The musical director of the San Francisco opera makes history. Can it help secure its future?

By Javier C. Hernández

New York Times

The curtain had just fallen on the San Francisco Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, and the mood was celebrating. The cast hugged each other, the audience gave a prolonged standing ovation and cries of “Bravo!” Echoed through War Memorial Opera House.

But as she left the theater after the performance on October 14, the company’s musical director, Eun Sun Kim, was overpowered. She was already thinking about areas she wanted to work on, including how to reshape the opening act of the second act to better capture a sense of hopelessness and ways to avoid being distracted by technical clues.

“An artist is never satisfied,” she said with a smile, as she walked over the granite floors.

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

His appointment was celebrated as a sign of change in the classical music industry. She is one of many women who have recently held senior positions in orchestras, a world which, despite some pioneers – like Sarah Caldwell, who founded the Opera Company of Boston – has long been dominated by maestros. male.

But Kim, who turns 41 on Saturday, isn’t comfortable with the attention. She recalled the example of her grandmother, a pioneering obstetrician in South Korea who yearned for a day when she would be called simply a doctor, rather than a female doctor.

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

The challenges are formidable. Kim is working to help the San Francisco Opera recover from the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the cancellation of 57 performances and the loss of more than $ 20 million in planned box office revenue. While the live performances are back, it is not clear if the audience will come back in force. Only about 6 out of 10 seats were full on ‘Fidelio’ opening night, although a morning performance a few days later was more crowded.

More broadly, Kim must face existential questions about the future of opera. The San Francisco opera house faced financial pressures even before the pandemic. Attendance has steadily declined in recent years, a problem facing many opera companies. In 2019, San Francisco reaped 76% of its potential box office revenue, up from 81% in 2014. Its subscriber base is older, with an average age of 67. The company’s audience is around 70% white, according to a 2018 survey, while the city of San Francisco is 53% white. There is a notable shortage of black and Latino customers.

The company hopes Kim’s appointment will help broaden its appeal. He has produced advertisements featuring her that hang from streetlights around town. “A new era begins,” they say.

“There is a wonderful energy that things change, that storytellers change,” said Matthew Shilvock, general manager of the San Francisco Opera. “It should be a building where everyone in the community feels they can come and experience something deep and deep.”

It remains to be seen whether the city’s residents will respond, especially with the delta variant of the coronavirus which still poses a threat. But Kim said she was up to the challenge and opera needs to find ways to connect with people who have grown up in a digital world.

“Opera is neither boring nor old,” she said. “These are the same human beings, the same stories, whether it was 200 years ago or today.”

Kim’s childhood was steeped in music. Her father was a civil servant who became South Korea’s culture minister, and her mother was a teacher.

She started studying the 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 with her ability to coach singers in a school production of “La Bohème” and suggested that 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, being a leader was not very common.”

She then studied conducting in Germany, making her professional debut at the Frankfurt Opera in 2012. She has gained the support of mentors such as pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and Kirill Petrenko, today conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Early in her career, she faced sexist comments that she had been successful thanks to her marriage to Michael Lewin, an influential artist manager. (The two have since divorced and Kim remarried, although Lewin remains her manager.)

Her US debut was in 2017, when she conducted a Houston Grand Opera production of “La Traviata”. Hurricane Harvey had flooded the company’s usual home and the show took place at 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,” wrote James R. Oestreich in a review in The New York Times.

The Houston-based company was so impressed that they appointed their Principal Guest Chef in 2018, a position they still hold. Around the same time, the San Francisco Opera – which, with an endowment of $ 300 million and an annual budget of about $ 72 million, is one of the largest companies in the country, with the Met and Lyric Opera, Chicago – was looking for a successor to Nicola Luisotti.

Kim said she was unaware of the research when the company invited her to lead Dvorak’s “Rusalka”. But this production, in June 2019, turned out to be a turning point. The stage crew felt Kim was eager to collaborate and exceptionally humble. The musicians of the orchestra raved about its musicality. After studying Czech to prepare, Kim spoke the words to the singers from the podium.

Realizing the buzz, Shilvock decided to do something he had never done before: watch a performance from the orchestra pit.

“There was just magic in the air, there really was,” he said. “Everyone felt empowered, able to create the best art possible. “

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

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

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

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

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

“For an art form as conservative as opera, I think it’s really refreshing to see the diversity on the podium,” Hsiao-Suignard said during the intermission. “But it’s not like it’s over.”

Kim said she had rarely been a victim of overt racism or sexism in her career, although she sometimes felt like others saw her differently due to her background. Lewin told her early in her career that she should be four times better than her peers because she was “Asian, petite and young.”

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

“We cannot replace quality with diversity,” she said. “I’m looking for broad ways to invite really good artists regardless of gender or race.”

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

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

“I am inspired by these people, because they speak from their hearts,” she said. “When I look at their faces, it is an inspiration to me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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