The fast-rising conductor Eun Sun Kim was named the next music director of the San Francisco Opera on Thursday, which will make her the first woman to hold the post at an American opera company of major size and stature.
When asked in an interview about the pathbreaking nature of her appointment, Ms. Kim, 39, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, said that it made her think of how her grandmother, a pioneering doctor who was born in 1912, was described for years as a “female doctor” — but lived to see the day when women who practiced medicine were called, simply, “doctors.”
“So I’m grateful to be the first ‘female music director,’” Ms. Kim said. “But I also look forward to a future where the next generation will be called just ‘conductor.’”
Ms. Kim, whose conducting career has boomed in recent years, regularly conducts in Europe, including at the Staatsoper in Berlin, where Daniel Barenboim invited her to make her debut in 2015. She made her American debut in 2017 under the most trying circumstances: conducting “La Traviata” at the Houston Grand Opera in an improvised theater in a convention center, shortly after Hurricane Harvey flooded the company’s regular home.
She was called “a major star” of that “Traviata” by James R. Oestreich in The New York Times, and the company was so impressed that it named her principal guest conductor.
Her appointment in San Francisco comes fast on the heels of her successful debut there in June, when she led a highly praised new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka.” Joshua Kosman wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle that Ms. Kim “drew glorious playing from the Opera Orchestra and paced every scene freely but precisely” and described the production overall as “the kind of collaborative offering that shows the company at its finest.”
Matthew Shilvock, the company’s general director, was so interested in Ms. Kim that he watched one of her performances from inside the orchestra pit.
“From the very first encounter that she had with the orchestra, it was clear that there was something really special emerging there, a special kind of energy I have not seen before with this company,” Mr. Shilvock said in an interview. “She’s a conductor who really opens her arms and invites the people around her in to make the very best music she can.”
Ms. Kim will officially begin as music director in San Francisco in 2021, but, as music director designate, she will conduct a new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” there next season.
San Francisco tapped her just as her American career is taking off: She made her Washington National Opera debut last month with “The Magic Flute,” and has debuts coming up with Los Angeles Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera, where she is scheduled to conduct “La Bohème” in the 2021-22 season.
She is succeeding in a field where women still rarely get opportunities. Karen Kamensek, who is currently conducting “Akhnaten” at the Met, is only the fifth woman to conduct there. Marin Alsop remains the only female music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.
There have been pioneers in leadership positions at opera companies, including Sarah Caldwell, who founded the Opera Company of Boston and made it a force through innovative programming and big stars; Eve Queler, the music director of the Opera Orchestra of New York; Simone Young, who was artistic director of the Hamburg State Opera; and Lidiya Yankovskaya, who is the music director of Chicago Opera Theater. But no woman has been music director of an American company as large and important as San Francisco.
Marc A. Scorca, the president and chief executive officer of Opera America, a service organization, said that a recent survey of the biggest American companies found that only 10 percent of their conductors were women, and none had women as music directors.
“We haven’t even reached anything close to parity among conductors,” he said, “let alone music directors.”
Ms. Kim’s path to the podium began in Seoul, where, while studying composition, one of her teachers encouraged her to conduct. After going on to complete her studies in Stuttgart, Germany, she began working her way up through the opera world, first as an assistant.
In 2011 she assisted the conductor Kirill Petrenko, now the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, on Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Opéra National de Lyon. The next year, she made her professional debut, with “La Bohème” in Frankfurt.
Ms. Kim said a turning point came when she went to Madrid in 2008 for a competition, after which she landed her first job as an assistant conductor at the Teatro Real there.
“I walked in the room for a first round with the orchestra and didn’t even know how to say ‘hello’ in Spanish,” she recalled. “And I just walked in and conducted, and it worked. It really sounded as I wanted to hear it. I really felt, then, that music could be my language.”