She talks at lightning speed in a mix of Italian and English. Energy and enthusiasm animate her every move, and it is perfectly in character that opera director Giovanna Maresta will speak of her singers, the conductor, Israel, the opera, Fiddler on the Roof, the workshop and anything other than herself. "I love coming here. I love working with these young singers, love watching them grow," she says, "and I love Israel. If I can find a job here, I can stay here for all my life. I'm not Jewish, but here I feel myself at home." In her ninth consecutive year with the International Opera Workshop (IOW), Maresta is directing Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, which she says is "a real challenge for me, because the dramatic conflict is not strong. It is about a man who discovers his true self, despite himself. It is a romantic opera, more full of dreams than action." L'amico Fritz tells the story of how confirmed bachelor Fritz (tenor Angel Ruz) loses his heart to pretty Suzel (soprano Alma Moshonov) with wily Rabbi David (baritone Adam Margulies) playing Cupid. Maresta is not sure why and how Mascagni wrote an opera with a rabbi as one of its heroes, but "he lived in Livorno, which had a large and cultured Jewish community. The intermezzo [part of the opera] is very Jewish music. In it, I use the idea of the violinist from Fiddler on the Roof. It is a magic violin and makes them love. I love this musical." Directing an opera is first and foremost about the music. Maresta gets most of her ideas for the development of the characters, for the action on stage - even for the jokes in the comic operas that are her forte - from the music. The stage director, she insists, "must work inside the music," and for that "I need the conductor. We must be on the same wavelength." Happily, L'amico conductor Richard Barrett - she calls him Ricardo - and she are on the same plane (she links her fingers to show the closeness between them). She begins to praise Barrett, and has to be reminded that this interview is about her. MARESTA WAS born and raised in Milan, an only child. Her mother started taking her to opera at La Scala when she was 14, but that's not when the bug bit. Studying philosophy and literature at Milan University, she needed a job and found one as a sound technician for a children's opera. She was hooked for good when one day she snuck into a rehearsal at Milan's Teatro Piccolo to watch the great director Giorgio Strehler in rehearsal. After graduating from the Paolo Grassi Performing Arts School and completing her piano studies with Carlo Pestalozza, Maresta became an assistant director at Teatro Piccolo, moving in 1988 from there to La Scala, where she has worked as an assistant director ever since. "I would have preferred to be an actress," she confesses, but at the time that idea got thoroughly squashed. Now she leavens her directing career with acting gigs - but always performs with musicians. "Little things, like The Odyssey in Athens. They played. We spoke." In 1999, world-renowned singer/director Enzo Dara was invited to direct The Elixir of Love at IOW. Joan Dornemann, IOW's founding artistic director, desperately needed a director for The Secret Marriage and appealed to Dara for help. "I have an assistant," he told Dornemann, "try her." The assistant was Maresta, and in directing Cimarosa's comic opera she found her mÃ©tier; the rest is history. She loves comic opera, or opera buffa, because "it is really the Italian tradition." Maresta's marvelously mischievous sense of humor has expressed itself at IOW in The Barber of Seville, Don Giovannni and Don Pasquale, among the rest. She is also much in demand in Europe and America, and while she got her first independent directing job doing Norma at Liege in 1994, if Dornemann "hadn't given me the chance to do buffa, I'd never have discovered it. She opened the world for me, giving me the best years of my life. She is a superb artistic director, choosing the best singers for the roles, which makes my work very easy. I am nothing alone. A director is [part of] a team." Before Maresta steps into the rehearsal room, she already has every move in her head. She leads the singers "step by step, and I always leave room to learn something from them. After all, they are the ones onstage. I am safely behind the curtain." In the rehearsal room, she is relaxed and supportive, showing the singers what she's looking for. They rehearse the scene. She offers suggestions. The conductor reprises part of the aria, and the rehearsal is over. Maresta hugs both the young singers and praises them. They hug back, warmly. "Fa niente," she says - "take it easy." L'amico Fritz plays at the Music Center in Jaffa on July 28 at 8 p.m.