A Ukrainian Refugee's Ode to Cuba Comes to the Stage in Havana

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Cine Arenal in Havana, Cuba, where 'Hatuey: Memory of Fire' will premiere. Photo by Johnny Moreno.

Librettist Elise Thoron and composer Frank London's new opera "Hatuey: Memory of Fire" premieres in Havana this March. Below they retrace their journey at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program's residency at Ucross, their recent rehearsals, and the cultural significance of opening their play in Cuba.

Sitting having a daiquiri at the Nacional Hotel, gazing at the vast sea, down the Malecon with palm trees golden in afternoon sun, words from our new Cuban nightclub opera Hatuey Memoria del Fuego float in our head: “S’z himl un vaser un shtilkayt in bloy…” (Sky and water and stillness in blue…) Our hero Oscar was a young poet who came to Havana from the frozen steppe of the Ukraine. He escaped a village destroyed by the violence of pogroms and landed in Havana in 1924 to begin a new life. It is an amazing experience to bring his story home to Havana, to stand on the steps of the University of Havana that he attended, where the student struggles of the ‘20s and Machado era occurred. What was it like to come from the cold frozen steppe of the Ukraine to this vast sea of warm light and vibrant people?

A few years after arriving, Oscar wrote a tribute to his new homeland – an epic poem in Yiddish titled “Hatuey,” about the first Cuban freedom fighter. It’s thrilling to be working in a place where you don’t have to explain who Hatuey is – everyone here knows his profile: a national hero, the first indigenous freedom fighter who was martyred resisting the Spanish in 1512, and used as a symbol by every Cuban independence and revolutionary movement since. His profile is even featured on the label of a famous brand of Cuban beer, Cerveza Hatuey. In a line of Elise’s dialogue, the nightclub singer Tinima’s flirtatious insult of young foreigner Oscar, “for you Hatuey is nothing but a beer,” was proven true when, in response to being told the name of our opera, a somewhat sarcastic Cuban artist we met said, “Hatuey? Like the beer?”

Our journey with Hatuey: Memory of Fire (in Cuba, Hatuey Memoria del Fuego) started with a Sundance Institute Theatre Program residency at the Ucross Foundation in the depths of February, where minus-40 days crystallized our breath in the vast open spaces and antelope galloped over snow outside the studio window. We were isolated from the world (except for one night in a local bar when Frank played trumpet with a local string cowboy band) and allowed to sink deeply into the material. Elise laid scenes and songs out on vast white boards in the barn where Frank worked on the piano. The natural world and silence of deep cold and stars surrounded us. The connection to nature and place was very important to telling the story of the Tainos (the indigenous people of the Caribbean), which is the operatic material of our piece. The second world we created was a frame of a Cuban nightclub in which Oscar is writing an epic Yiddish poem about Hatuey and falling in love with Tinima, a singer of Taino descent. We first presented the collision of these two worlds to our fellow Sundance Ucross retreaters, and later had a chance at the Sundance Mass MoCA Lab to test the concept with actors, a director, and a dramaturg (Philip Himberg); we became convinced that we could make this piece work, and additional musical workshopping with the Music Theatre Group got us to a point of having a full score.

An actor performs at a rehearsal of "Hatuey." Photo by Johnny Moreno.

I don’t think we imagined that we would land with an inaugural production in Havana; in some ways it is beyond our dreams to be able to bring this story and poem home to its cultures of origin. But through the wonderful anthropologist and Cuban-American writer Ruth Behar the match was made and the libretto translated into Spanish and read by Ulises Aquino, artistic director of Opera de la Calle, a renegade opera company in Havana that takes opera and Cuban music into the streets. Ulises immediately said yes, but there would be no reading, workshop, or concert version – that is not the way his company rolls. It’s full production, or none at all. We all took a deep breath together at a retreat at the Pocantico Center outside of New York at the beginning of August and decided to jump off the cliff together, setting an opening date of March 3rd in time for the first ever Celebration of Jewish Culture in Havana.

The die was cast.

