Composer Matti Kovler realizes dream of reviving fairy-tale opera in Boston
In a noteworthy career as an emerging composer, Matti Kovler has had his sophisticated works commissioned by Tanglewood Music Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Israel Festival.
But through all the recognition and accomplishment, including earning his doctorate from the New England Conservatory, Kovler, 34, a Russian-born Israeli who’s made Boston his musical home since 2009, has been dreaming of staging a fairy-tale opera that he composed when he was in high school.
This week, that vision will come to life when “Ami and Tami,” a buoyant, tuneful musical fable by Kovler and librettist Aya Lavie, will have its English-language premiere in Boston. Three shows will be staged on Thursday and Friday at Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, where Kovler was recently appointed as the center’s first composer-in-residence. (One, on Thursday at 6 p.m., is booked to capacity already.) A family matinee will follow at Boston Children’s Museum on March 8.
In the lighthearted tale, a contemporary take on familiar stories like Hansel and Gretel, two overscheduled teenage siblings long to rebel against their overachieving parents. When Ami (Lukas Papenfusscline) and Tami (Tutti Druyan) break away one night into the forbidden forest, they encounter a friendly Imf (Matthew Shifrin), a fierce monster (David Hughes, who doubles as the teens’ father), and Yaga the Witch (Sophie Delphis, also the mother). The chorus (BU students) portrays singing head lice. Sonya Hamlin, the narrator, completes the cast.
The words of the libretto, recently translated into English by Spencer Garfield, are playful and rhythmic. Early in the show, the Imf and Ami get caught up in a fast-paced exchange of make-believe words like “para-peeler,” “pear-parlor,” and “pink pyro popper.”
The clever wordplay and humor hit home for Druyan, a Boston-based Israeli singer and actress well known as the voice for a popular Israeli cartoon. Love of family proved a resonant theme for her, as did Kovler’s humorous inclusion of head lice — a perennial problem for Israeli children. Druyan has watched the show transform in its new translation. “It keeps some of its Israeli flair, but also makes it local,” she said after a recent rehearsal.
The piece had its first and to date only performance as a fully staged production with orchestra in the late 1990s, when Kovler was completing his studies at the Israel Arts and Science Academy. He looks back on that moment as a time of youthful high hopes and innocence.
His school, he recalled, “was a world where Jews and Arabs lived in the same dorm, and where beautiful things happened. I was living in a bubble.”
Over the years, Kovler hoped to reprise “Ami and Tami.” He acknowledged that the biggest challenge was a translation that captured the rhythms, tone, and spirit of the original.
Last summer, when he first walked through the doors of the Elie Wiesel Center, he knew that he had found the perfect location. Tucked away among other campus buildings in a historic section of Bay State Road, the late 19th-century building — once the Weld family mansion — had a stunning theatricality and elegance, Kovler said. He remembers looking up from the marble and wood foyer, with its twin spiral staircase, toward the glistening chandelier that hangs down from several stories above.
“It was like ‘Phantom of the Opera,’” he recalled. “I realized this building can morph into something. The energy of this building was very magical.”
For the Elie Wiesel Center production, Kovler is making use of the entire building to create the ambience of an enchanted forest. “The idea is to transform the building, to strip it of its academic purity and turn it into a magical experience,” he said.
The production helps to inaugurate the Center’s new Floating Tower series of musical and cultural programs. “With music, you can tap into something very deep without knowing anything about it,” Kovler said, a philosophy he learned from his longtime teacher and mentor Andre Hajdu, the Hungarian-born Israeli composer and educator Kovler credited as his most significant creative inspiration.
That sentiment is shared by Michael Zank, the center’s director and a professor of religion , who is excited by the potential of Kovler’s residency. “We felt there might be other ways to get students engaged, and also to get the public into this beautiful building and see what other kinds of things Jewish studies can do for students, faculty, staff, and the public,” Zank said during an interview in his office.
Zank first encountered Kovler’s imaginative approach in a production of “The Escape of Jonah,” Kovler’s oratorio for narrator, soprano, and jazz choir, which the composer staged last year for Zank’s course on biblical literature. He compared Kovler’s modern storytelling with that of the Center’s founder, the Nobel Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “who has done such a wonderful job of bringing Jewish stories to life in ways that impact so many people because it feels so genuine.”
As in previous undertakings, Kovler is working on “Ami and Tami” with an ensemble of longtime associates. “Matti sees the talent in people and brings them together,” said Laura Mandel, director of the New Center Now program at New Center for Arts and Culture, a Boston-based Jewish organization where Kovler had a previous residency.
Kovler, Mandel explained in a telephone interview, brings together disparate communities — Boston’s Jewish community, Israelis based here, and more — with his charisma and creativity. “Ami and Tami,” she said, “comes from an Israeli place, but its appeal is universal.”