Kay Stern on winning two jobs at San Francisco Opera

Kay Stern

The SFCM professor reflects on the tenacity that led to her landing the principal violist and later concertmaster position in the city’s top opera company.

In her own words, Professor of Violin and San Francisco Francisco Opera Concertmaster Kay Stern discusses how she won her first position at SFO after only a month of playing viola.

When I decided to leave the Lark Quartet, I started teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I was also playing as concertmaster for orchestras in Ohio and New York City, and performing extensively as a chamber musician. I came to a point in my life where I wanted to pursue one avenue full-time. So I looked in the papers to see what was available and there was an opening for a title viola position in the San Francisco Opera.

I had never played viola before. This is one of those moments of me just being naive. I rented a viola for a month and worked my butt off. It was supposed to be for the second chair and it was the third time they had this audition. They hadn't picked anybody. So I was there. Maybe if it was a violin audition, I would have had a conversation in my head about, 'Uh oh, I hope I get past the first round'. I had no emotional baggage, I just loved the excerpts, studied the context in the operas, and enjoyed the different dramatic styles.

It just so happened that I got the job. And it was the same time that the principal violist was leaving for Seattle. So I was Principal Viola of San Francisco Opera and I'd never played viola in an ensemble before. We started off with a Strauss Festival, which was so stressful because I had to put a Roman numeral for which string to help me read the music. But it was phenomenal. I loved being in between the viola and cellos and being part of the motor instead of the melody.

Then the San Francisco Opera was looking for a Concertmaster. To make a long story short, I auditioned and won the job. I could not have planned any of this, I could not have thought it through. I just kept saying, 'Oh, that sounds interesting.' I wasn't really competitive with other players because I just kept challenging myself —I always thought most people's technique was much easier and cleaner than mine. I was always going for the expression of the music and what it meant.

As I look back, despite how anxious I felt about something, I simply just took every opportunity and jumped in.

Follow SFCM on Instagram for more personal stories from across the Conservatory community.

Get to know SFCM’s violin department.