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Hatuey: Memory of Fire

Frank London | Elise Thoron | Music-Theatre Group

HATUEY: Memory of Fire is a soaring Cuban-Yiddish opera, a love story set in a Havana nightclub in 1931. Oscar, a young Jewish writer who escaped the pogroms in the Ukraine to make a new home in Cuba, falls in love with Tinima, a beautiful singer and passionate revolutionary of Taino descent. As Oscar pens an epic poem about Cuba’s legendary 16th century freedom fighter, Hatuey, Tinima draws him into her fight against the corrupt Machado regime. This vibrant fusion of Afro-Cuban and Yiddish music and culture is also a powerful celebration of freedom performed in English, Yiddish, and Spanish with English supertitles.

In real life, Oscar was Asher Penn. According to The Forward, “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. … Indeed, the poem reverberates with sympathy for the Taíno, whose plight Penn understood only too well.”

From Jedediah Wheeler, Peak Performances’ Executive Director: “The first show of the Peak Performances’ season brings to mind the great American song Me & Bobby McGee by Foster and Kristofferson, who wrote the lyric, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free.’ In Hatuey: Memory of Fire, a young Jewish man escapes the Soviet Union and lands in Havana. He falls in love with a Cuban cabaret chanteuse with a fierce anti-colonial temper. Shattered by the memory of the gruesome attacks in his home village, Oscar identifies her cry for freedom as his own. She tells him of Hatuey, a Taino warrior of the early 16th century who challenged the Spanish conquistadors in Cuba. Hatuey lost his life in a fireball bound to a stake. When his persecutor asked whether he would go to heaven or hell, Hatuey asked, ‘Where will you be?’ ‘I will be in heaven,’ said the conquistador. ‘Then I will go to hell,’ declared Hatuey, forever memorializing his tragic fate. Hatuey is still celebrated as a precursor of Cuba’s ongoing fight for freedom. The real Oscar, Asher Penn, wrote an epic poem about Hatuey to honor Cuba, his new home. That poem inspired this new opera-theater work. Written by Elise Thoron with music by Frank London, Hatuey: Memory of Fire is performed by Cuban, Honduran, Greek, Jewish, and Dominican Americans in Yiddish, Spanish, and English with Afro-Cuban beat.”

HATUEY: Memory of Fire is a Music-Theatre Group production, produced in association with Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.



The following events are free and open to the public.

Sneak Peek
Thursday, September 20, 6:00 – 7:00 pm
Alexander Kasser Theater
Join Jedediah Wheeler, executive director of Peak Performances and Jorge Estevez of the National Museum of the American Indian to learn more about the Taíno culture and history celebrated in HATUEY: Memory of Fire.

First Impressions
Saturday, September 22, post-performance
Alexander Kasser Theater
Join Jedediah Wheeler, executive director of Peak Performances; Ulises Aquino, general director of Compania Opera de la Calle in Havana, Cuba; Diane Wondisford, producing director of Music-Theatre Group; and Elise Thoron, librettist to share reflections and responses immediately following the performance.


Frank LondonSir Frank London is a Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer. His large-scale projects include the dance/poetry work Salomé, Woman of Valor with Adeena Karasick, the museum installation film Letters from Afar with filmmaker Peter Forgacs and The Klezmatics, the folk-opera A Night In The Old Marketplace based on Y.L. Peretz’s 1907 play, Pilobolus Dance Theater’s Davenen, Great Small Works’ The Memoirs Of Gluckel Of Hameln, Min Tanaka’s Romance, 1001 Voices: A Symphony for a New America with libretto by Judith Sloan and projections by Warren Lehrer, Green Violin with Elise Thoron, winner of the the Barrymore Prize for Best New Musical, and From Moses to Mostel with Glen Berger. London co-founded The Klezmatics and leads the bhangra/Yiddish band, Sharabi, with Deep Singh; the astro-Hungarian supergroup Glass House Orchestra; the Shekhinah Big Band; and his Klezmer Brass Allstars. He has worked with John Zorn, Karen O, Itzhak Perlman, Pink Floyd, LL Cool J, Mel Tormé, Lester Bowie, LaMonte Young, They Might Be Giants, David Byrne, Jane Siberry, Ben Folds 5, Mark Ribot, and Hector LaVoe. He is featured on over 500 CDs. In 2019, London will premiere the song cycle Ghetto Songs at the prestigious Hamburg Elbephilharmonie, and will be music director for Carnegie Hall’s celebration of Yiddish, From Shtetl to Stage. He composed music for John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet, Yvonne Rainer’s Murder And murder, Karin Coonrod’s The Merchant of Venice, the Czech-American Marionette Theater’s Golem and Tamar Rogoff’s Ivye Project. London was artistic director of KlezKanada; music director for David Byrne and Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays; and has been featured on HBO’s Sex And The City. He was knighted by Hungary for his work advancing Jewish and multicultural Hungarian music and culture.

