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Leading With Music: Yonsei Alumna Named First Female Music Director of San Francisco Opera
Leading With Music: Yonsei Alumna Named First Female Music Director of San Francisco Opera

Eun Sun Kim makes history as the first woman to become music director of a major American opera company

International Women’s Day (March 8) is an occasion to reflect on progress made, to call for needed action, and to celebrate the outstanding acts of outstanding women who have played influential roles in their communities and countries from past to present. 

Armed with talent and tireless effort, women across all professions worldwide have continuously challenged themselves to not only overcome personal limitations but also to pioneer leadership roles that can inspire and empower others. 

Recently, a Yonsei alumna is receiving the global spotlight for breaking the glass ceiling in the traditionally male-dominated world of conducting. 

Eun Sun Kim (entering class of ‘99, Composition) was named the next music director of San Francisco Opera last December. She will be the first female director of the prestigious American opera company since its establishment in 1923. Although Kim will begin her tenure as music director on August 1, 2021, she will conduct the company’s new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” this 2020-21 season as music director designate. 

Kim will become the fourth music director of San Francisco Opera, leading the orchestra, chorus and music staff, and working with the executive leadership on repertoire and casting. She will be a key member of the creative leadership, helping to shape the artistic direction of the company and bringing memorable opera to regional audiences.

In a field where few women get opportunities to lead as conductors and even fewer as music directors, no woman has ever been the music director of such a large-scale, renowned American company. The New York Times has acclaimed Kim’s appointment as an achievement that is “making history.” 

Leading with partnership and collaboration 

No moment of prestige is attained overnight. Kim’s historic breakthrough was the result of a decade of experiences she had gradually accumulated throughout her career as a guest conductor at San Fransisco Opera. On her recent appointment as the music director, she expressed gratitude towards the orchestra, commenting that “the energy of the orchestra inspired me.”

“My very first encounter at San Francisco Opera – conducting my company debut ‘Rusalka’ - left a strong impression; I was moved by the passion and positive energy of the orchestra and company staff,” she commented. “The supportive environment of the company ensures that artists can focus on rehearsals and performances. Our teamwork was great from the start as if we had worked together before – it just came together easily.”

Kim and San Francisco Opera enjoy a synergetic, mutually beneficial relationship. Open communication with the orchestra enables Kim to concentrate more intensely on her musical interpretation, which in turn draws outstanding playing from the orchestra. This exchange has gained momentum, showcasing memorable collaboration and music-making as a result.

As music director designate of the prestigious opera company, Kim has high hopes for her new journey. “I hope that my previous experiences will serve as valuable strengths for my new role as music director,” she said.

Becoming more than “the first female” conductor

The news of Kim’s appointment as San Francisco Opera’s music director received both national and international recognition. The media acclaimed Kim as “the first female music director of an American Opera company,” and “the one who broke the glass ceiling.” 

In response, Kim expressed in her interview with The New York Times, “I’m grateful to be the first ‘female music director,’ but I also look forward to a future where the next generation will be called just ‘conductor.’”

This is not the first time Kim was a pioneering female in her field. After winning First Prize at the 2008  López-Cobos International Opera Conductors Competition in Madrid, Kim landed her first job as the first female assistant conductor of Spain’s Teatro Real (Royal Theatre). 

Leading a trailblazing path as a conductor and as a woman, Kim isn’t wavered by social norms or stereotypes associated with her gender, ethnicity, age, or physical appearance. Kim’s path was paved by her firm belief that only her musicianship can determine the fate of her career. “When I work with the orchestra, music is our sole focus. The power of music comes from our music-making, not gender or race.” 

Sharing music that connects deeply with the audience


When conducting, Kim places great emphasis on understanding the composer’s vision and native language. According to Kim, language plays a critical role in the insightful interpretation of a composition. 

“I think it’s important to be a leader who can convey her musical interpretation while inviting in everyone, including the directors, cast, chorus, orchestra, and backstage staff, throughout the process,” she said.  

When asked about her most memorable production, Kim recalled her U.S. debut in 2017, conducting “La Traviata” in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey - a devastating time for many residents.  

“Houston Grand Opera was flooded. The company had improvised a theater in a convention center, and we were able to host the open ceremony after four weeks of rehearsal. It was amazing to see how appreciative the audience was that we didn’t cancel the season and how comforted they were by our music. It was a memorable moment when I felt once again how much music enriches our lives." 

Pursuing dreams as a Yonsei student at Baekyangro

Born in Seoul and having studied composition and conducting at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, Kim recalls her undergraduate years as a self-described “very typical Yonseian.”

“I loved walking along Baekyangro, studying with friends at the Central Library, enjoying the annual festivals, and cheering my heart out during the Yon-Ko games,” said Kim. “Back then, the internet wasn’t available like it is today, so I stayed up all night in front of the Student Union Building to register for classes,” she reflected. 

Yonsei University was Kim’s dream school since she was in grade school. Looking back, Kim reminisces of her time on campus as “days willed with happiness.” Even now, when she conducts Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Kim is heartened by vivid memories of preparing the performance at Yonsei with fellow students during her undergraduate years. 

Kim advises aspiring conductors who wish to follow her footsteps to pursue their dreams with curiosity and a do-your-best attitude. 

“I always exert my utmost efforts to fulfill my duties and responsibilities. Curiosity is also vital, as my past decisions to pursue composing, conducting, studying abroad in Germany were all based on my curiosity and passion for music. Retaining this curiosity still has an immense influence on me with every new repertoire.”  

Kim awaits a busy year filled with performances in San Francisco, as well as concert engagements with the New York Philharmonic and Seattle Symphony. She will also lead productions at Vienna State Opera, LA Opera, and return to Houston Grand Opera - where she has been the principal guest conductor since last year. However, she is smiling and composed, ready to give her all to her passion for music in every moment.  

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