Both Berlin maestros boost SanFran’s new baton

Both Berlin maestros boost SanFran’s new baton


norman lebrecht

December 05, 2019

San Francisco Opera has just rolled out its next music director.

She is Eun Sun Kim, 39, and she comes recommended by Kirill Petrenko of the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim of the Berlin State Opera, having served as assistant to both men.

She succeeds Nicola Luisotti, whose nine-year term ended in 2018.

Kirill Petrenko published this message: Eun Sun Kim is a colleague who not only exhibits the level of seriousness necessary for a conductor, but also one who has continually developed her talent and abilities through tireless effort and the appropriate self-critical approach to her work. I believe that now is the right moment for her to bring her extensive experience from recent years to a high-level opera house and to have the opportunity to realize her own artistic vision. Likewise, I am convinced that with the appointment of Ms. Kim the San Francisco Opera is getting a remarkable personality as its next music director.

And Daniel Barenboim said: While observing the development of Ms. Kim’s international career, I have always found her to be a musician who takes the role of conductor with the utmost seriousness and who holds the responsibilities thereof above all else. Accordingly, she continues to retain her curiosity for music and her desire to improve in all aspects of her career. I was delighted to hear of Ms. Kim’s appointment as the new music director of the San Francisco Opera and wish her and the company all the very best.           

UPDATE: Kim was married for a while to Michael Lewin, Petrenko’s agent, a situation which she described once as a mixed blessing for her career. The marriage ended in divorce 4-5 years ago.


  • V. Lind says:

    When I read that headline I thought Berlin had pinched — that is, hired away — one of San Francisco’s newest appointments. Over here, “boost” as slang generally means “steal.”

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    She must be very good.

  • Pianomaster says:

    What have I just read? Feedback? “Please upload your CV and video below”

  • Musician says:

    She also happens to be the partner of her much older agent – Michael Lewin, who represents Petrenko and is close friends with Barenboim. Just a curious side note.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That’s very interesting. They can join our power couple list.

    • Allen says:

      This is unfortunately a well known fact that her career began perhaps as early as 2008 when she was sleeping with the agent who represented Petrenko and Barenboim. No one has tried to hide that.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Not quite. They were married.

        • anon says:

          Being “married” and “sleeping with” are not mutually exclusive. One hopes the former ensures the more of the latter.

        • Allen says:

          I suppose what I meant was that she had no career or very few credentials before she was sleeping with the agent Lewin as early as 2008 when she was in her 20s and he was … well, you get the picture.

          • sam says:

            We get the picture.

            To be fair, a lot of young men are benefitted from an older male mentor, and athough there may be no sexual component, there is still a component that is non-musical, non-purely-merit-based (i.e;, “he reminds me of my younger self”, “we share a similar background”, “his father is a famous so-and-so”, “I know his family very well”, “I just like him”, etc.)

            So, no, the world is never purely meritocratic, and men and women who are otherwise equally or more talented are passed over in favor of someone for reasons that are not fair, but historically, young men have benefitted far more than young women from these relationships.

            One day, in her 50s, she may groom a young man in his 20s. I’d count that as progress (in its own warped way).

    • norman lebrecht says:

      No longer. They divorced 4-5 years ago

    • Violininistacampeon says:

      I remember back in 2008 when she won the now discontinued Lopez-Cobos Opera Conducting competition. I played violin in the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid during the competition and I remember a sense of disbelief when we heard she had won the competition and became, as part of the prize, assistant conductor of the house. Does it mean that she was a bad conductor? No, but she was definitely not the best conductor in the competition. It soon became very clear to all of us that her connections were very strong with the powers inside and outside the music business (including his father who served as Secretary of Culture in Korea).

      • Otra Campeona says:

        Interesting, Campeon. That’s an extremely valuable observation, coming from inside the orch. Thank you for mentioning it!

        I poked around online and also noticed her Spanish connection. It’s hard to see how she actually conducts here, but I was impressed that she’d learned Spanish so quickly (a yr. and a half at the Real) and was able to interview so comfortably in that language.

        • Enmigranja says:

          I don’t know who you are, campeon, but I also played violin in the Sinfónica de Madrid during that time. I also remember the competition and also remember thinking she was not the best conductor in the competition. What it is important is that even though she was perhaps not the best conductor, she did help in 2008 break the barriers for women in conducting at Teatro Real, and she was very friendly and was liked by most people at the Teatro for her easygoing personality and the way she spoke Spanish!

  • RW2013 says:

    As if DB ever went to a performance of hers…
    Ich lach mich tot!

