Eun Sun Kim: Spotlight on a Break-Out Star
Issue 16, Volume 112
By Zoe Buff
It’s gold. It’s light. It may look like a stick, but it holds more power than any instrument in the classical music world. The baton of a conductor controls the movements of every musician in an orchestra. Now imagine that command extended to an opera, where not only the orchestra needs to stay together, but the singers as well. Opera conductors helm the ship, making sure that the music flows properly. It’s a daunting job, but one that Eun Sun Kim has mastered with stunning musicality and assurance.
Originally from South Korea, Kim has taken the opera world by storm in the past year, landing the position of artistic director at the San Francisco Opera and conducting in several productions, such as Tosca and La Boheme, at opera houses in Munich, Stockholm, and Paris. As a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, I was lucky enough to perform with Kim in a production of La Boheme at Lincoln Center. She and I met over Zoom to talk about her experience in conducting, her love for Puccini, and her composition dream.
Tell us about how you got into conducting.
I started piano [at] around three or four years old. Growing up, I always had stage fright. I was so nervous, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional pianist. My professor encouraged me to study composition. I ended up doing it, and I played as a rehearsal pianist for the university opera production, which happened to be La Boheme! The conducting professor observed me and discovered my talent that I was not even aware of. He asked me if I wanted to study conducting with him! I had never thought anything about that. At that point, it wasn’t really about becoming a conductor, but I decided I would study it. That was kind of the beginning, and it was really out of curiosity that I started conducting.
Could you talk more about your experience with Puccini? How do you understand it, and approach it when conducting opera?
Puccini’s my man. It varies every time. I often make a joke that everybody gets older every day, and we get different points of view all the time. I actually go to the dressing rooms of all the principal singers before every performance to check in with them. Onstage, it could be a little faster, or a little slower. We have this idea in our brain of how to make music, but since we’re all human beings, things might change from day to day, and anything can happen. That’s actually the biggest advantage of having a live performance. We can’t replicate anything. We’ll have four or five performances of a Puccini opera in a run, and each one will be different.
You’ve also had experience conducting orchestras. How would you describe the difference between approaching that versus conducting opera?
I do love both. In terms of music-making, it’s the same thing, but in the opera you have stage directors, lighting, costumes, the chorus, and the singers on the stage. It’s a big crew. [Though] you have your own interpretation, you have to share it with the stage director. The biggest difference, of course, is that the orchestra is in the pit, but the magic of it is that the orchestra is only watching the conductor. They never see the stage, they only hear it, but they feel everything in the music. In a symphony, it’s more compact and creates a more intimate relationship between the players and the conductor.
So you mentioned a background in composition! How was that experience for you?
I had really fantastic professors! Whenever I didn’t have inspiration, my composition professor would tell me to go out to observe nature and experience what’s going on in the world. He never pushed me to have any kind of style. I wouldn’t say I was a composer, but I still have a dream to maybe, at the end of my life, compose something. Why not? You never know what’s going to happen in your life.
Like becoming a conductor!
Exactly. It was something I hadn’t thought about before. Fortunately, I had those teachers to guide me, and figuring out that I wanted to be a conductor was my turning point. My professor told me that when you look back, you get to understand how your life came to be what it is. Before you go down the path, though, you can never know. Actually, when I got to know Kirill Petrenko, the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, that was the first time I looked at being a conductor differently. What it meant to be a musical leader, to work with professional musicians, and how to study the score. Ever since I’ve known him, he has become my role model.
Right! When you’re in an opera and you’re conducting, there’s so much to focus on. You have to look at the score, conduct the orchestra, make sure the singers come in on time, etc. It’s crazy! How do you handle that when you’re actually in the performance, in the moment? What do you think about?
Well, it comes with experience. The beating technique is really the basic, but to carry on your own interpretation, dealing with the situation that is happening in front of you, that is a big job for the conductor. To have control, but to also carry on with the music. Performing as a pianist or even singing, I still get nervous, but only on the podium as a conductor, I’m not! My teacher in Korea saw it, which is how he encouraged me to pursue conducting. Usually, I was a very shy kid, so my mom, my family, and my friends who knew me for a long time would never see me becoming a leader on the podium. They were really surprised that I became a conductor.
So glad you did! Thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful getting to know you. I’ll see you on the podium tomorrow!