There are cities that come to mind as obvious venues for premieres of new Yiddish cultural works — New York, Toronto and Tel Aviv. Not Havana. But, the Cuban capital is exactly where a new Yiddish opera composed by iconic Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London will have its inaugural performance on March 3.
The opera, titled, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” is based on an epic poem written in 1931 by Yiddish writer and Ukrainian Jewish refugee Oscar Pinis. The 126-page work is about native Taino chief Hatuey who resisted Spanish invaders to Hispaniola in the 16th century. One of the first fighters against colonialism and considered Cuba’s first national hero, Hatuey was eventually captured by the Spaniards and burned alive at the stake in 1512.
Poet Pinis — later known as Ascher Penn — founded and edited the first Cuban Jewish newspaper Havana Lebn (Havana Life) after fleeing pogroms in his native shtetl of Gaysin. He immigrated to the United States in 1935, where he became a writer and city editor for the Yiddish Forverts.
Having studied architecture in Havana, Penn served as a draughtsman in the US Navy during World War II. He went on to publish a body of work, including “Yiddishkayt in America” in 1958, which the Forward described as a substantial volume about Jewish life in the 1950s and his magnum opus. He died in 1979.
The 59-year-old London first learned about Penn and his epic poem about Hatuey a decade ago from his friend, director and dramaturge Michael Posnick, who is Penn’s son-in-law.
“I had wanted to write a Yiddish opera for a long time, and the minute I heard about Penn and his Hatuey poem from Michael, I knew I had the subject for my opera,” London told The Times of Israel.
London had been searching for a story with universal themes, and he found it in Hatuey’s struggle against the conquering enemy, as well as in the parallels Penn drew between his own experience of pogroms perpetrated against Jews by the Cossacks and the Spanish massacre of the Taino natives.
“I was interested in creating a Yiddish opera, not a shtetl opera,” London said.
London began working on the opera with librettist Elise Thoron, but the project did not get kicked into high gear until last summer when Posnick told University of Michigan anthropology professor and Jewish-Cuban expert Ruth Behar about it while on a Jewish cultural exchange trip to Cuba.
The Cuban-born Behar connected London with the inventive Havana-based troupe Opera de la Calle. London decided to collaborate with the alternative opera company, and Behar offered to make “Hatuey: Memory of Fire” a centerpiece of a celebration of Jewish music and culture she was planning scheduled for March 2-5, 2017 in Havana.
‘I was interested in creating a Yiddish opera, not a shtetl opera’
The decision to collaborate with Opera de la Calle and stage the opera in Havana required London to reorchestrate the opera’s score. He also agreed to change the opera’s language from Yiddish to almost entirely Spanish at the request of his new Cuban colleagues.
“The opera was originally half Yiddish and half Spanish. Now it’s about 95% Spanish. The character of the poet, Penn, still speaks and sings in Yiddish,” London said.
London said he was touched that the non-Jewish Cuban actor playing Penn made a special point of going to El Patronato, the Jewish community center in Havana, where the original copy of the Penn’s “Hatuey” poem is kept. There, the actor saw the original poem, and also received coaching in Yiddish from Adela Dworin, vice president of the Cuban Jewish community.
“I’m ambivalent about the Spanish and sad to have given up the Yiddish, but we will do a Yiddish version of the opera one day,” said London, who himself has a strong passive knowledge of Yiddish.
The composer believes that the trade-off of producing the opera in Havana has been worth it.
‘What we have gained by doing it in Cuba with Cubans has been immense. It has informed everything’
“What we have gained by doing it in Cuba with Cubans has been immense. It has informed everything. There is no substitute for standing in the exact same places where events in the opera happened. Just the other day we stood on the very same steps of the University of Havana where the students protested [president Gerardo] Machado [y Morales] in 1930,” London said.
The opera, set in a 1930s Havana nightclub, weaves together four story lines. As the poet sits in the nightclub writing his poem, three true tales are revealed: Penn’s refugee story, Hatuey’s historical narrative, and the student rebellion against Machado. London and Thoron have added in a fourth and fictional narrative: the poet’s falling in love with the nightclub singer, a leader in the student protest.
Although London is best known for his work with the Klezmatics (the contemporary klezmer band celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), he is well versed and works in a wide variety of genres, including rock, jazz, African-American, Afro-Cuban, Balkan, world and improvisational music.
“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” allowed London to bring much of his musical background together. The opera’s first act, which London characterizes as more of a musical, features Cuban nightclub music from the 1930s, including an authentic piece from the era titled, “Hatuey.” Later, as the plot moves into the world depicted in Penn’s poem, the score shifts more toward the purely operatic, integrating folkloric Cuban music and 20th century classical music with Eastern European undertones — with Latin rhythms integrated in an indirect way. London even used the melody of a piece of familiar Jewish High Holiday liturgy for one part of the opera’s score.
“It allowed me to tap into everything I’ve ever done, to be myself and put everything into it,” London said.
While the final stage of putting this initial production together has happened relatively quickly, bringing “Hatuey” to life has been a long haul for London. What sustained his effort was his belief in the ongoing importance of the epic poem’s themes.
“Hatuey was not the last person to die for liberty and freedom, and you can read Penn’s passion in his poem,” said London. “Hatuey’s vitriol against the Spanish is the same vitriol Penn felt as an 8-year-old boy as he witnessed a Cossack cutting off the head of his little girlfriend and parading it around on the tip of his sword.”
“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” will play March 3, 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12 at Teatro Arenal in Havana, Cuba.