San Francisco Opera announces Eun Sun Kim as incoming music director

Eun Sun Kim, 39, made her San Francisco debut in June.

San Francisco Opera has announced conductor Eun Sun Kim will be their next music director, marking the first time a woman has been appointed to the lead musical role at a top-tier American opera company.

"The whole SFO team was really professional, but also they have such a passion and love for opera, music, art and high quality," Kim told ABC News about the process. "The leaders … were so supportive and collaborative. It just gave me a feeling like I'm home."

Kim, 39, was born in South Korea and has been "living out of my suitcase guest conducting for the last 10 years" around the world, including as a principal guest conductor for Houston Grand Opera. Now, she said, is "the right point" for her to settle down with a single company.

A music director typically has a long tenure at a company -- sometimes decades -- curating the musical direction, including helping select what to perform and guiding musicians. Aside from a general manager or director, who mostly handle administrative issues, it's the most important position at an opera house.

"It's so much more than just being a great conductor," SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock told ABC News. "It has to be someone who can lead and guide and shape the company."

San Francisco Opera was founded nearly 100 years ago and has had three music directors. Kim will be replacing Nicola Luisotti, who served from 2009 to 2018.

Kim was given an initial five-year contract with SFO, and she'll be officially begin the position Aug. 1, 2021. Effective immediately, she is the music director designate and will be involved in planning future seasons and orchestral auditions, according to the company.

Under her contract, Kim, who made her San Francisco premiere this past June with Dvorak's "Rusalka" to rave reviews, will be conducting up to four productions each season. She told ABC News she plans to conduct "as broad a repertoire as possible," including Italian, French, German and contemporary music, which SFO has championed and which Kim appreciates "because I studied composition."

In addition to curating the sound and "helping to shape the strategic direction" of the company, Shilvock said, "The music director needs to inspire the community. They need to be someone who can energize people and really make the case for why opera is so transformative in people's lives."

"There is a real positive energy that emanates from her," Shilvock said of Kim, "and in every conversation we have together, and every interaction with the orchestra, with singers, people just come away feeling uplifted and full of promise, hope and a real happiness. I think that will be true of the audience and community as well."

Shilvock said Kim was chosen "on the basis of her being a great musician, a wonderful, inspiring leader and creative force, and somebody who would take that creative journey with us," rather than considering the history the company would make by appointing a woman to the position.

"When you work, you forget about being female or male -- you just concentrate on your profession," Kim told ABC News. "I'm just a conductor when I do it -- I don't even consider that I'm a female conductor. When you are in rehearsal, there's only space for music."

Even so, she said, she's "grateful and honored" to be the first woman in this position at a top-tier American company.

"But, you know, it will change," she said.

Her grandmother -- "always my best and biggest supporter" -- was born in 1912 and became one of few women to practice medicine at the time, "so she was always called 'the female doctor.'" By the time she died, Kim said, "We don't call them 'female doctor' anymore. She got to see this world."