  • Allen says:

    as a side note, I lost all respect for her agent Michael Lewin when I sat behind him at a dress rehearsal of an opera one of his conductors was leading, and throughout the whole opera he was not only playing with his phone, but from where I sat I could see that he was, in fact, playing BACKGAMMON! 😀
    (let him try to deny this, but he knows it to be true. lol)

  • agent rules says:

    her conducting at the ARD was really bad, like conducting a marching band

    • Anon says:

      I saw that. The videos didn’t show enough of her to make that assessment, IMHO.

      How can you judge an opera director on how they conduct instrumental soloists in a competition like that, esp. when the cameras barely show her?

      • agent rules says:

        well, i saw that too – in the hall. plus rehearsals .. sometimes being a fan / payed / or just being mad / friend isn t enough .. sometimes it s really about quality ..

  • Music Lover says:

    She admits that the early stage of her career was helped by her influential husband and manager, but if she was not a first-rate conductor, would she have been invited again and again to the top-class orchestras and opera houses in Europe and America? Why would the Houston grand opera appoint her as the principal guest conductor to an unknown Asian-female conductor from Europe, and why would San Francisco opera appoint her as its music director, if they thought she was a “meh” conductor?? It is sad to see many prejudice comments here… It is also impressive that she works so hard to learn German, French, Spanish, English, etc… so quickly to be a successful Opera conductor. It is not so easy to learn new languages when you get older…

  • May says:

    Seriously? She has never held a single post as a musical director! Her appointment will attract some attention in the beginning, but where will the press be when the excitement has worn off? This appointment is an insult to other female conductors who actually know the operatic repertoire inside and out e.g. Karen Kamensek. Oh wait, she’s white … I get it.

    • concertgoer says:

      This is a racist comment towards Asians musicians and conductors. What makes you assume that she doesn’t know the operatic repertoire inside and out? Have you seen her conduct any operas?? or you generally have discrimination towards non-white musicians?

      • Anon says:

        You’ve gotta admit, Asian musicians, esp. Koreans, are pretty well represented in classical music. Just check any competition candidate roster. Discrimination against Asians isn’t exactly an issue in classical music. They seem to be doing just fine. For this reason, non Asian musicians often feel discriminated against, which is what you’re maybe seeing in Karen’s comment above.

        That being said, an Asian female is probably a good fit for SF, which has a prominent Asian community, many of whom are affluent and big arts supporters. It’s like MTT as an openly gay Music Director for SF Symph. It was a match made in heaven with the arts loving gay community there. He was a perfect fit for SF and Eun Sun Kim probably will be too.

  • Kaa12840 says:

    I find these comments to be astonishing. Do you guys (and I assume all of you are men as I am) think that the San Francisco Opera search committee were idiots? This is a major opera company in the US with very successful productions and long history. I doubt that they would choose someone who is not up to their level

  • Martin Cohn says:

    I’m not one to see sexism under every rock, but I was amazed at how the endorsements from Petrenko and Barenboim spent so much time talking about how serious she is. If she were a guy, they would have talked about how good he is!

  • Tamino says:

    Has anyone read carefully Petrenko‘s words of recommendation above?
    Do it! It‘s a verbal masterpiece of subtle omission in acknowledging any actual musical mastership.

  • mary says:

    “Kim married the influential concert promoter Michael Lewin, who she freely conceded helped her career along in its early stages. But “now it’s an obstacle because I need to fight against that prejudice and prove that I was able to come this far on my own merit,” Kim told Korea’s Chosun Ilbo. “It may work once or twice, but it’s impossible to survive in leading European opera houses without solid ability as a conductor.” ”

    1) Props for her honesty, at least.

    2) But amazing how people discount that first foot in the door. Just getting in in the early stages makes all the difference later on. In economics, it’s called FMA, the first-mover advantage.

    3) So, let me get this straight, she married him for the early-stage advantages, then divorced him when that relationship became an obstacle to proving herself. Cold.

    4) But she still retained him as her agent. Stone cold.

    • Bruce says:

      4) presumably with his agreement. Maybe they’re just using each other… or maybe they still get along well.

      (Dutoit and Argerich didn’t stop working together when their marriage ended; there are probably examples of other ex-couples, just not as famous.)

  • SMH says:

    Why didn’t they engage Simone Young as MD? Hell, let her run the whole house…..

  • Miguel Cervantes says:

    I saw Eun Sun Kim conducting Roberto Devereux last Saturday in LA. I was won over by her conducting. Her tempi were a bit on the fast side but she beautifully supported the singers. She is not at the level of James Conlon (the LAO MD) but I wouldn’t expect her to be at this point in her career.


    Eun Sun is a lovely person, and a very serious and well-meaning conductor, with whom I have worked in Berlin on a number of pieces. I have also seen her conduct in Frankurt. To be honest, her appointment in SF kind of surprised me. But Herr Levin’s networks are deep and wide, so from that point of view, I was hardly surprised. I hope she doesn’t burn out there. That is, assuming US Opera Companies can ever start up again. I wish her well.