A Monument to Hatuey in Baracoa, Cuba. Photo by Michal Zalewski.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish.
In 1931, Yiddish poet, journalist and editor Ascher Penn published “Hatuey,” a 126-page epic poem about a Taíno chieftain who fought against the Spanish invasion of Cuba at the beginning of the 16th century, and who was eventually burned at the stake in 1512.
Born in 1912 in Ukraine, Penn immigrated with his parents to Cuba in 1924 following a pogrom in his native shtetl of Gaysin. In “Hatuey,” Penn drew on the experience of the pogrom to describe the massacre of Taíno natives by the Spanish, and expressed his admiration for Taíno history and culture.
Now, composer and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London is working on an opera based on Penn’s poem, incorporating both Yiddish and Cuban music. At a May 5 symposium on Yiddish opera at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, London discussed the project together with Yale University English professor Alan Trachtenberg; Penn’s daughter, Eileen Posnick, and her husband, dramaturge and visiting artist Michael Posnick, who organized the symposium.
“I’ve been keeping my ears out for the proper text on which to base a Yiddish opera for years,” London said in a follow-up telephone interview. “Also, my background before Jewish music is in Latin music, so this is very close to my heart.”
London first heard about Penn’s text at a memorial service for Jonathan Wolken, a founder of the Pilobolus Dance Troupe, while talking with Michael and Eileen Posnick. When they mentioned Penn’s poem, London said, “my jaw dropped.”
While some people might question the wisdom of producing an opera in a language few opera-goers speak, London pointed out that listeners rarely understand opera librettos, regardless of the language they’re in. Rather, London said, “opera deals with the sound of words — the actual sound of language. So it’s a perfect contemporary medium to celebrate Yiddish while also moving it forward.”
In addition to adapting Penn’s poem into a libretto — a complicated process involving several rounds of translation — London plans to include a frame narrative about Penn himself, which will be performed in Spanish.
Like many Yiddish writers of his generation, Penn was a polymath, studying architecture at the University of Havana and serving as the editor of the first Cuban Yiddish newspaper, Havana Lebn (Havana Life), which he founded in 1932. In 1935 he immigrated to the U.S., where he became a writer and the city editor of the Forverts.
During the Second World War Penn drew on his architectural training to serve as a draughtsman in the U.S. Navy, an experience he later described in his 1946 poetry collection, “A Shipbuilder’s Songs.” In 1958 he published his magnum opus, “Yiddishkayt in America,” a substantial volume describing Jewish life in the 1950s. Penn died in 1979.
As Trachtenberg noted at the Yale symposium, Penn’s “Hatuey” was an unusual project, but not without precedent. One inspiration was the Yiddish poet Yehoash’s 1910 translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” which Trachtenberg discusses in his book, “Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930.”
Penn’s daughter, Eileen Posnick, recounted her father’s childhood experience surviving a pogrom, and seeing his girlfriend raped and murdered by Cossacks. That traumatic event clearly contributed to “Hatuey,” particularly one graphic chapter in which Spanish soldiers torture the Taíno natives. Indeed, the poem reverberates with sympathy for the Taíno, whose plight Penn understood only too well.