“In every generation there are always a few individuals who, through their singular foresight and hard work, make contributions to the musical art that not only advance and develop music in a wide ranging assortment of musical endeavors but also transcend the music of the time. Add to this short list Frank London.” — Thomas Erdmann, International Trumpet Guild

Elise ThoronElise Thoron is a playwright, director, and translator whose plays have been produced in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Cuba. Productions include Green Violin, music by Frank London, (Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays); Prozak and the Platypus, music by Jill Sobule (CD/graphic novella); Charlotte: Life? Or Theater?, music by Gary Fagin based on paintings by Charlotte Salomon; and Recycling: washi tales, an ongoing collaboration with distinguished Japanese paper artist Kyoko Ibe. As associate artistic director at American Place Theatre, Elise co-founded Literature to Life, a highly successful theater literacy program now in its third decade nationwide.

collage of photos from Music-Theatre Group productionsMusic-Theatre Group (Diane Wondisford, producing director) is dedicated to helping artists turn creative inspiration into dramatically compelling works of art. MTG has created collaborations among composers, poets, writers, directors, choreographers, designers, and performers working with them from the beginning and throughout the life of their projects to develop and produce thought-provoking works of music-theater that blur the boundaries between music, theater, and opera. Seminal works include (in association with American Repertory Theater) Crossing, composed, written, and conducted by Matthew Aucoin and directed by Diane Paulus; Dark Sisters by Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, directed by Rebecca Taichman; Arjuna’s Dilemma by Douglas Cuomo, directed by Robin Guarino; Running Man by Diedre Murray and Cornelius Eady, directed by Diane Paulus; Marco Polo by Tan Dun and Paul Griths, directed by M. Clarke; Juan Darien by Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal; Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Measures with music by William Harper; Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Vienna: Lusthaus with Richard Peaslee and text by Charles Mee; and Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theatre by Stanley Silverman and Richard Foreman. For the past several years, MTG has collaborated with Opera Philadelphia and its Composer in Residence program, featuring Lembit Beecher, Missy Mazzoli, David T. Little, Andrew Norman, David Hertzberg, and Rene Orth. MTG’s most recent commission, The Nefarious, Immoral,but Highly Protable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare by Julian Grant and Mark Campbell, directed by David Schweizer, which was premiered by Boston Lyric Opera, was nominated for Best World Premiere of 2018 at the International Opera Awards in London.

