Searching for a reason to go to Havana, now that the U.S. has eased its diplomatic sanctions on Cuba (for the time being, at least)? Look no further: Composer Frank London, trumpeter and keyboardist for The Klezmatics, known for its eclectic blend of Yiddish songs and klezmer with other musical traditions, is at work on an opera based on a 1931 Yiddish epic poem called “Hatuey.” When London, who said he has “been playing Afro-Cuban music longer than I’ve been playing Jewish music,” came across Penn’s poem, he knew he wanted to turn it into an opera. Thus “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” the opera, was born.
The poem “Hatuey,” no small feat at 126 pages, was written by Ascher Penn (previously Oscar Pinis). In 1924, after a pogrom in his Ukrainian shtetl, Gaysin, Penn and his parents fled to Havana. There, in addition to writing poetry, he became an editor of Havana Lebn (Havana Life), the first ever Cuban Yiddish newspaper. Three years later, he would immigrate to the United States, and begin writing and working as an editor for Forverts. In 1946, he published a poetry collection, “A Shipbuilder’s Songs,” based on his experience serving in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. In 1958, he published the hefty volume “Yiddishkayt in America,” which surveyed American Jewish life at that time. He died in 1979.
Penn’s poem is based on the story of the eponymous Taíno chieftain who resisted the Spanish invasion of Cuba in the early 16th century and was burned at the stake as a result. Perhaps the poem was an expression of Penn’s newfound patriotism as a refugee in Cuba; likely, however, his reasons for wanting to translate this story of an indigenous Cuban hero into a Yiddish poem ran even deeper. Evidently, the torture of the Taínos at the hands of the Spanish was all too resonant for Penn, who witnessed his girlfriend being raped and murdered by Cossacks during the pogrom that caused him to flee his Ukrainian shtetl.
The opera, according to the website of Elise Thoron, whom London asked to write the libretto, will draw upon this connection, using Penn’s life to frame Hatuey’s:
Hatuey – Memory of Fire is set in a nightclub in Havana, 1931, where young Ukrainian poet and refugee, Oscar, falls in love with Tinima, a singer of Taíno descent, and is reluctantly drawn into her revolutionary activities against the Machado regime. All the while Oscar is writing his poem Hatuey, telling the story of Cuba’s first indigenous freedom fighter, who dies at the stake resisting the Spanish in 1511. The two stories intertwine and inform each other, as characters shift in time and place from Havana club in 1931 (sung in Spanish), to the world of Oscar’s poem in Maisi, 1511, (sung in Yiddish) where his hero Hatuey encounters Velasquez and the Spanish.
The opera “draws on different musical traditions—classical opera, salsa, music theater.” It is multilingual, incorporating English, Spanish, Yiddish, and bits of Taíno. Though this is in keeping with the opera’s multiplicity of cultural and historical influences, it is also a practical choice; London “agreed to have most of the opera’s Yiddish passages translated into Spanish after the founder of the company, Ulises Aquino, warned that it would otherwise be inaccessible.”
“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” premieres on March 3 in Havana.