Dan Ettinger: One Yitzhak Perlman can do much more for Israel than hundreds of official press conferences.On January 22, American opera aficionados made their way to the Dorothy Chandler Music Center in Los Angeles for the premiere performance of the LA Opera’s 2005 production of AIDA. Wielding the baton in the pit that night, was 33-year-old Israeli prodigy Dan Ettinger, making his US conducting debut.

A multi-talented artist who started out as a piano player, moved on to opera singing and somehow stumbled into conducting, (“I just learned on the job, I never had any formal training”), Ettinger received a personal invitation to conduct from the head of the LA Opera himself – none other than the legendary Placido Domingo.

Not that Ettinger is any stranger to working with legendary musicians. Just under two years ago, the Holon-born native was singled out by Daniel Barenboim to move to Berlin and work as his assistant at the Berlin Opera. But Ettinger wasn’t exactly plucked from obscurity. He’d already created quite a name for himself as principal guest conductor with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and with the Israeli Opera – all before the age of 30.

In his dressing room at the LA Opera, barely an hour before the curtain is set to rise on the second night performance of AIDA, Maestro Ettinger – as the nametag on his door states – is relaxed, calm and poised. Dressed casually in brown trousers and a black sports jacket, his tousled sandy hair and gold rimmed glasses give him a high-school-geek-meets-suave-Calvin Klein model-look; young but self-possessed. Less than two years in Berlin, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a trace of his Israeli accent as his English is punctuated by a soft, German lilt. He gently twists a silver ring around one of his long fingers and admits that he does require about 15 minutes before the performance “to panic.”

However, he appears to be taking his US debut in his stride, philosophical about his opening night debut. “You’re never really ready for a first performance,” he told ISRAEL21c. “But by the third or fourth performance though, the show is running by itself.”

And the reviews?

“The public liked it, the reviews didn’t, but you can’t please everyone,” he says. “And knowing this profession and this huge machine called opera, it takes time to get everything right. Thank God we have nine performances,” he adds, laughing.

US audiences, Ettinger continues, are very different to both European and Israeli audiences. “In Europe, audiences are very enthusiastic. They can go wild with ‘bravos’ or wild with boos, but they are very responsive and very into the shows. And here [in LA] I was very surprised, because they were applauding after every aria and every duet. And at the end we had a standing ovation but they were very quiet, very reserved.”

By contrast, Ettinger admits that Israeli audiences “are tough. But when you please them, they show it. I think that toughness though is just part of our Israeli mentality. In general,” he continues, “Israel is growing up and the opera scene has improved in the last 10-20 years, both among audiences and artists. There are wonderful new Israeli singers.”

However, he concedes that the only way for Israeli artists to be known is to become international. “It’s not enough to sit in one place,” he says, which explains his reason for moving to Berlin to work with Barenboim. Yet he is the first to admit the launch of his international career owes much to the recent emergence and assistance of the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation (IcExcellence).

Established in 2001 by the organization’s Managing Director Rachel Marani, the IcExcellence Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying and supporting Israeli artists and helping them build international careers as cultural ambassadors for Israel.

On the advisory committee are some of Israel’s and American’s noted luminaries, including Prof. Itamar Rabinovich – President of Tel Aviv University and former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Actor Haim Topol, Choreographer Ohad Naharin, and violinist Gil Shaham. As the Foundation’s brief states, “One Yitzhak Perlman can do much more for Israel than hundreds of official press conferences.”

The Foundation is committed to nurturing Israeli artists who will go on to be represented in the world’s best museums and galleries, the greatest concert halls, and on the front pages of the media.

Funded by organizations like The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, each year the Foundation selects 10-15 Israeli artists who have proven artistic talents, high motivation and determination, and potential for leadership to take under its wing. Each program is tailor made to fit the artists, and Ettinger was among the first group of artists chosen (12 in all) by the Foundation.

“They’re a wonderful Foundation,” Ettinger enthuses, “They helped me get ready to move to Berlin by organizing for me to meet with Barenboim in Chicago as well as taking German lessons in Tel Aviv.”

Today, IcExcellence is continuing to help Ettinger with his US debut by “pushing the PR button,” as Ettinger describes it. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 100% talented,” he explains, “you still need to have the right people writing about you.”

And he is proud to be one of IcExcellence’s cultural ambassadors. “Except for the last 18 months when I moved to Berlin, everything I did up until then – studying music, establishing my first career as a singer and then conducting – was done in Israel,” he explains. “My very first opportunity was with the Israeli Opera.” Which is why, he continues, everything he is doing now with his career is his way of thanking Israel.

“I’m very proud,” he says. “Especially in Berlin with all the difficulties [associated with] being an Israeli Jew in my position in a German country.”

And Ettinger certainly hasn’t abandoned his homeland. “My family and friends are there, I have strong connections.” And he will be back in Israel later this year as guest conductor for both the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israeli Opera.

“I really hope the Israeli Opera will continue to tour,” he says. “They’re planning on an LA tour and that’s so important. They have a beautiful house, wonderful facilities and having seen other productions around the world, the Israeli Opera has nothing to be ashamed of.”

And neither does Ettinger, as he readies himself for the next performance of AIDA and the audience that awaits. “The live experience of opera is something that the best hi-fi system can’t deliver,” he concludes. “As a conductor it’s my job to bring the black dots on the score to life again, and I want people to experience that.”

So while Ettinger’s accent may be German, he is still a national Israeli artist, pursuing an international career, and speaking the universal language of music.