Constantine KitsopoulosConstantine Kitsopoulos has made a name for himself as a conductor whose musical experiences comfortably span the worlds of opera, symphony, musical theater, and film live to orchestra. He regularly conducts in venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall and at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and has served as music director/conductor for musical theater productions on Broadway. The 2018–19 season marks Mr. Kitsopoulos’s ninth as music director of the Festival of the Arts BOCA in Boca Raton, Florida, where he has worked with artists including Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, and the Russian National Orchestra. He was artistic director of the OK Mozart Festival from 2013 to 2015, and spent eight years as music director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Kitsopoulos founded Chatham Opera in 2005 and has recently been appointed general director of the New York Grand Opera; with both companies he is developing a series of semi-staged opera productions to be presented in the summer of 2019. Highlights of recent seasons include appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Calgary Philharmonic, National Arts Centre Orchestra, New York Pops, and the Baltimore, Colorado, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Toledo, San Antonio, and San Francisco symphony orchestras. Also in demand as a theater conductor, both on Broadway and nationwide, Mr. Kitsopoulos was music director and conductor of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the Tony Award–winning revival featuring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis that ran until September 2012. He is co-composer of the new music-theater piece Temple, based on the life of Temple Grandin, and is in the process of composing a new opera, Holy Week, with a libretto by Evangelia Kingsley. Kitsopoulos studied conducting with Gustav Meier, Sergiu Comissiona, Semyon Bychkov, and his principal teacher, Vincent La Selva.

Mary BirnbaumNominated for Best Newcomer of 2015 at the International Opera Awards in London, Mary Birnbaum has been singled out as a stage director to watch. Her recent production of The Rape of Lucretia at Juilliard garnered a rave from Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times who called it “viscerally overwhelming.” Other New York credits include Die Zauberflöte (Juilliard), the premiere of Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky’s The Classical Style at Carnegie Hall in December 2014, and a nine-singer chamber version of Eugene Onegin, also for the Juilliard School, co-led by conductor Matt Aucoin. Internationally, Birnbaum’s work has taken her to Taiwan, Melbourne, Costa Rica, and Tel Aviv. In the summer of 2016, she directed Otello at the National Symphony Orchestra, Taipei. Regionally, she has directed in Seattle; Santa Fe; Houston, Texas; Ojai and Berkeley, California; Columbus, Ohio; and Charlottesville, Virginia. Her production of Hänsel und Gretel in Houston was #2 on a list of ‘Best Operas in 2014,’ following only the Ring Cycle at Houston Grand Opera. Birnbaum has produced and developed new plays and theatrical events in New York. From 2009 to 2012, she founded and ran a theater company, Art Party, which produced story-specific events that engaged the audience in creative ways. STARBOX, a performance installation in Bryant Park, involved the audience lining up for a face-to-face meeting with a star. However the real play happened while the audience waited, as over 40 actors performed scenes all over the park. She has also worked with playwrights to develop new work, most notably in the Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab and at Ars Nova. She co-wrote and directed a feminist pop-concert called Baby No More Times with Melissa Lusk and Caroline V. McGraw. Teaching and working with young singers is another important part of Birnbaum’s career. She was invited to teach acting at Juilliard at age 26 and now holds the position of Associate Director of the Artist Diploma Program. In addition, she has worked with singers from the Lindemann program in acting class and scenes. She has also taught master classes at Mannes and Opera Workshop at Bard. Birnbaum holds an AB in English Language and Literature with a minor in French from Harvard College and a certificate in movement and design from Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Recent projects include the premiere of Kristin Kuster and Megan Levad’s opera Kept at the Virginia Arts Festival, Double Exposure at Opera Philadelphia and As One at Lyric Opera Kansas City.

Maija GarciaMaija Garcia is a Cuban-American director and choreographer whose signature work is featured in Guthrie Theater’s new production of West Side Story, directed by Joe Haj, Spike Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It and the film Chi-Raq. Director of Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha in Havana, Cuba, Heather Henson’s CRANE and Legend of Yauna with Marie Daulne (Zap Mama). Choreographic works include Cuba Libre with director Damaso Rodriguez at Artists Repertory Theater, Another Word for Beauty with Steve Cosson at the Goodman Theater and Fats Waller Dance Party with Jason Moran and Meshell N’degeocello at Harlem Stage, Kennedy Center and various international jazz festivals. Garcia worked alongside Bill T. Jones to choreograph the Tony Award-winning musical FELA! on Broadway, becoming creative director of FELA! World Tour and FELA! The Concert. A graduate of California Institute of Integral Studies with a BA in sustainable development, Garcia founded Organic Magnetics to create folklore for the future, producing Ghosts of Manhattan: 1512-2012, an interactive history in Fort Tryon Park and I Am NY: Juan Rodriguez at El Museo del Barrio.