We made the difficult decision to do the bulk of the opera in Spanish – not in Yiddish as Oscar had written and Frank had set the music – so the Cuban company and audiences could connect viscerally to the Hatuey story. Huge efforts in translation came about, and figuring out communication with limited internet, travel, and fundraising presented new challenges. What has held us together through this incredibly intense process is laughter – drawn from our mutually absurdist sense of humor at the attempt to pull off this Quixote-an task – and our joint ability to adapt to what is and isn’t available in Cuba. Additionally, there is Ulises and the company’s willingness to embrace the new forms and challenges of the music and storytelling in our piece.

But above all, if one thing has sustained us in this process and motivates us to see it through despite all obstacles, it is the incredible eagerness and enthusiasm of the members of the company of the Opera de la Calle to perform this work. They may lack all material goods, and their official salary from the group may be less than $20 a month, but they crave the challenge of a work that pushes their limits as artists, singers, actors, and musicians, and to create a work that has both personal and political meaning in their lives.

Elise Thoron (right) and Frank London (fourth from right) with the principal cast of "Hatuey."

Cuba is a place of great contradictions and complexities, inhabited by people of great heart, talent, and enthusiasm faced with tremendous material privation and bureaucratic restriction. There are only two opera companies in Havana – the official state Lyric Opera and the alternative Opera de la Calle (Opera of the Streets). The Lyric Opera has been doing the same four opera productions for over 30 years, partially through inertia, but primarily because they cannot afford to stage a new production, buy new costumes, build new sets, etc. Just as they are masters at keeping cars from the 1950’s on the road, they keep these four productions running. The Opera de la Calle’s philosophy and goal is to make opera accessible to the people, keep it from being an elitist experience. To this end, their artistic director, Ulises Aquino – formally an internationally performing baritone soloist and opera star – has assembled a group of almost 50 singers, plus instrumentalists, dancers, and designers, mostly in their 20’s, and created ‘espectaculos’ (spectacles) that integrate opera repertoire and operatic singing with Afro-Cuban music and culture, rock, pop, cabaret, and other popular forms. They, too, have to deal with a nearly total lack of material and infrastructure in which to create their work.

Their home, the old Cine Arenal, is a fantastic Art Deco-era theater, stunningly magnificent from the outside, but nearly gutted on the inside. Step-by-step, Ulises and his company have been restoring the theater. There are few lights in the theater, so their staging must per force make creative and innovative use of what they have. In order to conserve the power they are allotted for their performances, they rehearse in a dark theater – and only during the hours where they can open the outside door and get some of the daylight to illuminate the working space. It is in these conditions that they agreed to help produce and create the first performance of our opera

It’s awesome to sit in rehearsal and hear the chorus of 40 move from a Cuban nightclub number to what Ulises calls Frank’s “musical abstractions of the 23rd Century …” Neither Jewish musical motifs nor the more dissonant, atonal harmonies are familiar to the performers. And, although we have translated 95% of the work into Spanish, there has been a huge effort to learn Yiddish that we kept in place, including visits on their own time to meet with and get dialect coaching lessons from one of the only living Cuban Jews who still speaks Yiddish.

Early on in the rehearsal process Frank and I both separately told the company, “Hatuey is your story, make this your own, and we are just here In Havana to support you.” Their eyes lit up, “Yes.” So much is different from what we initially intended. It is Hatuey the rock opera, with electric bass, four percussionists and synths, mostly sung in Spanish with just a few gems of Yiddish verse still intact – but the piece has found a home at Opera de la Calle. Through it the Company is learning more about their own history, the actual presence of Taino culture on the island, and that there’s still a small but strong Jewish community in Havana with the original editions of Oscar’s poem “Hatuey” published both in Yiddish and Spanish. We’ll go back one more time for the final push to the opening, which feels like not an end, but the beginning of another leg of the journey as Hatuey Memoria del Fuego meets the Cuban public and goes into the repertory of the Opera de la Calle. Our fondest hope in Cuba is that it will encourage these amazingly talented young artists to tell their own stories on the stage and make their own crazy Cuban nightclub operas.


Lead photo:

Cine Arenal in Havana, Cuba, where 'Hatuey: Memory of Fire' will premiere. Photo by Johnny Moreno.