Dan Ettinger looks nothing like the popular image of a classical conductor.
The Israeli is making his American debut with the Los Angeles Opera in Verdi's "Aida." Appearing considerably younger than his 33 years and standing a sturdy 6-foot-1, Ettinger wears his hair short-cropped, his approach is casual, and he speaks of his work with the care of a skilled craftsman.
Dealing with an unfamiliar orchestra of more than 80 instrumentalists in "Aida," advertised as "the grandest of grand operas," is a major challenge, especially for a self-described "control freak" and "young pisher" (genteelly translated as a "young squirt").
We talked to Ettinger in the Maestro Room of the downtown Music Center the morning after opening night. He seemed fairly satisfied, although he said that it takes three or four performances before a new opera production hits its peak.
Ettinger is descended from Romanian immigrants to Israel -- his father and grandmother are Holocaust survivors -- and he grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.
Early on, he was exposed to his parents' large classical and jazz collection and the boy showed an early interest in music.
"I wasn't a child prodigy and I had a normal childhood, but I always knew that I wanted to be a musician," he said.
Ettinger attended a special high school for the musically talented, training as pianist and singer, and then enrolled in the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University. He quit after one year, because "the school system didn't work for me, I wanted to do things my own way," he recalled.
From then on, he developed his diverse musical talents by doing, rather than studying, although he credits the help of private mentors.
Ettinger started his professional career as a baritone at age 19 and cites as his favorite role Papageno in Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Nowadays, Ettinger no longer sings on stage, although when rehearsing "Aida," he sings along all the parts.
"I find my singing background a real advantage as an opera conductor, because I can identify with the singers, I can phrase with them and breathe with them."
In a third career, Ettinger continues as a concert pianist, accompanist and coach, and he describes his "ultimate musical experience" as doubling as pianist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto,
Since 2003, Ettinger has been the resident director of the prestigious Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, handpicked for the job by fellow Israeli Daniel Barenboim.
Many of the current leading musical figures in Berlin are Israelis, Ettinger said, perhaps an ironic footnote to recent world history.
In the coming fall, Ettinger will also become the music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon L'Zion, ranked second in his native country only to the more established Israel Philharmonic.
Yet, he is not entirely happy with the state of opera around the world. For one, budget problems everywhere have forced cuts in rehearsal time, including in his present "Aida" stint.
Of more concern is a shift in the staging of operas.
"It used to be that an opera was the conductor's world, but now the emphasis is more and more on spectacular visual productions," he said, though he hopes for a gradual return to more traditional presentations.
After he finishes his current assignment, Ettinger is off to Tokyo to conduct Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte," but he will return to Los Angeles next year, leading the orchestra in Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."
Performances of "Aida" will continue on select dates through Feb. 19 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For tickets and information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit www.LosAngelesOpera.com.