Skylight’s ‘El Cimarrón’ is gay composer’s take on true story of runaway Cuban slave

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The cover of the book on which gay composer Hans Werner Henze based his 1970 work El Cimarrón.

More than a play and less than an opera, Skylight Music Theatre’s production of El Cimarrón is an entertainment that almost defies categorization. It kicks off the Skylight’s New Year on Jan. 3 in the Studio Theatre at Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee.

The narrative for gay composer Hans Werner Henze’s 1970 composition is drawn from Cuban writer Miguel Barnet’s Cimarrón Historia de un Esclavo. The book tells the true story of Esteban Montejo, a Cuban-born African who escaped slavery and survived living in the wilderness. He returned to civilization to fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain.

The life of Montejo, who lived to be 103, fits perfectly within Skylight’s theme for the 2013–14 season, says Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, who is directing the production.

“Our entire season focuses on revolution and freedom, and this story embodies both of those,” Subbaraman says. “It is a difficult piece that deals with a difficult aspect of our own humanity, and it’s not an easy story to tell.”

Henze, who composed the work while living in Cuba, not only tells Montejo’s story musically but also  a one-character format. Appearing in the role of Montejo is bass-baritone Eric McKeever, who was last seen as Don Pizarro in Skylight’s production of Fidelio.

The character tells his story with the assistance of three musicians — a guitarist, a flutist and a drummer. Although the work is not through-composed — that is, sung all the way through — even its spoken passages have a certain cadence, bringing a rhythm and musicality to the entire performance, Subbaraman says.

Although largely unknown in the United States, Henze was one of Europe’s most prolific 20th-century composers. Born in Gütersloh, Germany, in 1926, the young Henze was a member of the Hitler Youth and was conscripted into the German army during the final years of World War II. In 1953, he left Germany because of his sexual orientation and leftist politics, settling in Italy. He died in Dresden, Germany, in 2012.

Subbaraman met Henze in Paris while working with mentor Kurt Mazur. As Mazur’s protégé, Subbaraman conducted the French National Orchestra in the premiere of Henze’s Symphony No. 10. 

“He was one of those important European composers who never made the jump to the U.S.,” Subbaraman says. “He has a very eclectic style, from tonal and neo-Romantic all the way to atonal, depending on what he needed to express. Like Mozart, he understands the emotion and pacing of the theater.”

El Cimarrón captures the experimental nature of music in the late 1960s, a time when classical composers looked to expand artistic boundaries. More than a mere composition, it’s a true piece of narrative theater.

“This was an effort to find new ways to create sound and put sounds together,” Subbaraman says. “It doesn’t fit in a genre, and that’s what fascinating about the piece.”

The stage director for the production is Eugenia Arsenis, who teaches directing at the University of Peloponnese in Greece and drama and theater studies at the Hellenic American University in Manchester, N.H. Arsenis previously staged a production of El Cimarrón at the National Theatre of Greece.

El Cimarrón’s unique nature presents more challenges than some of Skylight’s other shows this season, but Subbaraman believes audiences will appreciate its serious subject matter and unique musical style.

“This is a challenge for us as a company, but the Skylight has a history of looking for ways to move theater forward,” Subbaraman says. “It got our juices flowing, and I think Milwaukee audiences will embrace it.”

Onstage

Skylight Music Theatres production of Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón runs Jan. 3–12 in the Studio Theatre at Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7811 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.