London’s Yiddish-Cuban Bridge
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Fall Arts PreviewMusic

London’s Yiddish-Cuban Bridge

The eclectic klezmer trumpeter takes on a genre-bending full-length opera.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

When Frank London heard the story of Hatuey, the Taino chieftan who had resisted the Spanish invasion of Cuba, he said, “That’s my opera!” Anya Roz
When Frank London heard the story of Hatuey, the Taino chieftan who had resisted the Spanish invasion of Cuba, he said, “That’s my opera!” Anya Roz

Frank London likes to remind listeners that the Yiddish theater of legend was “always cutting edge and avant-garde.” That, he said, is why his latest, and most ambitious, project, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” was such a challenge.

“Hatuey” is a full-length opera, a genre-bending exercise set in Cuba that moves fluidly between the era of the conquistadors and the Machado dictatorship in the 1930s, combining Yiddish, Spanish and Taino (the language of the island’s indigenous population), klezmer, jazz, Cuban popular music and full-blown operatic arias.

Just another day at the office for Klezmatics stalwart London.

The inspiration for “Hatuey” came from a friend of London’s, Michael Posnick, who was working as the dramaturg for the Pilobolus Dance Theater. The two were chatting at a funeral when Posnick mentioned that his father-in-law, Asher Penn, was a Yiddish poet who had escaped pogroms in Ukraine in the 1920s, was refused admission to the U.S. as a refugee and had the luck to end up in Cuba. As a way of expressing his thanks to his adopted country, Penn wrote an epic poem in Yiddish telling the story of Hatuey, the Taino chieftain who had resisted the Spanish invasion of the island 400 years earlier.

London just stared at Posnick and said, “That’s my opera!”

All London had to do was find a librettist who could write in Yiddish and find a cast of great musical actors and opera-trained voices who could sing and act in Yiddish. (Oh, he also had to find financing and a production company that would take on such an unlikely project.)

As he says now that the project is ready for its world premiere on Sept. 14, “We must have done something right in a previous lifetime, because all the pieces have fallen spectacularly into place.” Librettist Elise Thoron has worked with London before (on a musical theater piece called “Green Violin”) and their collaboration on this project was seamless. They conceived of a set of parallel stories, recounting both Hatuey’s historic resistance as recreated by a young Yiddish poet, Oscar, and Oscar’s involvement with the student resistance to Machado and the dictator’s closing-down of the universities.

The rest was easy, as new opera productions go. Diane Wondisford and the Music-Theatre Group, where she is producing director, came on board as the event’s producer. The list of their past projects includes works by Tod Machover, Tan Dun, Elliot Goldenthal and Richard Peaslee. The cast that was assembled includes Nate Stampley as Hatuey, a logical progression from his best-known role as Mufasa in “The Lion King,” and a profusion of similarly talented “opera singers, Broadway singers, salsa singers,” London said enthusiastically. “They’re so good we ended up writing a lot of new music for the people we cast.”

The cast of “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” none of whom “has ever dealt with Yiddish in their lives.” Marina Levitskaya

To his utter delight, the opera-trained singers had little trouble with the Yiddish elements of the libretto.

“None of them has dealt with Yiddish in their lives,” London said. “But they’re singing Yiddish beautifully. I realized that opera singers are trained to be able to sing in any language. It’s what they do.”

Putting on innovative theatrical and musical productions is what the Peak Performances series, based at Montclair State University, does and it is presenting “Hatuey: Memory of Fire” this fall for more than a week.

Probably the first full-length Yiddish-language opera produced in the New World in a century, will “Hatuey” have a life beyond this initial staging?

London is non-committal, understandably so when you factor in the rest of his fall schedule.

“After this, I go on the road for six weeks to work on a project with Tatar musicians, then I’m in Israel for a program that involves settings of the poetry of Primo Levi, and then the Klezmatics are playing Budapest,” he said.

“We have nothing planned [for ‘Hatuey’], but it has to come to New York City. The talent on stage and behind the stage is so good, I hope something good will happen.”

“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” will be performed Sept. 14-23 at Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University (1 Normal Ave., Montclair, N.J.), peakperfs.org.

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