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Elise Thoron

Music by Frank London • Libretto by Elise Thoron

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 Taino descent, and is 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.

Hatuey Memory of Fire springs from a narrative poem, Hatuey, written in Yiddish and published in Havana in 1931 by Oscar Pinis, (later Ascher Penn, when he came to America), a respected man of Yiddish letters. In Cuba, his poem about the legendary Taino leader, Hatuey, who resisted the Spanish in 1511, was translated into Spanish, taught in high schools; Hatuey became a Cuban folk hero in his fight for freedom. Oscar, a refugee from pogroms in the Ukraine, where he saw family and friends destroyed, fled when he was sixteen, wrote the poem in celebration of his new homeland, Cuba. His poem extols the undying fight for freedom, and decries in most powerful verses the violence done by the Spanish to the native Taino population on Cuba.

With music with music by Grammy award winning composer, Frank London of the Klezmatics, and libretto by Elise Thoron, Hatuey Memory of Fire draws on different musical traditions – classical opera, salsa, music theater. It is composed for seven singers and nine musicians is performed in English, Spanish, Yiddish, and fragments of Taino. The orchestra (piano, two percussionists doubling on Afro-Cuban percussion and Western classical percussion instruments including mallets, bass, guitar/cuatro, flute/sax, trumpet, clarinet/sax and cello) will be able to shift between different musical styles and genres, especially Cuban Jazz and contemporary classical music.

An initial, partial Spanish language production of Hatuey Memoria del Fuego with Opera de La Calle (a company of 60 + performers) took place in Havana, March 3, 2017 at the Teatro Arenal.   This 72 minute production in Spanish continued to be offered through the end of April.  The 110 minute complete production with book in English and opera sung in Yiddish, remains in development with Diane Wondisford and Music-Theatre Group, and has benefited greatly from the Sundance Theater Program, with a residency at the Ucross Foundation and workshop at Sundance Lab at Mass MoCA.  The inaugural performance of Hatuey will take place at Montclair State University as part of its Peak Performances series in September 2018. 

One of my favorite musical collaborators, Frank London, came to me with the idea for an opera in a Japanese restaurant on the lower Eastside; he pulled out the original edition of an epic Yiddish poem Hatuey, published in Havana in 1931. I was probably one of the few people he could go to who would respond: "Oh, Hatuey, the Taino freedom fighter who died at the stake, killed by the Spanish in 1511 in Cuba, originally from Quisqueya…" I learned this working on Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Oscar's family home is called Casa Hatuey… and yes, there is a great footnote. I then learned that Hatuey the poem was written by a 24 year-old Ukrainian-Jewish refugee, Oscar Pinis (later Ascher Penn), who dedicated the work to Cuba, the island where he found refuge from the terror and devastation of the pogroms that killed friends and family. The poem was translated into Spanish in 1935, and was taught in Cuban schools, although few are aware of its Jewish/Yiddish roots.

The Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale hosted a colloquium exploring the various cultural, historical, linguistic and musical aspects of Hatuey that included prominent Yale faculty, and representatives from the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Yiddish Forverts; and commissioned English translations from both the Yiddish and Spanish translation published in Cuba 1935 and taught in schools there. Shane Baker of the New Yiddish Rep recorded the Yiddish text of the poem Hatuey for use in the creation of the libretto. Jorge Estevez of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, scholar of Taino culture and language, talked to us about the Taino culture present in everyday life. I also interviewed the poet's daughter, Elaine Posnick, who served as her father's literary secretary in his later years.

The challenge for me was to find a dramatic structure that could fuel an opera, but would honor the various languages and cultural traditions at play. What emerged is two intertwined stories of the poet, Oscar, in 1931 writing his poem in a Havana nightclub, and the poem itself, Hatuey, which takes place on the Eastern shore of Cuba in 1511 and is sung in Yiddish. It was a crazy enough idea in three languages, and Sundance Theater program both gave us time and space to work together at Ucross, and then a workshop with an eclectic group of amazing actor/singers from different traditions as a proof of concept at Mass MoCA. We all enjoyed what we heard and felt in the room, so have forged forward with the insight and support of Diane Wondisford and Music Theatre Group.

A guiding light in our work on Hatuey is Michael Posnick, the poet's son-in-law, extraordinary dramaturg, wise soul, and fund raiser, whose amazing spirit and warmth carry us forward.


The poem Hatuey was written in Yiddish in Cuba by Asher Penn, who immigrated to Cuba from the Ukraine as a sixteen year old to escape pogroms. As a child, he witnessed his friends and family killed by Cossacks. While he never mentions his experience in the poem, one feels its presence in the forceful invective against violence of the Spanish and celebration of Hatuey as freedom fighter. The 125 page poem was translated into Spanish, soon after it was written, taught in Cuban high schools and colleges. Now, to facilitate our working on the opera, there is an English translation by Moisha Rosenfeld.