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Backstage with Matthew: The start of a thrilling new chapter

Matthew Shilvock
Eun Sun Kim and the cast of Rusalka.
Eun Sun Kim and the cast of Rusalka.

I thought it might be interesting to take a step back from our usual Backstage with Matthew topics and share with you the process that we went through to select Eun Sun, as well as a little more about our new Music Director and what you can expect in the coming years.

As with most things in opera companies, there is no standard! Each company searches for a new music director in slightly different ways but, unlike a symphony orchestra, it tends not to be a search committee making the decision; rather it is a management decision. However, we wanted to create a process that was inclusive and participatory. We wanted our process to be very much open to the whole organization.

I have had an incredible partner in this process in my colleague Gregory Henkel, our Managing Director: Artistic. He and I have been in lockstep throughout this process, exploring possibilities, determining who should return and when, and in constant conversation about who is resonating with us, who is creating something exciting and full of possibility.


Matthew with Eun Sun Kim and Gregory Henkel after Rusalka earlier this year.
Matthew with Eun Sun Kim and Gregory Henkel after Rusalka earlier this year.

When we began the process, around two years ago (when Nicola Luisotti let us know his intent to step down as Music Director), we began by drawing up a framework of what we felt should define a music director in the 21st century. Being a great, world-class conductor across a broad variety of repertory was just the beginning. We also needed someone who could connect audiences (existing and new) with the emotional core of our art form; someone who could work seamlessly with the many entities of the company; someone who would champion living here in the Bay Area; someone who could inspire, engage and drive audiences; someone who would be active in nurturing the development of the orchestra, chorus and young artists. We needed a visionary leader who would further our musical excellence, but also drive us forward, trusted and beloved by the community.

We only had one “rule”: that the person needed to conduct a full run of an opera production here. This couldn’t be just us traveling to hear someone in Munich, or New York, or London in performance and saying “wow – that was an extraordinary performance; let’s hire them!” We wanted to get to know the person over a 6-8 week period, understanding the nuances of how they work in rehearsal, how they use rehearsal time, how they deal with difficult situations, whether they inspire donors and audiences, how the energy of performances fares over the course of a run. Working day-in, day-out with someone for 6-8 weeks is an incredible learning experience, equivalent to several symphonic engagements. A full run was a critical requirement!

Going back to developing an inclusive process, we wanted a way to engage the full company in reflecting on the many guest conductors we were inviting in. It’s not uncommon to get orchestra and chorus feedback, but we wanted to offer anyone in the company including music staff, production staff, administrative staff and the board, a chance to share their reactions. We developed a very simple form that invited free-form responses on visiting conductors. The form was completely anonymous and open-ended. We have no idea who wrote what, but Greg and I read every single entry and the feedback was invaluable both in terms of what was working and what wasn’t working.

When we first started working with Eun Sun Kim in May this year, something immediately clicked. It clicked straight away for Greg and me, just as it did for so many in the company. As the rehearsal process went on, that resonance kept amplifying. Before even a note of music was made in performance, we realized that in Eun Sun was someone who could connect the company together in transformative and unique ways. She approaches her work thoughtfully, with generosity and care for everyone. She is trying to make the very best music and she implicitly inspires every single person (musician or otherwise) to join with her!

The company’s connection to Eun Sun grew and grew through the rehearsal process. She uses every moment of every rehearsal with purpose and clarity. She knows exactly what she wants but she also has this incredible way of inviting and welcoming input from others. She acknowledges when something is going right, not just flagging when it goes wrong. This was music making quite unlike anything I’ve seen before and it was clear that it worked beautifully in this house. The performances were some of the most affirmative, uplifting, memorable moments that many have had in this theater – for audiences and critics alike.  

Eun Sun Kim with recent Spirit of the Opera Award recipient and SFO board member, Louise Gund during Rusalka earlier this year.
Eun Sun Kim with recent Spirit of the Opera Award recipient and SFO board member, Louise Gund during Rusalka earlier this year.

Over the summer and the fall, as more formal conversations began around Eun Sun joining us as music director, Greg and I have had some incredible moments getting to know her more and more deeply. For much of the time, Eun Sun was in Europe conducting, and I remember one particularly memorable moment where we began a phone call at 5pm San Francisco time – which was 2am German time! After two hours (by then 4am German time) we were still talking! I didn’t realize until we’d finished that she had a flight to catch a few hours later that morning!

But such is the ease of talking together, and that has been so important in our realization that Eun Sun was someone who we would be thrilled to have as a collaborative partner. The process of planning seasons is an intimate one, in which you share artistic aspirations, challenge each other, take different directions, morph and grow from ideas that can come from anywhere. Knowing that in Eun Sun we had a partner who shared so much of the same artistic philosophy and thought processes, the same beliefs in the importance of working collaboratively, the same energy for what opera can be – we knew that something that felt this right was right!

One of the things that I so admire about Eun Sun, is the extraordinarily high bar that she sets for herself. Even now, as a major international conductor, she still revels at the chance to hear a performance by one of her mentors like Kirill Petrenko and will stay up all night studying the score after hearing him on the podium. She insists on being completely prepared before she begins any work, regarding the score as something she is curating on behalf of the composer. And she is so committed to the text as well as the music. When we’ve talked about what operas she’d like to conduct, she says “I’ll conduct anything but with one proviso – if it’s in a language I don’t speak, I just need time to learn the language!” (And she’s not joking.)

In every interaction with Eun Sun, you feel this complete, total reverence for the music. A delight in the beauty etched into the score. A joy at being able to spend 3-4 hours in rehearsal with fellow musicians, making music. A curiosity as to what the music will reveal today that it didn’t yesterday. You feel that she will always be on a journey of discovery in which she will always see herself as a student of the music. But, in that great humility and reverence, she becomes an extraordinary teacher, guide and inspiration for us. I cannot wait to experience the repertoire afresh with her wisdom, energy and passion.

Eun Sun Kim conducting a performance of Rusalka.
Eun Sun Kim conducting a performance of Rusalka.

And, when it’s time to take a moment off between rehearsals, it’s time for a cup of Korean tea. Coincidentally, I began drinking this delicious honey, citron and ginger tea about a year ago and have been drinking it every day. When I offered Eun Sun a cup last week she couldn’t believe we had this special Korean tea in the office, let alone that we drink it regularly. But clearly, this was very much meant to be!

With Eun Sun’s appointment we turn the page to a thrilling new chapter for San Francisco Opera. A chapter of possibility, of the most authentic, joyful music making, of a company growing in strength and excitement. I am honored to be welcoming Eun Sun into our community and cannot wait for you to meet her and to experience more of her extraordinary approach to making music. We have a very bright future! 

Eun Sun Kim and Matthew walking