Making most of his career in the United States, Kurt Herbert Adler was a fine conductor and outstanding opera administrator who took the San Francisco Opera from regional status to become one of the notable international opera houses.
He received his education at the University of Vienna while pursuing musical studies at the Vienna Musikakademie and the Vienna Conservatory. At the age of twenty he joined the staff of the Max Reinhardt Theater in Vienna, making his conducting debut there in 1925. He conducted at the Vienna Volkstheater and, following the typical Germanic conductor's career path, worked at a variety of provincial houses in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, moving progressively into more important houses and more important positions. In 1936, Adler was chosen to be assistant to Arturo Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival. However, by that time, the obvious interest of the neighboring Nazi German regime to take over Austria, its Führer's birth-country, made it prudent for Adler to consider leaving this developing career for the safety of the United States.
From 1938 to 1943, he was a guest conductor at the Chicago Opera. In 1943, he was hired by Gaetano Merola, founder and director of the San Francisco Opera, to a permanent position as chorus master, soon becoming a staff conductor.
In 1953, Merola died and Adler was appointed artistic director of the company, and in 1957, his position was elevated to that of general director. Under his leadership, the San Francisco ambitiously hired leading international stars. Adler had a talent for spotting rising singers of star quality, and the San Francisco Opera became the first American house to engage such leading singers as Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Hans Hotter, Boris Christoff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and conductor Sir Georg Solti.
He added several programs both to develop wider audiences (such as the Brown Bag Opera, instituted in 1974, and the spring and summer opera programs) and to develop new opera artists (for instance, the San Francisco Opera Audition in 1954, the Merola Opera Program in 1957, and the San Francisco Opera Affiliate Artists program).
In addition, he doubled the length of the regular season and expanded the budget. He continued to conduct, but spent most of his time in administrative tasks. He also made the repertory of the company more adventuresome, giving one of the earliest performances of Shostakovich's revised opera Katerina Ismailova and the first major American staging of Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. In all, the company under his administration gave two world premieres and eighteen first American performances.
Adler retired in 1981 and was named general director emeritus.
After his death, the San Francisco Opera Affiliate Artists program was renamed the Adler Fellowship Program. It seeks out promising developing young singers and hires them on an eleven-month contract during which they receiving coaching and further voice training from internationally esteemed artists (mostly star singers who have sung frequently with the company). This training is pointed towards professional performances in the spring opera season and in the main opera season. Among the international star singers who have been in the Adler Fellowship Program or its predecessor are Carol Vaness, Ruth Ann Swenson, Nancy Gustafson, Deborah Voigt, Dolora Zajick, and Brian Asawa.