Circling Paradise

danilo machado

Friday, June 30, 2023

Why would we leave paradise? And if we left, where did we arrive? National Sawdust’s upcoming presentation of Paraíso, a new experimental chamber opera, engages the emotional cycles of family and migration through the story of a mother and child who cross the US-Mexico border. Composed by Sokio, director of New Latin Wave, with a libretto written in collaboration with poet and translator Natasha Tiniacos, the story is based on real events which expand to consider questions of home and displacement. 

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Following 2004’s REI, Paraíso is Sokio’s first opera in almost twenty years. It comes at a time of continued nationalist violence implicating both the xenophobic American imagination and the failures of recent administrations to provide any significant protections for migrants. The opera’s plot revolves around the relationship between a mother (Mezzo-Soprano Melisa Bonetti) and child (transdisciplinary vocalist and composer stefa marin alarcón) who cross the border from Puebla in the early 2000s, when the child is one. The story is based on the experiences of people who Sokio and his wife met almost ten years ago. They became close with the mother as she became caretaker for their then-infant in New York. Over the past decade, they continued to be close witnesses to their experience living as immigrants in the United States. Their story, now imbued in the opera in part through a writing process drawn from interviews with them, is shaped by the recent history of US migration. This context—one which includes border atrocities, the perpetual failing of the DREAM Act, the enactment of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, limited access to fair employment and healthcare, denials of asylum and refugee cases, and layered vulnerabilities during our ongoing pandemic and economic recession—is partially evoked by historical footage in Paraíso. The work has a level of narrative specificity while conjuring bigger, repeating histories of migration and displacement. 

Even with its specificities, Paraíso refuses empty signifiers of authenticity. You’ll find no tequila or piñatas helping the gringos feel like they are in Mexico, Sokio jokes when we virtually connect ahead of the premiere. If anything, it is interested in the space between reality and imagination. The opera’s visual projections (made by Andrea Wolf) include lush landscapes made with the artificial intelligence generator Dall-E. The text also embraces the ways that the same story told by multiple people contain holes and contradictions. This reflects not only the nature of oral histories, but also the known ways that trauma can warp how one remembers and recounts formative experiences. Indeed, the titular paradise—the main character’s farmland from “back home”—is somewhere between real and imagined. Indeed, aren’t most paradises, as details are made hazy by memory and time?

Photo by Jill Steinberg

In our conversation, I tell Sokio about the hanging plants of my grandmother’s house, where we stayed before my family’s own migration from Colombia to the United States in 2000. (Our plane landed in New York and we settled in Connecticut; my mother, brother, and I traveled to meet my father like the characters in Paraíso.) The leaves and the light show up in my poems, even with my grandmother now passed and the house now sold. Paraíso embraces this folkloric quality present in stories of migration and displacement. Of course, this folkloric engagement also underscores the fantasies of borders (paradise's global etymology includes several mentions of barriers and enclosures) and nations in general, and of the so-called (unceded, stolen) United States more specifically. Indeed, so much of nation-building has relied on these kinds of foggy misrememberings—so-called Manifest Destinies and American Dreams. (These glitches and unreliable documentations have even seeped into the writing of this prose, with a Zoom malfunction making it so the conversation I had with Sokio was not actually recorded, as I had assumed it had been.) The work refuses to choose between one and another: between here and there, between fact and imagination, historical and ahistorical; between being about two people and being about countless.

"In Paraíso, much hinges on these choices, and on the idea of choice itself. How does one choose to migrate—choose to leave paradise? Is any choice even yours considering all of the structures creating pressured conditions for living and leaving?"

This in-between, this Muñozian horizon, echoes Sokio’s first opera, 1998’s Patria, where the audience did not know whether the characters were leaving or arriving. Sokio’s one-word titles pack depths of connotations—and he wants the audience to bring them all to the experience. Indeed, the whole process is constructed collaboratively. Sokio describes the ways that working together with Tiniacos developed his initial musical ideas drawing from these stories, and how the actors involved have done the same. Sokio brings not just long-time artistic engagements with these bigger themes but a personal connection to them. (Patria was based on his family’s exile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. This is also true of the actors and musicians making Paraíso, who also draw from personal and familial experiences of displacement and migration.) 

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Sokio describes the form of the chamber opera as a specific one. “It’s not literature, and it’s not musical theater,” he tells me, distinguishing it from forms I am much more familiar with. It is an approach to storytelling that is sparse in language and staging, made to give (literal, narrative, and musical) room for actors to make choices about the performance. In Paraíso, much hinges on these choices, and on the idea of choice itself. How does one choose to migrate—choose to leave paradise? Is any choice even yours considering all of the structures creating pressured conditions for living and leaving? 

For Sokio, the process of making is one that is iterative and evolving, one where sampling tactics are at the core. The piece (conducted by Raquel Acevedo Klein) echoes this in its instruments, which include sampler, synth, and tape (all played by Adele Fournet). “It’s a puzzle, but there’s order too.” Sokio layers sound and language to pay close attention to emotional relationships and to the ways that underneath individual experiences within finite amounts of time is the hum of bigger histories. In Paraíso, the whole opera plays slowed down under the main score—which is to say, while we are listening to what is in front of us, we can also hear what is beneath.

About danilo machado

Born in Medellín, Colombia, danilo machado is a poet, curator, and critic living on occupied land interested in language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships to power. A 2020-2021 Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be Fellow, their writing has been featured in Hyperallergic, Art in America, Poem-A-Day, Art Papers, ArtCritical, The Recluse, GenderFail, No, Dear, Long River Review, TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. They are the author of the collection This is your receipt and is not a ticket for travel (Faint Line Press, 2023) and the chaplets wavy in its heat and to be elsewhere (Ghost City Press Summer Series, 2022).  

An honors graduate of the University of Connecticut, danilo is Producer of Public Programs at the Brooklyn Museum and curator of the exhibitions Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text (Franklin Street Works, 2019), support structures (Virtual/8th Floor Gallery, 2020), We turn (EFA Project Space, 2021), and Eligible/Illegible (co-curated with Francisco Donoso, PS122, 2023). danilo has contributed writing to exhibitions including at CUE Art Foundation, Henei Onstad Kunstsenter, Miriam Gallery, Abrons Art Center/Boston Center for the Arts, Second Street Gallery, and Real Art Ways and, with Em Marie Kohl, danilo co-hosts the monthly queer reading series exquisites. They are working to show up with care for their communities.

1. Title in conversation with the full epidemiology: Middle English paradis, paradise "the Garden of Eden, heaven," borrowed from Anglo-French paradis, borrowed from Late Latin paradīsus, borrowed from Greek parádeisos "enclosed park or pleasure ground" (Xenophon), "the Garden of Eden" (Septuagint), "the abode of the blessed, heaven" (New Testament), borrowed from an Iranian word (perhaps Median *paridaiza-) cognate with Avestan pairidaēza- "enclosure," nominal derivative of pairidaēz- "build a barrier around," from pairi- "before, around" (going back to Indo-European *per-i, whence also Sanskrit pári "around, about," Greek péri "around, in excess") + daēza "heap up, build" (occurring only with prefixes), going back to Indo-European *dhoi̯ǵh-éi̯e-, iterative derivative of *dhei̯ǵh- "knead, shape"