A report by Michael Cooper for The New York Times.
Yiddish-Cuban opera is not something you come across every day. But a new one composed by Frank London of the Klezmatics — based on an 86-year-old Yiddish poem about Hatuey, the Taino chief who resisted the Spanish invaders — will have its premiere at Teatro Arenal in Havana on March 3.
The opera, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” is based on a 1931 epic poem written in Yiddish by Oscar Pinis, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Cuba and edited a Yiddish newspaper there, and who later took the name Ascher Penn. Mr. London said in a telephone interview that when he discovered the poem he decided “it had to be an opera,” and asked Elise Thoron to write the libretto.
“It’s quite a story — it kind of rocks my world,” Mr. London said, describing how the score weaves together several of his musical passions. “I’ve been playing Afro-Cuban music longer than I’ve been playing Jewish music.”
But bringing the work to Cuba — where it will be performed by the inventive troupe Opera de la Calle — required adjustments. Mr. London, who initially envisioned using an Afro-Cuban nightclub ensemble that could double as a chamber orchestra, had to reorchestrate the score to accommodate Opera de la Calle’s ensemble of guitar, bass, three keyboards and five percussionists. And he 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.
“I was willing to change so much of my conception of the piece for the experience of working with them,” Mr. London said. “They are so young, they are so enthusiastic, and this material is so far beyond what they normally perform, and pushing their boundaries in so many ways. And they’re game for it.”
Cuba’s Jewish population plummeted after the 1959 revolution, but there is still a Jewish population there. “There are still a few of the Jews almost, not quite, but almost from the generation of our poet,” he said, adding that one woman still had a copy of the opera’s source in its original Yiddish.