They like to call Dan Ettinger the rock star conductor for his rakish shock of spiky blonde hair.
The truth, however, is that Ettinger — currently back in his hometown for the April 30 opening of “Die Fledermaus,” the first opera being performed in more than a year — isn’t much of a rock ‘n roller, despite his tasteful leather-strung necklace, chunky silver ring and that hair. In fact, his taste in music is decidedly old-fashioned, he said — as in opera and classical music, all the way.
“It doesn’t always make me popular but that’s what I like and I can only do what I like,” said Ettinger. “I fail when I try something else, because it’s not me.”
Indeed, Ettinger has made a successful career out of doing exactly what he likes.
Now 50, he is the musical director of the Israeli Opera and of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, musical director and chief conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, and was musical director of the Nationaltheater in Mannheim from 2009 to 2016, as well as principal conductor for the Israel Symphony Orchestra and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
This is the first time Ettinger is back home in Israel in more than a year, having spent the last year-plus at home in Mannheim, Germany, where he has lived for the last decade. Now, after a few days back in Tel Aviv, he was still getting used to people walking around without masks, and to the idea of rehearsing with his orchestra in person.
He also hasn’t seen his Israeli musicians for more than a year.
The opera is only being rehearsed for about half the usual rehearsal time, but that was less of an issue, “as everyone is starving” for the work, said Ettinger.
He views his work as a conductor as accomplished primarily during the rehearsal process.
“You need time for an orchestra to really know you, to recognize how you move your head or your hands,” he said. Having only joined the New Israeli Opera — where he conducts about two operas each season — as musical director in 2018, he didn’t have much time to get to know the orchestra and musicians before the pandemic hit.
Conductors need that time to bond with their orchestras, said Ettinger.
An orchestra is “a very strange monster,” he said. “It’s a mini society and you learn so much for constantly managing people, situations, stress. It changed me completely.”
Rehearsals are the time when all that happens, said Ettinger. It’s akin to time at the office, albeit in the orchestra pit, when the musicians are still themselves, and not the performers just yet.
“In rehearsal, it’s still us as human beings investing in [the] process of creating [a] show or concert,” he said. “During rehearsal, I work, I create. That’s where the orchestra can observe any changes being made.”
Ettinger has been a conductor for 20 years, after first studying piano and then training as an opera singer. He says it’s the perfect job for him.
“We conductors don’t produce any sound, we can only cause other people to produce sounds the way we hear it,” he said. “We inspire other musicians and give them the tools that they need in order to produce what my taste is in the music.”
In this Israeli Opera production of “Die Fledermaus,” an operetta by Johann Strauss II that is also called “The Bat” or “The Revenge of the Bat,” Ettinger said he felt privileged to be able to cast the entire opera with Israeli singers. This is somewhat unusual in the Israeli opera world, which often lacks a main tenor or male voices.
“It’s just a cheerful opera and that’s what we need now,” said Ettinger. “We need to go back to the theater and not to experience reality but a fantasy.”
This past year was something of a nightmare for Ettinger. “It was my worst nightmare becoming a reality,” he said.
Despite certain pleasures, which included being able to sleep in his own bed for many nights in a row and working out on a newly purchased elliptical in order to avoid becoming a complete couch potato, Ettinger found it difficult to adjust to a year without the work that doubles as his hobby and deepest passion.
His final performance was on March 11 before an empty audience in Paris.
By late spring, Ettinger was conducting Zoom concerts with his Stuttgart musicians recording themselves at home as well as performing for very reduced audiences. He also recorded CDs with the Stuttgart orchestra, and even brought them together digitally with the Rishon Lezion orchestra, something which would have been much more difficult during a regular year.
“I’ve never earned a cent from something that is not music-related, and suddenly the nightmare became the reality and it teaches you a lot,” he said. “It happened whether you wanted it to or not.”
Ettinger, who suffered from a bout of professional burnout five years ago and had already begun the process of recalibrating his life prior to the pandemic, found over the last year that the changes he had begun to foster in his life were actually what he needs.
He had spent less time in Israel for many years, but accepted the position at the Israeli Opera in order to rebalance his life.
“After many years of coming less and less, I started to come more and more,” he said. Now he’s back in Israel for two productions per season, adding up to three, even three and a half months each year.
It’s one of the reasons he signed on as musical director of the opera, making a way for him to be in Israel, among family, friends and colleagues, while still in his musical life.
“I literally live my dreams,” said Ettinger.
With a good portion of his time at the Israeli Opera having been taken up by the coronavirus, Ettinger has signed on for another three years in order to be able to invest and enjoy the fruits of his time with the opera.
He wants more time to expose people to the magic of opera music, that old-fashioned musical genre that’s still alive after hundreds of years.
“This magic is what we need to sell,” he said. “What we do here is still theater, good theater, composed by genius composers. If you can sell that, then you’ve really made it.”