ready for the challenge and that opera must find ways to connect with people who grew up in a digital world.

“Opera is not boring or old,” she said. “It’s the same human beings, the same stories, whether it was 200 years ago or nowadays.”

Kim’s childhood was steeped in music. Her father was a civil servant who rose to become South Korea’s cultural minister, and her mother was a teacher.

She began studying piano at a young age but switched to composition in college because she found recitals too nerve-racking. At her university in Seoul, South Korea, a teacher was impressed by her ability to coach singers during a school production of “La Bohème” and suggested she pursue conducting instead. But he warned her that she might have difficulty because she was a woman.

“Women were supposed to be more passive and more polite,” Kim said. “And for a woman to be a leader was not very common.”

She went on to study conducting in Germany, making her professional debut with the Frankfurt Opera in 2012. She earned support from mentors such as pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and Kirill Petrenko, now the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Early in her career, she faced sexist comments that she had achieved success because of her marriage to Michael Lewin, an influential manager of artists. (The two have since divorced and Kim has remarried, although Lewin remains her manager.)

Her debut in the United States came in 2017, when she conducted a Houston Grand Opera production of “La Traviata.” Hurricane Harvey had flooded the company’s regular home, and the performance took place in a convention center.

“Under these circumstances, a major star of ‘La Traviata’ was Eun Sun Kim, a young Korean conductor making her North American debut, who led the performance with great sensitivity and flexibility,” James R. Oestreich wrote in a review in The New York Times.

The Houston company was so impressed that it named her principal guest conductor in 2018, a position she still holds. Around the same time, San Francisco Opera — which, with an endowment of $300 million and an annual budget of around $72 million, is one of the largest companies in the country, along with the Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago — was looking for a successor to Nicola Luisotti.

Kim said she was not aware of the search when the company invited her to conduct Dvorak’s “Rusalka.” But that production, in June 2019, proved to be a turning point. The stage crew felt Kim was eager to collaborate and unusually humble. The orchestra’s players raved about her musicianship. Having studied Czech to prepare, Kim mouthed the words to the singers from the podium.

Aware of the buzz, Shilvock decided to do something he’d never done before: watch a performance from the orchestra pit.

“There was just a magic in the air, there really was,” he said. “Everyone was feeling empowered, able to create the best art they could.”

The company announced the selection of Kim in late 2019, just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread. Her initial five-year contract began this August with a run of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

This month, she turned to “Fidelio,” in a new production directed by Matthew Ozawa that had been meant to premiere last year. She did months of research to prepare, she said, reading about Beethoven’s deafness and listening to early recordings by Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss. To focus on the German text, she tuned out distractions in other languages, including “Squid Game,” the popular South Korean drama.

“I work with many conductors and I love them all,” said soprano Elza van den Heever, who plays Leonore in “Fidelio” and has collaborated with Kim before. “But this is different. There’s a calmness about her that’s not often associated with big-personality conductors.”

Speaking between rehearsals in the lead-up to the premiere, Kim outlined her plans, saying she would start by staging an opera by Verdi and one by Wagner, each season. She hopes to work up to a “Ring” cycle in about five years.

In San Francisco, many are hopeful that she will help bring more diverse audiences to the opera. Ivan Hsiao-Suignard, a management consultant who attended the opening night of “Fidelio,” said Kim’s appointment was a promising start.

“For such a conservative art form like opera, I think it’s really refreshing to see diversity on the podium,” Hsiao-Suignard said at intermission. “But it’s not like a one and done.”

Kim said she had rarely experienced overt racism or sexism in her career, although she at times felt that others saw her differently because of her background. Lewin told her at the start of her career that she would need to be four times better than her peers because she was “Asian, small and young.”

Amid an increase in reports of hate crimes against Asians in the United States during the pandemic, Kim said she had decided not to speak out, despite pressure from friends, because she was relatively new to this country and felt the issue was a long-standing problem. She also expressed her view that the arts should not be overly sensitive to pressure from social movements.

“We can’t replace quality with diversity,” she said. “I’m looking at broad ways that we can invite really good artists regardless of gender or regardless of race.”

As she settles into her new role, though, Kim has grown more comfortable embracing the momentous nature of her appointment. She said she thinks often of her grandmother, who taught her the importance of optimism and offered her regular career advice until her death, at 100, in 2012.

Sometimes, after performances, Kim is approached by audience members, young and old, who tell her they never imagined they would see a woman on the podium.

“I’m getting inspired by those people, because they are speaking from their heart,” she said. “When I look at their faces, it’s an inspiration for me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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