Israeli confronts past by mastering Wagner

Ettinger to make second home in Tokyo

by Chiho Iuchi

Rising Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger will complete, in Tokyo in March, his first series of performances of “The Ring of the Nibelung,” a cycle of four linked operas by 19th-century composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner’s music has been unofficially forbidden to be performed in Israel.

“I’m split in my feelings and have to live in two different personalities. On one hand, as a musician, I feel sorry about the Wagner taboo in Israel,” Ettinger says. “There is a lack of experience for musicians to finish their study or even their career without playing Wagner’s music.”

On the other hand, Ettinger acknowledges Wagner’s past association with the Nazi movement. “Being from a second generation born to holocaust survivors, we grew up understanding their traumatic feelings. I cannot ignore these emotions. I have never provoked them out of respect for this,” he says.

Born in 1971 near Tel Aviv, Ettinger’s musical talent led him to study piano and singing at a music-oriented high school. After further study at Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, he started a career as a pianist and baritone. From 1995 through 2000, he performed in the Israeli Opera as both a soloist and a chorus member.

“Even when I was a singer, I was always interested in conducting and taught it myself. When the chance came, I just took it,” Ettinger recounts.

“I gave up a career as a singer, but it helps me a lot that I know how to sing,” Ettinger says. “When I sing or play the piano, I am in total control of my voice or instrument. When I conduct an orchestra, the whole orchestra is my instrument in a sense, but I don’t play. I just have to inspire them and give them energy. Conducting is like managing people in a big company.”

One of the difficulties of opera is the physical distance between the orchestra in the pit and the singers on the stage.

“If the singers do not see me directly, they can always look at me in the monitors on the stage. They need to see the conductor because they cannot hear the orchestra very well while singing. It’s my job to tell them if it is good or too fast,” Ettinger says. “So technically, I need to concentrate a lot. On the other hand, I should be very creative to invent music every moment. While conducting, I have to be a policeman and an artist at the same time.”

Since his debut as a conductor in 1999, Ettinger has conducted orchestras and operas in Israel. In 2003, Argentine-born Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim invited Ettinger to Berlin, where he worked at the Berlin State Opera as chief conductor and as Barenboim’s assistant, from 2003 to 2008, which was a milestone in his career. He debuted at the Vienna State Opera in 2007 and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2009.

Another turning point was an encounter with Thomas Novohradsky, former music director of the New National Theater, Tokyo (NNTT), which opened in 1997, near the capital’s Shinjuku district, as Japan’s foremost center of modern performing arts. Novohradsky’s visit to Israel paved the way for Ettinger to debut in Japan with Verdi’s opera “Falstaff” at the NNTT in 2004.

“I had no idea about Japan then. Just by chance, I saw the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ and was so depressed that almost cancelled my trip to Japan,” Ettinger laughs. “At the beginning, everything — what you see, hear, smell and even feel on your skin — was different. I didn’t know that this would become almost my second home. The last five years have really developed both my professional activities and personal life in Japan. Now I have more friends in Tokyo than I have in Germany or Israel.”

Ettinger has conducted more operas at the NNTT, including Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in 2006 and Weber’s “Der Freischutz” in 2008.

These achievements have presented him with a stage in Japan on which to tackle Wagner’s “Ring” when the NNTT announced it would perform the cycle again from 2009 through 2010.

The NNTT first performed the “Ring” cycle between 2001 and 2004, under the direction of Britain’s Keith Warner and featuring innovative settings and props suggestive of American pop art. Far from the grave Wagnerian stereotypes, the NNTT’s production (nicknamed Tokyo Ring) has had a huge impact on Japan’s opera scene.

Comprised of “Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold),” “Walkure (The Valkyrie),” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods),” the cycle requires four nights to perform and runs for about 15 hours. It is one of the largest and most ambitious works in the history of opera.

Based loosely on German and Norse mythologies, the story centers around conflicts among gods, giants, dwarves and humans over a magical ring that grants control of the entire world.

As Ettinger’s music education in Israel skipped Wagner’s music, his first experience of the composer came late.

“It hits you. It overwhelms like a big storm,” says Ettinger on his first impression of the “Ring” about 10 years ago. “On the other hand, you need a lot of time to really get into all the layers of this music. But this is what’s fascinating about it. You get an immediate impulse as well as never-ending exploration.”

Ettinger has conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) since his Japan debut at the NNTT. He has managed to extract excellent performances from the musicians for the first three operas of the cycle, thus heightening the drama of the script.

“When I first met the TPO, their sound was different from what I was used to in Berlin, but I felt the musical connection between us. It’s like a love affair. Little by little, we opened our emotions. One of our high points was “The Valkyrie” last year. A door opened in this sound,” says Ettinger, who will become the orchestra’s chief conductor from April.

The upcoming “The Twilight of the Gods” will be the climax of the epic. Following their “Siegfried” performances, top-level Wagner singers, such as German tenor Christian Franz (as the hero, Siegfried) and Swedish soprano Irene Theorin (as the heroine, Brunnhilde) will perform in collaboration with Japanese singers.

“Late Canadian comedienne Anna Russell made a famous sketch of the whole ‘Ring’ in 30 minutes. She says, ‘Even if you missed the first three operas, you can enjoy “The Twilight of the Gods,” because at the first scene, the three norms will tell you the whole previous story,’ ” Ettinger says laughing.

“Some people close their eyes and just appreciate the music and some enjoy the ‘Ring’ ‘s fantasy tale visually and then get to love the music. Everybody finds his own way toward Wagner.”

“Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods)” is performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo in Hatsudai on March 18, 21, 24, 27 and 30. Tickets are ¥5,250-¥26,250. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/opera Dan Ettinger’s inaugural concert with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra takes place at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya on April 4. Tickets are ¥6,000-¥7,500. For more information, call (03) 5353-9522