When klezmer musician Frank London first heard the story of Asher Penn, he knew he’d found his opera.
In 1931, Penn wrote a well-known epic poem about the Taino chief Hatuey, Cuba’s beloved 16th-century freedom warrior, who fought to protect native tribes from Spanish invaders and colonialists. Penn — known in Cuba as Oscar Pinis — was a Jewish refugee who had fled pogroms in his native Ukraine with his parents in 1924 and found asylum in Havana.
“Well, of course,” London said he recalls thinking. “It’s a Yiddish story about a Taino uprising in the 1500s. That’s what I’m looking for!” He added, “You couldn’t have invented it — no one would believe it.”
Nearly 10 years later, his opera, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” will have its premiere as the first of this season’s Peak Performances series at Montclair State University’s (MSU) Alexander Kasser Theater. It runs Sept. 14-23; tickets cost $30.
According to London, it is the first new Yiddish opera composed in over a century.
Set in 1931 in a Havana nightclub, the opera focuses on Oscar, who is writing his poem — and falling in love with Tinima, a young singer and revolutionary of Taino descent. Performed in Spanish, Yiddish, and English, with English supertitles, the opera incorporates Ashkenazi sounds with Afro-Cuban music, and draws on the classical vocabulary of Schoenberg, Weill, and even Puccini.
In late August, London and librettist Elise Thoron took a break from rehearsals at the theater and sat down with NJJN to discuss the work and its challenges, their collaboration, and how they brought the piece to life.
For London, the subject matter of freedom and survival is all too resonant in today’s world. Cuba was not the Penn family’s first choice when they fled anti-Semitism in their home country — but the immigration policies of the United States at the time, which included strict limits on Jewish arrivals, kept them out.
“Escaping war and murder and being kept out of the United States by restrictive immigration policies” — and having government officials and others saying, ‘We don’t want those dirty people’ — it’s the same rhetoric 80 years later,” London said. “Sadly,” he added, the depiction of desperate refugees “is just as timely.”
Still, the opera celebrates what happened when Oscar finds refuge in Cuba, where he not only wrote the famous poem about the 16th-century national hero, still read by many schoolchildren on the island nation, he also started the country’s first Yiddish newspaper and worked in Yiddish theater. In his epic work of the Taino, London said, the poet saw his own Jewish story. “Telling the story of the Spaniards as villains, Oscar is really telling the story of the Cossacks without ever saying a word about it,” London said.
There is also a third layer, of course; the revolutionary singer Oscar falls in love with is a member of the resistance against the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, who was forced from the presidency in 1933. “Hatuey” is not a single story, said London. “It’s a Cuban story, a Jewish story, a Taino story…. It’s a story about survival.”
None of the performers in the production are Yiddish speakers, but the opera format enables them to transcend the language barrier. The key, said London, is that opera singers are trained to sing in whatever language the libretto is written in.
Writing in three languages was no easy task, even for Thoron, the librettist, who is multilingual; she has written in other languages in the past — but not three at once. “The biggest challenge was trying to weave together these three strands and incorporate and honor so many cultures” in the work, she said.
She was also fascinated by the story of Pinis, who, as Penn, went on to become a writer and editor at The Jewish Daily Forward and the author of “Judaism in America.” “I thought about what he would have seen — the Russian Revolution, pogroms — how he grew up, and what he was coming to Cuba with.” It was not lost on her, she said, that Oscar lived through part of the communist revolution and saw what it brought, and fell in love with someone who embraced communism as a necessary alternative to the evils of a fascist authoritarian regime.
London and Thoron took plenty of artistic license in drafting the opera — but not before doing plenty of research. For starters, they had the poem translated into English, and then had all 125 pages read aloud and recorded. Thoron said she listened to it constantly as she was writing, choosing which sections to include.
The pair also interviewed Penn’s daughter Eileen Posnick at length.
Writing the poem, according to Posnick, was her father’s way of giving back. She recalled him saying, to Cuba, in effect, “I give you the story of your first great hero,” according to Thoron. He mostly declined to share the circumstances of his leaving Ukraine with his daughter, until finally, one day, he said, “I’ll only tell you once, and never speak of it again,” a line Thoron decided to use in the libretto.
Thoron and London also spent time learning about Taino culture with Jorge Esteves, a specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. Realizing that there is now a resurgence in interest in Taino identity made London hyper-aware of the strides that have been made in breathing life into Yiddish culture, something that has been part of his life’s work.
Though he is famous for his role in the klezmer revival as a founding member of the Klezmatics in 1986, London did not grow up hearing those sounds. “I did not encounter Jewish music until I was 20-something,” he told NJJN. “I was interested in Latin salsa from the start.” A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston with a degree in Afro-American music, London has written scores for theater, film, and dance works and has been featured on over 400 CDs. “Hatuey” is his first opera; writing it, he said, gave him a chance to flex other musical muscles publicly.
The first collaborative work by Thoron, who is also a playwright and director, and London was the musical “The Green Violin,” which was based on murals Marc Chagall painted for the Goset Theater, a state-sponsored Yiddish theater in Moscow launched in 1920.
At this time of year, it’s pertinent to point out that in “Hatuey” London set one piece of music, which has a call-and-response structure, to the Gerald Cohen melody for “Ki Anu Amecha” (“For We Are Your People”), part of the High Holy Day liturgy.
A version of the opera was performed last summer in Havana, but so radically changed that London and Thoron view the Sept. 14 opening at MSU as its true premiere. In Havana, it was taken on by a kind of street opera troupe and much of the musical nuance was converted into what London calls “popera.” It was also sung almost entirely in Spanish. What London loved about the experience, however, was that the performers all engaged deeply with the material, and came out asking questions about Taino — and about Yiddish. He acknowledged that although he was confident the performers in the New Jersey production would be able to handle the complexities of the score, “I was afraid they would be less invested in the material than the Cubans were.” But, he added, “I’m so glad to have been proven wrong…. There’s a universality of these questions. Everyone gets it.”
Now he and Thoron are trusting the Peak Performances audiences will also get it. “We hope people will come out inspired by these stories of survival,” said Thoron.