Conductor Eun Sun Kim set to make history at Lyric Opera with ‘Tosca’
She will lead eight performances of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic love story, “Tosca” and in doing so, becomes just the fourth woman in Lyric history to conduct a mainstage production.
Eun Sun Kim is enjoying a dream 2021-22 season.
First and most important, the 41-year-old Korean conductor began her tenure in late summer as music director of the San Francisco Opera — the first woman to hold such a position with one of this country’s major companies.
But that milestone was only the beginning. She made her guest conducting debut in November at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and on March 12, she will become just the fourth woman ever to conduct a mainstage production at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Kim will lead eight performances of Giacomo Puccini’s tragic love story “Tosca,” which premiered in Rome in 1900.
Lyric Opera of Chicago — ‘Tosca’
Eun Sun Kim, conductor
When: 7:30 p.m. March 12, seven additional performances through April 10
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
While she feels honored and excited about these big career steps, Kim is not intimidated by them. “Wherever I go, I consider that the center point of the world,” she said. “Whether it’s a small village in Germany or the Metropolitan Opera or the Chicago Lyric Opera. Making music with human beings is the same thing, and that’s what it is about.”
Tenor Russell Thomas, who portrays Mario Cavaradossi, the title character’s love interest in “Tosca,” and who has worked with Kim in San Francisco, has nothing but admiration for the fast-rising conductor.
“She’s going to do major things for San Francisco artistically, musically and everything,” he said. “She’s bright and she has an artistic perspective, and she’s very clear about that perspective. Those are all good things you need out of a leader in that position.”
Kim’s accomplishments come at a time when women conductors are finally beginning to secure a significant presence with opera companies and symphony orchestras in the wake of the #MeToo movement and heightened societal discussions of race and gender in recent years.
Even when she was studying conducting as late as the early 2000s, it was still uncommon to see a woman on the podium. Part of that absence, she said, was that women simply couldn’t imagine themselves in such a role.
But Kim recently watched the finale of a conducting competition. There were seven finalists, and three were women. “That was not the case when I started,” she said. “I was always the only one, so I’m now seeing it’s changing.”
Though she downplays her accomplishments as a female conducting pioneer, they are impossible ignore, especially her post in San Francisco. “It’s a huge and much overdue milestone, most definitely,” said Marin Alsop in an email. “I wish her great success and joy in her new position.”
Alsop, who serves as chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, became the first woman to be music director of a major American orchestra when she took over the Baltimore Symphony in 2007.
Kim kind of stumbled into conducting. She had planned on being a composer but was sidetracked by a professor in Korea who saw her working with musicians as a rehearsal pianist for a student production of “La bohème” and recognized her potential. She went on to finish her conducting studies in Germany.
The conductor has a knack for languages, learning German while there as a student and Spanish during her two years as an assistant conductor at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2008-10. She has also picked up Italian and French, so she could better understand operas in those languages.
“You write music based on your language,” she said. “So, to interpret those scores, it just attracted me to learn the languages. It helps.”
It is also important as an opera conductor to understand how everything on the stage interrelates and to be ready to collaborate with not just the singers and pit musicians but also everyone else involved in the production.
She makes a point to visit the singers’ dressing rooms before each performance so she can get sense of how they are doing and make conducting adjustments as needed. “That’s the attraction of opera productions,” she said. “You have so many performances, and every time it is so different.”
Kim is a big fan of “Tosca,” which has never lost its place as one of opera’s biggest hits, especially its episodic first act, which, she said, can be dramatically “stressful” for the conductor. “In order to connect all the transitions,” she said, “I think it’s very challenging — the first act — and that’s why I love this opera.”