If you’re going to return home to roost – actually to work – after a lengthy furlough, it can help to come out with all professional and user-friendly guns blazing.
Dan Ettinger is certainly giving his first gig here since the virus outbreak every chance of bringing home the kosher bacon. Ettinger has served as music director of the Israeli Opera for going on three years although, naturally, he hasn’t had too many opportunities to run his practiced eyes and ears over the operatic lineup for a while, or to mount the conductor’s podium.
The pandemic guideline-compliant freeze on Ettinger’s activities here was exacerbated by the fact that he spends much of his time residing in Germany, where he earns a crust as music director and chief conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra. But now he is back and, after doing his isolation time, has gleefully thrown himself back into the fray in Tel Aviv, as he prepares to oversee Opera House ensemble Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion’s delivery of five readings of Die Fledermaus (The Bat) by Johann Strauss II, starting on April 30 at 1 p.m. This is a concert-based performance rather than a full-blown operatic rendition, although the sonic aesthetics will include some of the Israeli Opera’s top vocalists, and will be visually complemented by some choreographed dance routines.
“It’s wonderful to be back,” he exclaims from his quarantine quarters when we spoke on the phone a week or so ago. “It’s my first time back since 2019, when I did Manon [by French Romantic composer Jules Massenet.”
Indeed, Ettinger was so keen to get back in the act at the Opera House that the prospect of spending 12 days shut off from life in Tel Aviv was hardly a deterrent. “It is always moving to come back to Israel,” he says. “Yes, I have to isolate but this is Israel. I wouldn’t have done that anywhere else.”
Considering the enduring global popularity of Die Fledermaus since it debuted in Vienna in 1874, and the frequency with which it is performed around the world, it comes as some surprise to learn that Ettinger has scant previous experience with the score. “I’ve only conducted this twice before,” he notes, “once at the Israeli Opera as an assistant conductor and once in Tokyo. That’s really strange as it is, of course, such a ‘schlager’ (hit).”
Conducting a largely instrumental version of the work is a very different proposition to taking responsibility for the musical accompaniment to the onstage theatricals. Then again, this is not purely orchestral either. “This is something between a full operatic production and an orchestral rendition,” says Ettinger. “The music sort of runs in parallel when it is a full operatic production. There is more room for the music to express itself in a concert-based show. It is less technically complex.”
The players also get to do their thing in full view of the paying customer. “The orchestra is on stage throughout the concert, rather than in the pit,” Ettinger adds. “This is a kind of last-minute hybrid arrangement, and a different sort of creativity is required. It is like producing something from nothing. It is a fascinating process.”
Mind you, if you are going to go out on a limb it can help to have some familiar and trusted colleagues on board for the ride. That is mostly not the case here. “I’ve never worked with [production director] Ido [Riklin] before, nor with [movement designer] Yiftach [Mizrahi].” Then again this is an all-blue and white project, and Ettinger knows the soloists pretty well. The latter include baritones Oded Reich and Noah Briger, sopranos Yael Levita and Tal Bergman, and tenor Eitan Drori.
Added to that despite his relative youth, 49-year-old Ettinger, who is also known for his pianistic efforts, has been there and done that across practically every area of the Opera House’s field of operations. “I have done almost everything in the Opera House,” he explains. “I have played harpsichord, I have sung and, of course, conducted there, and I have taken charge of major productions. It is a great advantage to have all of that under my belt.” As a seasoned vocalist himself that also helps him to work with singers, and to be sensitive to their needs within the broad sweep of operatic performance. “I understand the way singers think, and also the way they breathe, and when they need to do that. That, I think, is crucial for an opera conductor.”
Ettinger is also the courageous type, and follows the ethos that you have to try your hand, jump in at the deep end, and hope you come up to the surface smiling. That mind-set led to him acquiring his orchestral directing skills more or less on the job, rather than in an academic environment serving as understudy to celebrated conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim. He was clearly not fazed by his illustrious mentor, and uses a wide arsenal of professional abilities for his daytime duties.
He attended the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts where he began to hone his vocal talents. He had already accrued several years’ tuition and practice as a pianist and says he never forsook the ivories. “I was pretty successful as a singer but I always thought I’d play the piano,” he recalls. As his career as a conductor developed, the piano became an important means of artistic expression for him, and he frequently combines his instrumental role with directing his ensemble’s efforts on stage.
Above all, now, Ettinger is just happy to be back on the concert beat. “This is the first time the members of the [Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion] orchestra will be on stage since the start of the pandemic,” he notes, not forgetting an important component in the forthcoming series. “The audience is returning to the Opera House!” he exclaims. “I am looking forward to performing for them and to offering them this wonderful work which has been so popular for so long, and with good reason.”