Yiddish Opera, In A Cuban Setting

Jennifer Jade Ledesna, center, plays a singer at a Havana nightclub in “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” a love story set in 1931 Cuba. (JTA)

First new fully staged Yiddish opera in a century tells story of 16th-century indigenous resistance to Spain.

The long reach of Yiddish continues, this time accompanied by Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, salsa and hints of Jewish liturgy.

In a season in which a Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” is a runaway hit, the first fully-staged new Yiddish opera in 100 years premieres this week.

“Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” with music by Frank London and a libretto by Elise Thoron, will be performed in Yiddish, Spanish and English, produced by Peak Performances at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, Sept. 14-23.

The opera is inspired by an 87-year-old epic poem written in Yiddish by a refugee to Cuba from Ukraine, Asher Penn, known as Oscar Pinis in Cuba. The poet writes of a warrior hero of the Taino, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, fighting the Spanish conquistadores. In 1511, a Taino chief named Hatuey came to Cuba from what is now the Dominican Republic to warn Cuban natives about the Spanish conquistadores. He led a rebellion, was captured, and burned at the stake. Whether words of history or legend, Hatuey is said to have answered a conquistador’s inquiry as to whether he would go to Heaven or Hell, by turning the question to the Spaniard. When the man said he’d be in heaven, Hatuey said he’d rather go to hell.

Nicolette Mavroleon appears in “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” a chamber opera about a Yiddish poet and his obsession with an indigenous Cuban freedom fighter. (JTA)

In the opera, the poem is framed by another story. Set in a café in the 1930s, the poet composes poetry there and meets a woman who is curious about the “codes” he is writing. They talk and dance, and she draws him into revolutionary activity against Machado, then president of Cuba. The two stories of resistance and activism intertwine.

London first learned of Penn’s poem from an old friend, Michael Posnick; they first met working together on “Davenin” for the Pilobolus Dance Theater. Posnick, who has been involved in the theater world since graduating from Yeshiva University and the Yale Drama School in 1964, mentioned the long Yiddish poem written by his father-in-law Asher Penn, when he was in Cuba, before moving the U.S. in 1935.

Posnick tells The Jewish Week that Penn wrote the work in Yiddish because “he wanted the Jewish people to know about the people who took him in.” The poem suggests a connection between people of different eras who have seen suffered oppression and murder at the hands of brutal forces.

Penn, who died in 1979 at age 71, left the small town of Gaisin in Ukraine, after witnessing a young friend being raped and killed by the Cossaks. Arriving in Cuba in 1926 with his family, he studied architecture and became involved with the Jewish community there. Posnick says that family friends who left Cuba in 1959 remember Penn fixing the lights for the Yiddish theater in Havana.

Posnick says that in New York, Penn was a Yiddish writer who held many jobs, as city editor for the Forward, the U.N. correspondent for Yiddish newspapers and the editor of an English newsletter for the delicatessen industry. He also did some work for the Jewish Theological Seminary and wrote a book in the 1950s in Yiddish about the state of the Jewish community, “Judaism in America.” He interviewed many leaders and reported a positive outlook. Posnick says that Penn returned to Cuba a few times.

Frank London, a Grammy Award-winning trumpeter, is the composer of “Hatuey: Memory of Fire.” (JTA)

Thoron, the librettist, interviewed Posnick’s wife Eileen, who told her that her American-born mother (who met Asher Penn in Philadelphia, where they married) once said that she was never jealous of another woman, but she was jealous of Cuba. She also said that her father always enjoyed speaking Spanish.

In the opera, the Tainos and Spaniards sing in Yiddish — played by African-American and Latino opera singers who have learned the language. The Cubans in the café — including two played by salsa singers from Cuba — sing-speak in Spanish and English. Marcia Garcia, who has worked with Bill T. Jones and Spike Lee, choreographed the dancing.

London tells The Jewish Week it’s not a particularly Jewish story, but Penn’s Yiddish, with its rich layers of meaning, infuses the show. When describing how innocent the Taino were, Penn writes that they were like a kale in tsnies, like a modest bride.

“That poetry is gorgeously Jewish,” he says.

A shorter version of the opera was produced in Havana in 2017, performed in Spanish. This is the first time it will be performed in the language in which it was written.

The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (NYTF) has supported the production, helped with translation and Yiddish instruction. Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director, says that they are talking about the possibility of producing it. He has read the material and heard London’s music, and will see the full production for the first time on stage in Montclair. “I loved what I have seen,” he said. It’s amazing. I’m very excited.


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