Arts & Culture Young Israeli Conductor Debuts in United States at Helm of ‘aida’

Dan Ettinger, an Israeli making his American debut with the Los Angeles Opera in Verdi’s “Aida,” looks nothing like the popular image of a classical conductor. Appearing considerably younger than his 33 years and standing a sturdy 6 feet 1 inch, Ettinger wears his hair short-cropped. His approach is casual, and he speaks of his work with the care of a skilled craftsman.

Dealing with an unfamiliar orchestra of more than 80 instrumentalists in “Aida,” advertised as “the grandest of grand operas,” is a major challenge, especially for a self-described “control freak” and “young pisher” — genteelly translated as a “young squirt.”

The morning after opening night, Ettinger seemed fairly satisfied, though he said it takes three or four performances before a new opera production hits its peak.

Ettinger is descended from Romanian immigrants to Israel — his father and grandmother are Holocaust survivors– and he grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. He was exposed to his parents’ large classical and jazz collection early on, and showed an early interest in music.

“I wasn’t a child prodigy and I had a normal childhood, but I always knew that I wanted to be a musician,” he said.

Ettinger attended a special high school for the musically talented, training as pianist and singer, then enrolled in Tel Aviv University’s Rubin Academy of Music.

He quit after one year because “the school system didn’t work for me, I wanted to do things my own way,” he recalled.

From then on, he developed his diverse musical talents by doing rather than studying, though he credits the help of private mentors.

Ettinger started his professional career as a baritone when he was 19. His favorite role was as Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Nowadays, Ettinger no longer sings on stage, though when he rehearses “Aida” he sings along with all the parts.

“I find my singing background a real advantage as an opera conductor because I can identify with the singers, I can phrase with them and breathe with them,” he said.

In a third career, Ettinger continues as a concert pianist, accompanist and coach. His “ultimate musical experience” was doubling as a pianist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto, he said.

Since 2003, Ettinger has been the resident director of the prestigious Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, handpicked for the job by fellow Israeli Daniel Barenboim. Many of the leading musical figures in Berlin now, ironically, are Israelis, Ettinger said.

This fall Ettinger will become music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon le-Zion, ranked second in his native country only to the more established Israel Philharmonic.

But he is not entirely happy with the state of opera around the world. For one, budget problems everywhere have forced cuts in rehearsal time, including in his present “Aida” stint. Of more concern is a shift in the staging of operas.

“It used to be that an opera was the conductor’s world, but now the emphasis is more and more on spectacular visual productions,” he said, though he hopes for a gradual return to more traditional presentations.

After he finishes this assignment, Ettinger is off to Tokyo to conduct Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” but he will return to Los Angeles next year to lead the orchestra in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”

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