Boston goes into the woods with Israeli opera ‘Ami and Tami’
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Boston goes into the woods with Israeli opera ‘Ami and Tami’

An English translation of composer Matti Kovler's teenage work allows kids to access the power of imagination through music

Ariadne Greif as Yaga the Witch in Matti Kovler's 'Ami and Tami' on July 19 at Outside the Box in Boston. (Outside the Box)
Ariadne Greif as Yaga the Witch in Matti Kovler's 'Ami and Tami' on July 19 at Outside the Box in Boston. (Outside the Box)

BOSTON – For composer Matti Kovler, dreams are carried on the wings of imagination. And that’s the theme which also flows through “Ami and Tami,” a musical fable the 34-year-old Russian-born Israeli composed in his late teens which was recently revived in Boston.

With a Hebrew libretto by Aya Lavie, “Ami and Tami” had its theatrical debut in 1999 when Kovler was a student at Jerusalem’s Israel Arts and Science Academy. It enjoyed two performances on a large stage in Jerusalem, with a full orchestra playing Kovler’s score.

In the years that followed, Kovler completed his mandatory military service, earned a doctorate in composition from the New England Conservatory, and achieved prestigious awards in the world of classical music. As an emerging composer, Kovler has had his sophisticated works commissioned by Tanglewood Music Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Israel Festival.

Throughout those 16 years, Kovler, who’s been based in Boston for the last nine, has kept afloat a dream to revive the innocent free-spirited tale of youthful innocence and the hope of imagination.

Last month, with the help of an ensemble including Israeli singer and actress Tutti Druyan, Kovler realized his long-held dream, bringing a new English-language version of “Ami and Tami” to life in a fully orchestrated performance.

The July 19 performance, with the Landmarks Orchestra under guest conductor Benjamin Vickers, was staged outdoors on the Boston Common as part of Outside the Box festival, a free six-day, city-wide arts festival of music, dance and theater sponsored by Ted Cutler, one of the city’s leading Jewish philanthropists.

Matthew Shifrin as Imf (left) with Tutti Druyan and Lukas Papenfusscline in Matti Kovler's 'Ami and Tami' on July 19 at Outside the Box in Boston. (Outside the Box)
Matthew Shifrin as Imf (left) with Tutti Druyan and Lukas Papenfusscline in Matti Kovler’s ‘Ami and Tami’ on July 19 at Outside the Box in Boston. (Outside the Box)

Through the festival, the energetic octogenarian is giving life to his own inspired dream – to give back to the city he loves by bringing cultural, entertaining opportunities to all of Boston’s residents, especially those who can’t afford to take their families to Boston’s offerings of cultural programs.

“Everybody in the city is welcome, every kid in the city,” Cutler told Times of Israel, noting that the last festival, in 2013, attracted some 50,000 kids. He’s also determined to provide talented artists with a platform for their work, he said in a conversation during the festival. (Kovler said he is grateful to Cutler for offering him this opportunity.)

“Ami and Tami” is a contemporary take on familiar stories like Hansel and Gretel with two over-scheduled siblings longing to rebel against their humorously overachieving parents. The lighthearted tale is directed by Melia Bensusson, with choreography by Israeli Noa Barankin, an Israeli dancer and educator living in Boston.

When Ami (Lukas Papenfusscline) and Tami (Druyan) break away one night into the forbidden forest, they encounter a friendly Imf (Matthew Shifrin), a threatening but harmless ogre, Evil Humm (David Hughes, who doubles as the father), and Yaga the Witch, a mean-spirited restaurant owner who would like to add Ami and Tami to her evening menu (Ariadne Greif, also in the role of the mother).

A chorus, including a group of young dancers, portray singing head lice.

Singing Lice choreographed by Noa Barankin, in Matti Kovler's July 19 performance of 'Ami and Tami' at Boston's Outside the Box festival. (Pravin Pant, Imprav Images)
Singing Lice choreographed by Noa Barankin, in Matti Kovler’s July 19 performance of ‘Ami and Tami’ at Boston’s Outside the Box festival. (Pravin Pant, Imprav Images)

Kovler hit the jackpot with narrator Sonya Hamlin, an Emmy award-winning actress, one-time television personality and influential educator who brought her lifelong stage presence and masterful storytelling to the role.

“It was beautiful, and so much fun,” said actress Druyan after the show, performed on one of the hottest days of Boston’s summer.

As a young girl, Druyan rose to fame in Israel as the dubbed voice for popular cartoons such as “Dragon Tales,” and “Rolie Polie Olie,” and had a leading role in the 2001 Festigal. She and Kovler crossed paths in Boston about four years ago and have been working together ever since, including Kovler’s productions for the Boston Jewish Music Festival.

Kovler’s dream to revive “Ami and Tami” began to take shape last year with the completion of the English translation by Spencer Garfield, a Boston-based translator and musician.

That breakthrough paved the way for a small scale chamber-version of “Ami and Tami” with a series of spring performances at Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, Boston’s Children’s Museum and the Oberon Theater in Harvard Square.

Composer Matti Kovler in red on piano with 'Ami and Tami' ensemble members Ariadne Greif, left, Lukas Papenfusscline and Tutti Druyan. (Pravin Pant, Imprav Images)
Composer Matti Kovler in red on piano with ‘Ami and Tami’ ensemble members Ariadne Greif, left, Lukas Papenfusscline and Tutti Druyan. (Pravin Pant, Imprav Images)

Narrator Hamlin marveled at the way the story appeals to both children and their parents, who see themselves reflected in Kovler’s satirical take on parental ambition. You could see the excitement in the eyes of the children in the audience, she said.

One audience member, Pulitzer Prize winning composer Yehudi Wyner, a lifelong friend of Hamlin, found himself surprisingly captivated and impressed with the sophistication of the production aimed at children.

“The singing was splendid and the piece is musically brilliant,” Wyner told Times of Israel, noting how it draws on a number of different styles.

Soprano Greif, praised by the New York Times for her “luminous, expressive voice,” drew on a wide range of emotions to brilliantly capture the bothersome mother and the not-too menacing witch. Hughes was perfect as the both the clueless dad and comical love-lorn ogre who falls hard for Yaga.

Shifrin, as the Imf, get laughs in his many tongue-twisting verses, striking a high falsetto voice he mastered for the endearing role, accentuating the story’s humor.

‘Children love absurdity and the fact that they never know what will come next, anything can happen’

“What makes the character so easy to relate to is that he’s such a goofball,” said Shifrin, a blind actor. Under Kovler’s and Bensusson’s direction, Shifrin’s blindness blended in seamlessly to the staging and narrative.

“Children love absurdity and the fact that they never know what will come next, anything can happen,” Shifrin told Times of Israel in a break from a rehearsal a week before the show.

Having a blind actor lead “Ami and Tami” through the musical dark forest enriched the narrative on many levels, said Kovler.

“Music is the vehicle through which we can access the power of imagination. There is no better advocate for that than Matthew [Shifrin],” Kovler said.

Kovler’s future dreams for “Ami and Tami” include a new Hebrew translation, he revealed.

“Yes, I absolutely want to bring “Ami and Tami” back to Israel,” he said. “I will do it for sure.”

 

 

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