I won’t lie: I had to suspend disbelief while watching a crucial moment in Frank London’s new opera “Hatuey: Memory of Fire”on Sunday. On stage, a conquistador priest brandished a crucifix as he urged an indigenous rebel to embrace Jesus. In Yiddish. Tied to the stake, the defiant Taino chief told the priest that if heaven had whites in it, he would rather go to hell.
“Vayl di vayse zaynen in himl vil ikh liber in Gehenem zayn,” the chief sang, as the salsa band — yes, salsa band — played on.
It would seem that Mr. London, a leader of klezmer groups in New York, and his librettist, the playwright Elise Thoron, have some explaining to do. Their opera, which received its United States premiere in the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University this weekend and runs through Sunday, is set in Cuba and sung in Yiddish, with some text in Spanish and English.
Hatuey, its hero, was a real-life Taino warrior who organized an armed defense against the invading Spaniards and was burned at the stake in 1512. Mr. London and Ms. Thoron are both white. The work’s musical language is Afro-Cuban jazz.
As it happens, the opera’s incongruities are also its strength, as the layering of cultures helps make it a compelling and eminently entertaining work of musical theater. The opera is based on an epic poem written in Yiddish in 1931 in Havana. Its author, Oscar Pinis (later, after traveling to America, Asher Penn), was a 23-year-old Ukrainian Jew who had recently fled the pogroms in his homeland. The story of the failed indigenous uprising against the forces of Hernán Cortés evidently touched a nerve in Pinis and inspired a work simmering with anti-colonialist outrage.
In the opera, Oscar becomes a character. In a Havana nightclub he falls under the spell of Tinima, a Cuban singer of Taino descent as well as an activist fighting the repressive regime of Gerardo Machado, Cuba’s president. In her songs, she evokes the martyrdom of Hatuey and encourages the young poet to write about him.
“In Yiddish?” he asks, incredulously.
“Does your language have a word for ‘freedom?’” she responds, by way of permission.
The 16th-century story comes alive in scenes acted out by characters from the nightclub. At the same time, Tinima enlists Oscar’s help in arming Havana’s students against the police crackdown. He is fearful, haunted by memories of a bloody pogrom back in his village in Ukraine.
The 1930s nightclub setting works. It gives Mr. London an excuse to arrange a number of vibrant Cuban songs and is a vehicle for the fierce artistry of Jennifer Jade Ledesna, a smoky-voiced alto and feline dancer, as Tinima. The onstage salsa-band-with-cello, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, moves in and out of the spotlight, underpinning spoken dialogue with a light rhythmic shimmer and turning up the heat for barn-burning numbers like Irving Berlin’s “I’ll See You In C-U-B-A.”
The members of the strong cast were all amplified, sometimes too closely. Nathaniel Stampley’s suave baritone, in the title role, and Nicolette Mavroleon’s dusky soprano could probably have shone unaided. But all were comfortable in the transitions from spoken theater to song, and the frequent dancing was more than persuasive.
Yes, it felt odd to see a predominantly black and Latino cast perform in Yiddish. (A first production in Cuba last year translated chunks of the libretto into Spanish to make it more accessible to audiences.) But as the story of the vanquished Hatuey was brought to life, the language added a layer of melancholy. After all, Yiddish, too, is virtually extinct in the part of the world that gave birth to it. And it was easy to see the affinity a Jewish refugee felt in 1931 for a people forced into internal exile by a conqueror.
The ambitious Peak Performances series took a gamble when it decided to stage a work that would inevitably draw questions about cultural appropriation on a university campus. On Sunday the audience responded with warmth and enthusiasm. For New Yorkers interested in salsa, social justice and “oy veys” in aria form, it’s worth the schlep.