Music: Coming home to ‘Faust’

Danny Ettinger conducts Gounod’s opera in Tel Aviv.

Danny Ettinger conducts Gounod’s opera in Tel Aviv (photo credit: PR)
Danny Ettinger conducts Gounod’s opera in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: PR)
Some people – myself included – like their conductors to be animated characters. It is stirring to see someone (conductors are generally males) waving his baton and/or hands around with gusto. And if he has long locks, that only enhances the dramatic visual effect.
Danny Ettinger is certainly from the dynamic end of the conductor calisthenics spectrum, which is good news for the Israeli Opera, as the boyish-looking 45-year-old recently returned to these shores after a lengthy sojourn in foreign parts – mostly Germany – to take the helm of the company’s orchestral efforts. He will be on the podium for most of the upcoming performances of Gounod’s Faust, which kick off on March 6, taking in 13 shows until March 25.
Ettinger says he is delighted to resume day-to-day living in his home country, although it does entail a mental reset.
“In this profession you need good breathing,” he observes with a chuckle.
That is compounded by his decision to get back to this largely non-European society, where drivers honk their horns incessantly, and waiting in line is often a cultural anachronism.
The acclaimed conductor says he straddles both worlds.
“I spent close to 14 years based in Germany [including a long stint with the National Theater Mannheim], and you take in the local behavior. But I often found myself connecting with the Israeli inside, and I’d become impatient waiting for someone to finish a sentence,” he laughs. “Mentality is mentality, and apparently it is deep-rooted.”
That can swing both ways.
“When I am somewhere like Germany or Japan, where manners and patience – whether it is natural or not – are still part of the mentality, deep down inside I feel Israeli. That can sometimes resonate as something negative, and sometimes I think, ‘Hey! I miss Israel.’” Whichever ethos happens to come to the surface at any given moment, Ettinger brings a lot of talent to his new post, as well as abundant experience across the globe. In addition to his stint in Mannheim, he also served as chief conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion (ISO).
Artists, in all disciplines, strive to express who they really are – their emotional and cultural background and more – through the prism of their technical skills. That is doubly true for conductors who, in addition to filtering the work in question through their own psyche, have to coax the players responding to their baton oscillations to allow their own feelings and sensibilities to float to the surface.
“The Japanese are amazing mimics,” says Ettinger. “They could show me how, for example, a Berliner musician would play something. But, over my years with them, my great achievement was to get them to do the same thing but from a different place, from a genuine place, where they’d appreciate why a particular sound sounds as it does or why certain phrases sound the way they do. The achievement was to get there, not through an element of mimicry but through the real essence of sounds and phrasing and ways of playing music. That was a wonderful process we went through together.”
Cultural backdrops naturally come into play here forcefully, but in the case of an Israeli ensemble, that can lead off into a multitude of channels. We are, after all, one great melting pot. In a country which, for example, has the Jerusalem Andalusian Orchestra with a large percentage of players from Russian origin, anyone conducting an ensemble here has to take a very broad slew of cultural substrata.
“When I act as an ambassador of Israel in all sorts of places [around the world], one of the most important things I have to convey to people is what is Israel – this mix of so many cultures and mentalities,” says Ettinger.
That, he adds, applies to all aspects of life.
“Culture impacts on us, whether we are talking about music or food,” he explains, before dipping into a ubiquitous take on life here.
“Actually, it’s really about food. Israel has probably the best food of anywhere I know in the world. It may sound a bit clichéd, but food is representative of culture,” he says.
In addition to his culinary perspective, Ettinger brings plenty of technical skills and hands-on experience to his current pursuit. His expansive resume includes several years as a vocalist, a couple of years of double bass playing, as well as serving as a piano accompanist for singers.
“That gives me an entirely different approach to conducting,” he notes.
Add to that a definitive out-of-the-box line of thought, and you get an intriguing professional, and man, who follows his own route to artistic expression.
Part of his primarily self-navigating learning curve as a conducting cadet was spent under the aegis of Argentinean-born Israeli-bred preeminent conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.
“With conducting, you really learn as you go along,” says Ettinger. “I remember what Barenboim told me – that it is only after 10 years of conducting that you can begin to say that you understand what conducting is about. I discovered that he was spoton.”
Ettinger is not only happy to be working with the Israeli Opera, nut he is also excited and moved by his inaugural performance slot in the job. It also signals a welcome return to a beloved work.
“With all my rich experience of conducting over the years, I have never conducted Faust before. I have dreamt of doing Faust since I sang in a production of the opera at the Noga Theater [in Jaffa] when I was 18. Since then, for me it was a sort of childhood love.
It is wonderful to come back to Israel and to do Faust.
I am more than delighted to do it here in Israel, and with such a great production, with [Italian director, designer and choreographer] Stefano Poda,” he says.
Sounds like a winner all round.
The work will be sung in French, with English and Hebrew surtitles.
‘Faust’ will be performed from March 6 to 25 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and