Why Eun Sun Kim Matters

By Cristina Schreil

When she starts her new job at San Francisco Opera in August 2021, Eun Sun Kim will make history as the first female music director of a top-tier opera company and the first Asian woman to helm any opera company.

Her appointment as SF Opera’s music director has cracked one of music’s most stubborn glass ceilings. The way to shatter it entirely? Simply watch her do her job.

Under a silvery moon, a mermaid longed for love. But Matthew Shilvock’s attention was elsewhere.

During a performance of San Francisco Opera’s Rusalka last June, Shilvock descended into the pit for the only time in his 15 years with the company. Eun Sun Kim lured him there; after witnessing her uplifting collaborative process in the weeks leading up to the production, he was curious to see the conductor in her element.

“There is a positivity that radiates between Eun Sun and the musicians,” Shilvock says, recalling his discovery. “She is constantly listening, balancing, adjusting, refining, all while propelling the music forward. She empowers everyone to become their very best.”

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Rusalka’s lead, insists that Kim is uncommonly nuanced, and paints a production fueled by chemistry, trust and contribution. “She has music inside her instead of blood,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever made art at exactly that level before.” Willis-Sørensen added that many conductors, in egotistic attempts to self-aggrandize, brandish enormous gestures or request taller podiums, but “I get the impression from Eun Sun Kim that she has no interest whatsoever in any of that.”

It’s apt, then, that when the opera sought a new music director, the baton went to Kim last December. She was a leader “we could never have imagined that we would find,” Shilvock declares.

Since the announcement as Caroline H. Hume music director, Kim’s gender has been as central to media headlines as her impressive career. When she starts her new job in August 2021, the 39-year-old will make history as the first woman music director of a top-tier opera company and the first Asian woman to helm any opera company. The San Francisco Opera and Symphony have carved space for many women on the podium, but Kim as artistic head beckons many to envision a new frontier.

As orchestras see more gender equality, leadership lags behind. A September 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras found little change since 2006: “Women conductors are still rare, especially in the high-status position of music director.” It added that “the ratio of male to female music directors and all other conductors has remained constant at around 10:1 and 4:1 respectively. It is notable that women conductors are twice as likely to be found in other conductor positions … than in music director roles.”

Of the music directors leading the 20 highest-budget American orchestras, only one is a woman: Marin Alsop. Kim notes that female leaders are more common in Europe, where she forged her career and has been based. Still, she was almost always the first woman to conduct elsewhere. Now, she’s well known in opera houses across Europe, including Staatsoper Berlin, the Oper Frankfurt and Royal Opera Stockholm.

All told, Kim isn’t eager to emphasize her gender. As it must on the podium, her focus returns to music. She says her initial impression of San Francisco Opera bloomed into deep admiration when colleagues actively united to problem-solve. She hopes to encourage a unique and identifiable sound, offering “moments of humanity that technology cannot give.” She positions herself as more of an arts champion in a tech-driven city than a feminist pioneer.

“Truly, when we are rehearsing and performing as an ensemble, we are all simply musicians — no one involved is actively distinguishing between a female flutist or a male violinist or a female conductor,” Kim says. “I’ve been told by many orchestra musicians that when I stand in front of them, they see a conductor, rather than a man or woman, and that made them so happy because it meant the music was at the forefront of our work.” She explains that youth, not gender, can be more of a stumbling block toward establishing credibility with musicians who’ve played together longer than she’s lived.

Many emphasized Kim as the best choice — male or female.

“The one thing that I’m really, deliberately not wanting to focus on is her as a woman,” says Ruth Lane, the opera’s Orchestra Committee chair and a cellist. Lane describes Kim as dependable and communicative, laughing with musicians yet stabilizing haywire moments. “She’s so incredibly talented. That, to me, is the most important thing about her.”

In the decision to promote Kim, who is viewed as a breath of fresh air by members of the pit orchestra, Lane recalls that her gender wasn’t a talking point overall. However, “some people would come up to me and say, ‘Well, do you think she will be strong enough when talking to other people about us on our behalf?’” She thinks the skepticism stemmed from how people perceive authority. “That’s something I don’t think they would ask if it was a man.”

As younger female conductors rise — “and there are many,” Kim assures — they’ll crack the glass ceiling further. “Progress takes time. We’re part of a culture — of many cultures — where women weren’t seen as viable leaders for a very long time,” says Kim, citing politics and business. “People are still getting used to the idea of women leading. … As we move into more visible and long-term leadership roles, that will become normalized.”

And yet, data relayed by the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, founded by Alsop, shows just how sluggishly cracks form. “While the recent Fortune 500 list shows a considerable jump in female CEOs — from 4.8 percent to 6.6 percent — the percentage of female Music Directors (the CEO equivalent in classical music) has not budged from 2006 to 2016.

Kim’s focus on the music makes sense in 2020, when there’s little collective patience for coddling those who remain uneasy about female authority. She yearns for the time when she’ll simply be “conductor,” not “female conductor.” However, visibility seems vital to ushering this forth. It’s a tricky balance: To encourage women to lead, and to get to the point where we don’t register their womanhood, we need to see women leading.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, all the major orchestras were all men,” says Ruth Lane. “It was when screens went up for auditions that suddenly women began to be in orchestras in a much bigger way.”

As Lidiya Yankovskaya explains, one’s early conducting career is inherently conspicuous. “Getting your foot in the door is often difficult because people tend to identify something that is familiar to them, especially in an industry that is so risk-averse,” says Yankovskaya, the music director of Chicago Opera Theater, a third-tier company. She is currently the only female music director of a major American opera house. “I was told, on multiple occasions, that I should not conduct,” Yankovskaya, 33, recalls. The road to conducting is long. Subtle baton flicks meet scrutiny. Skeptics were men, some older but mostly peers, spouting opinions like, “I don’t know if it’s possible [for a woman to conduct] because I’ve never seen a good one.”

In the last 10 to 15 years, however, Yankovskaya sees change: “Those same people who said that tome earlier in my career now don’t look at things that way.” Through Taki Concordia, she was mentored by Alsop, who’s long been vocal about more equality on the podium. “She’s still the only one after so many years,” says Yankovskaya of Alsop still being the only female to direct a top-tier American orchestra. “I very much hope [Eun Sun Kim] will be the start to a larger wave of change and won’t be a single incident.”

So suspects conductor Nicole Paiement, artistic director of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Opera. Nowadays, a growing number of women conductors contact her to be their mentor. “It’s definitely a statement for San Francisco to have this appointment and to say, ‘We believe in this.’ It’s easy to say that you’re open-minded to that, but until you take action, it doesn’t really improve anything.” Asked why it’s taken longer for female top-tier heads, Paiement points to the psychology of long-ingrained classical music protocols. Central to that, reinforced over centuries, is a male conductor. “When I get on that podium, I would lie to myself by not thinking that some of them are surprised by my presence,” she says. Then, she echoes Kim: “But, it quickly dissipates. And then we start making music.”

Institutions can do more. Shilvock stresses the importance of ensuring equitable training opportunities. Yankovskaya insists there are many skilled, experienced female conductors who are ready for leadership roles. It’s up to companies to devote resources to finding them.

To stoke momentum, all agreed that young girls need to see women leading in order to internalize Eun Sun Kim’s career path as a possibility. Come 2021, they’ll have a well-lit view.

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