Camellia KooCamellia Koo is a Toronto based set and costume designer for theater, opera, dance, and site-specific performance installations. Recent designs for opera and ballet include Turandot (Helikon Opera, Moscow), The Rape of Lucretia (Banff Centre/Against the Grain), Rocking Horse Winner (Tapestry New Opera), Sleeping Beauty (Ballet Jörgen Canada), Macbeth (Minnesota Opera), Carmen and The Tales of Hoffman (Edmonton Opera), Maria Stuarda (Pacific Opera Victoria), The Lighthouse (Boston Lyric Opera), Pélleas et Mélisande, Turn of the Screw, and La Bohéme (Against the Grain). Recent designs for theater include collaborations with The Shaw Festival and The Stratford Festival amongst others across Canada. Koo has received six Dora Mavor Moor Awards (Toronto), a Sterling Award (Edmonton), and a Chalmers Award Grant. She shared the 2006 Siminovitch Protégé Prize, was team prizewinner at the 2011 Opera Europa Directing Prize, and most recently, she won the 2016 Virginia and Myrtle Cooper Award for Costume Design.

Oana Botez is a Princess Grace Award and NEA/TCG Career Development Award recipient. She has been nominated for a Henry Hewes Design Award and won Barrymore and Drammy awards. Her designs have won acclaim in New York at the BAM Next Wave Festival, Bard SummerScape at the Richard B.Fisher Center, Baryshnikov Arts Center, The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Soho Rep, LCT3, The Public Theater, 59E59, La MaMa, The Kitchen, PS122, HERE Arts Center, The Joyce Theater, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, BRIC Arts Media, Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center, and Classic Stage Company. Regionally, she has designed for The Wilma Theater (Philadelphia), Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (Massachusetts), Hartford Stage Company (Connecticut), Long Wharf Theater (New Haven, Connecticut), The Shakespeare Theater (Washington, DC), Berkeley Rep (California), ArtsEmerson (Boston), Broad Stage (Santa Monica, California), MCA (Chicago), ODC (San Francisco), Walker Arts Center (Minneapolis), Peak Performances (Montclair, New Jersey), ADI (Rockville, Maryland), Academy of Music (Philadelphia), Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia), and Cutler Majestic Theater (Boston). Internationally, she has designed for Bucharest National Theater (Romania), Arad National Theater (Romania), Bulandra Theater (Bucharest), Théâtre National de Chaillot (Paris), Les Subsistances (Lyon, France), Budapest National Theater, Cluj Hungarian National Theater (Romania), Bucharest Operetta Theater (Romania), International Festival of Contemporary Theater (Adana, Turkey), Le Quartz (Brest, France), La Filature (Mulhousse, France), Exit Festival/Maison des Arts Creteil (Paris, France), Tanz im August Festival Hebbel am Ufer – HAU1 (Berlin), Centro Cultural Universidad del Pacífico (Lima), Centro Cultural (Lima), Palazzo Simoncelli (Orvieto, Italy), Edinburgh International Festival (Scotland), and Singapore Arts Festival. Her collaborators in theater, opera, film and dance include Robert Woodruff, Richard Foreman, Maya Beiser, Richard Schechner, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Janos Szasz, Andrei Serban, Blanka Zizka, Daniel Ezralow, Daniel Kramer, Jay Scheib, Brian Kulick, Zelda Fichlander, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, Doug Elkins, Ken Rus Schmoll, Michael Sexton, Daniel Alexander Jones, Will Davis, Lee Sunday Evans, Geoff Sobelle, Kristin Linklater, Zishan Ugurlu, Rebecca Taichman, Eric Ting, Alec Duffy, Razvan Dinca, Karin Coonrod, Kristin Marting, Evan Ziporyn, Eduardo Machado, Gus Solomon Jr. and Paradigm, Carmen De Lavallade, Jackson Gay, David Levine, Dusan Tynek, Rania Ajami, Gisela Cardenas, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, Matthew Neenan, Molissa Fenley, Parallel Exit, Pig Iron Company, Play Company, Charles Moulton, and Ripe Time, among others. Botez is a graduate of Bucharest Art Academy (Romania) and received an MFA in Design from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. She was a major contributor to the first Romanian theater design catalogue, Scenografica. She teaches costume design at Colgate College, Brooklyn College, and MIT and resides in Manhattan, New York.

