Internationally acclaimed Israeli conductor Daniel Oren is known for his special ability to slowly hypnotize an audience and to finally bring about a catharsis, or to mercilessly squeeze a tear from the crowd - depending on the score. He is back in town to lead Puccini's Tosca in the revival of Hugo de Ana's visually stunning multimedia production at the Israeli Opera. Sitting in the conductor's room during a rehearsal break together with Italian singer Carlo Striulli (who surprisingly enough understands Hebrew), Oren spoke about the state of opera today - and not much effort is needed to make him talk at length about this love of his life. Nowadays, he spends at least six months a year in two major operatic cities, London and Paris. "The Covent Garden of London is probably the best opera house today," he says. "The system there is right. Not only is the orchestra excellent, but the choir members are all singing actors, the audience is fine and the casting is fabulous - because after all, opera is about soloists. Last but not least, the conductor has a possibility there to build the opera as he hears it in his mind, since they have enough rehearsals, both orchestral and for the entire team." Which is quite different from Vienna's Staatsoper and The Metropolitan Opera of New York, according to Oren. "With all due respect to their fantastic music forces, a conductor should consider himself lucky if he gets two rehearsals there." Oren, who makes Paris his home, says the approach there is similar to that of the Covent Garden. And he keeps working in Italy, where he lived so for many years that Italian intonations are still audible in his sonorous Hebrew. "The operatic tradition was born in Italy, and there are still people who know by heart every note of the score, every word of the libretto, so the things which get by in other places would never pass in Italy. But then, a success there is an ultimate one." TODAY, THE conductor, who for a while was absent from our shores, has nothing but praise for the Israeli Opera and its musical forces. "I have a total understanding with the orchestra, we have enough time for rehearsals, the atmosphere is good and very professional, and the cast for Tosca is excellent!" Chinese soprano Hui He in the lead is a subject of particular pride. "She started her operatic career with me, and it was not easy; at the beginning, conductors found it difficult to understand her and I am happy that I supported her. Today, she sings on the world's major operatic scenes, and conductors of the caliber of Lorin Maazel and [Antonio] Pappano are simply mad about her." Among other soloists here for the production, he names Piero Giuliacci as Cavaradossi, Alberto Mastromarino and Silvano Carolli as Scarpia, adding that it is not simple to bring these singers to Israel, including Hui He, whom Oren "has convinced personally, and I am glad that Israelis will enjoy her fabulously beautiful voice." Oren is looking forward to the Israeli Opera's next season, which includes a larger-than-life operatic weekend in the Judean Desert at the foot of Masada, as well as Halevi's La Juive, starring Neil Shicoff - arguably one of the world's leading tenors - among other productions which Oren is to conduct. "I do not understand how they managed to bring Shicoff; I tried several times and failed. Blame it all on the opera's director-general, Hanna Munitz!" he laughs loudly. Another project he is looking forward to is a huge production of Aida, which is being planned with the participation of Orange, Masada, Baalbek and Cairo. Speaking about Tosca, the conductor explains that there are three aspects that make this piece so special. "Tosca is one of the first feminist characters in the history of opera - previously, there were men who ruled the situation. Here we have a powerful woman who is not afraid of death and is eager to sacrifice her honor, and even her life, in the name of love. Another point: It was written in 1900, and it is not just a banal love triangle, but a story of a secret police, which is still relevant today. It is sort of reminder of how far the secret police can reach if not stopped in time. "And last but not least, this is a dramatic love story, which at the same time is very poetic and lyrical: This combination is the great magic of Tosca. I know that this is what the audience expects from me and from the musicians, and I do not see any reason not to fulfill their expectations." Tosca runs at the Israeli Opera from April 21 to May 6. For reservations: (03) 692-7777.