Devorah Kengmana is a New York-based lighting and projections designer. Originally from Manhattan, she studied at MIT and UMKC. Credits include San Francisco Opera, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Crossroads Theatre, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, CenterStage, Kansas City Actors’ Theatre, Spinning Tree Theatre, Wylliams Henry Contemporary Dance Company, Voyage Theater Company, Central Square Theater, University of Okalahoma, Tom Gold Dance, and Donna Micelli Dance Center. In 2015, she was named one of the finalist for the Hemsley Internship by the Gilbert Hemsley Foundation at Lincoln Center.


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In The News

“Yiddish-Cuban opera is not something you come across every day. But a new one composed by Frank London of the Klezmatics — based on an 86-year-old poem about Hatuey, the Taino chief who resisted the Spanish invaders written in Yiddish by Oscar Pinis, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Cuba and edited a Yiddish newspaper there … ‘rocks [London’s] world.’ … The score weaves together several of his musical passions.”

RENEE GHERT-ZAND, THE TIMES OF ISRAEL: “Frank London brings new Yiddish-Spanish opera to Cuba”
“The opera, titled, Hatuey: Memory of Fire, is based on an epic poem written in 1931 by Yiddish writer and Ukrainian Jewish refugee Oscar Pinis. The 126-page work is about native Taino chief Hatuey who resisted Spanish invaders to Hispaniola in the 16th century. … ‘I had wanted to write a Yiddish opera for a long time,’ London told The Times of Israel. Continue Reading

SETH ROGOVOY, FORWARD.COM “The First-Ever Yiddish-Cuban Opera? Probably.”
“Frank London’s “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” a good bet to be the world’s first Yiddish-Cuban opera, is enjoying its U.S. premiere at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through September 23.”

JOSEFIN DOLSTEN, JTA.ORG “An Afro-Cuban-Yiddish opera tells the story of a Jewish refugee”
“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” flashes alternately among three unlikely settings and languages. The chamber opera is set in a nightclub in Havana in 1931, a Cuban battlefield where indigenous people fight Spanish conquistadors in 1511 and Ukraine in the early 20th century, where Jews face violent pogroms.”

NATALIE POMPILIO, NJ.COM “Review: A Cuban-Yiddish opera, based on epic poem, in Montclair”
Writer Asher Penn understood oppression, escaping to Cuba as anti-Jewish pogroms despoiled his native Ukraine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that he would find inspiration there in legendary Taino leader Hatuey, a hero throughout the Caribbean for leading resistance to the invading Spaniards in the 1500s.

CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM, NEW YORK TIMES “Review: Chutzpah? An Afro-Cuban-Yiddish Opera Worth a Schlep”
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.

JAY LUSTIG, NYARTS.NET “New opera ‘Hatuey: Memory of Fire’ makes U.S. debut at Montclair State”
“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” — an opera that is currently making its United States debut at Montclair State University, as part of the Peak Performances series — is more impressive on a musical level than a dramatic one.


HATUEY: Memory of Fire was developed in residence at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University and at Opera de la Calle in Havana, Cuba; with Music-Theatre Group in New York; and at the MASS MoCA and Ucross venues of the Sundance Theatre Institute. Generous support provided by The Linestorm Foundation, The Arthur Loeb Foundation, and the Posnick Family Foundation. Additional support provided by The Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, The Malka Fund, Jim Joseph Foundation, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene with generous support from the David Berg Foundation, and Elias, Yael, and Richard Rimer.

Programs in Peak Performances’ 2018-19 season are made possible in part by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.