5 Questions to Sokio (composer) about “Paraíso”

Through the late 90s and early aughts, composer Sokio wrote several operas in quick succession. But after the premiere of his 2004 work, REI, the New Latin Wave founder felt that the medium no longer offered creative fulfillment. The true story inspiring his new opera, Paraíso, changed his mind. Premiering at National Sawdust on June 16, Paraíso follows the real-life journey of a woman and her infant child from Puebla, Mexico, across the U.S. border to join her husband in New York City. Based on interviews with the pair, the work is sung as a series of “​​overlapping thoughts,” performed by Melisa Bonetti as the Mother and stefa marin alarcon as the Child. Characters narrate the events in “prismatic,” fragmentary poetry written by Sokio and collaborating librettist Natasha Tiniacos. With an instrumental ensemble comprising bassist Brandon Lopez, percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, cellist Amanda Riesman and conducted by Raquel Acevedo Klein, Sokio’s score features improvisation alongside historic recordings.

How did you come to know the real-life Mother and Child at the heart of this story?

The mother came to work with us almost a decade ago, taking care of our child, who was around 6-months-old at the time. My wife and I needed somebody to help us (and were looking for a Spanish speaker), and she came highly recommended from a family who was moving out of New York. Our child was only her second time working as a caregiver, although she was also raising her own three children who were teens and tweens then. We bonded with her; the way she was engaged with everything, the love she transmits. We became family, and we visited her and her family frequently, attending all of the birthdays, graduations, and quinceañera parties.

Her story captivated us since the beginning. We wanted to understand the reasoning behind such a life-changing decision of migrating (not speaking a word of English) and becoming an undocumented person in a country that isn’t known for having an easy going approach to immigration. And we were witness as her eldest child discovered their lack of formal status in the U.S., and struggled with the experience of being deprived of a sense of identity, having the ground shaken beneath their feet by political forces beyond their power. We started helping them navigate the DACA process, then applying to college — supporting, having conversations, sharing ideas, but mostly listening.

You’ve mentioned that throughout your conversations with the real-life Mother and Child, something about the experience made you feel compelled to revisit opera after a long hiatus. What convinced you that opera was the right medium?

With the exception of REI (2004), all of my previous operas have been based on personal experience: the exile of part of my family during Pinochet times (Patria, 1998); the death of a girlfriend in a plane crash in Peru, along with 41 other Chileans (Arequipa, 2001); and my personal experience and understanding of what it means to live in precarious housing conditions (Tantalo, 1999). In that sense, the experience of listening every day to different aspects of this mother and child’s experience made me a part of it, as a listener and fellow migrant to the U.S., and also as a person who can carry that story forward. Paraíso isn’t an exact retelling of that story, but more of an introspective moment with the characters where we can hear their raw thoughts and emotions, the ones they transmitted in our conversations.

Paraíso creative team (L-R: Natasha Tiniacos, stefa marin alarcon, Melisa Bonetti, Raquel Acevedo Klein, and Sokio) -- Photo by Catalina Kulczar

Paraíso creative team (L-R: Natasha Tiniacos, stefa marin alarcon, Melisa Bonetti, Raquel Acevedo Klein, and Sokio) — Photo by Catalina Kulczar

Natasha Tiniacos, who collaborated on the libretto, describes her poetry as “a constant research and reaction to the Spanish language and sound living the fragmentary experience of migration.” How do your approaches to fragmentation in the libretto and score complement one another?

One of the aspects that made me want to approach Natasha was the way she uses language to dissect meaning; a beautiful, sometimes painful, raw sensation that transpires through her writing. Her rhythmic structure is close to the one I have internally. I felt that her poetry was the perfect match for the concept I had of creating a hectic musical soundscape, where words and sounds are colliding, sometimes not in agreement, but exploring the confusing sense of self that the migration experience creates within a person. I wanted to transform those thoughts into more powerful indescribable ideas where the audience is called to participate in the creation of new meaning.

The use of historic recordings in Paraíso serves as a touchstone to remind audiences that they’re watching a representation of events that actually happened. Can you tell us about the recordings you used, and how they contextualize the Mother-Child story?

Because political context is always necessary (we don’t live in a vacuum), the presence of presidential speeches was a strong idea from the very conception of the music. In one reading, the speech serves to establish the nature of the story behind these characters. Another aspect serves the purpose of establishing the passage of time, and the era in which this story exists. They also help the audience to understand how the American political approach to immigration hasn’t actually changed, only hardened conceptually and empirically. Let’s see what the audience thinks afterwards, because I find the progression and change of tone over 20 years very, very impactful.

Other recordings used during the performance are field recordings made in Puebla, the city where the Mother comes from, as well as several birds and animals from both Puebla, Sonora, and New York.

Immigration issues in America are not either party’s priority, climate change will just make things worse for countries and migrants, and we aren’t prepared to find the necessary solutions and make them happen.

What conversations do you hope Paraíso will create amongst its audiences at National Sawdust this month?

I always think of my creations as puzzles that the audience needs to put together in order to create meaning. There are clues: the name of the work, the name of the characters, some images, the lyrics — all elements that can be rearranged during and after the performance in order to make everybody an emotional participant. In Patria for example, it wasn’t clear if the characters were leaving or arriving; in Arequipa, we saw the passengers after the accident, but there was no closure. I want to provoke that kind of situation where you leave the theater and you are still thinking about what just happened; you are still connecting dots. And on a more down-to-earth level, I want the audience to remember that immigration issues in America are not either party’s priority, climate change will just make things worse for countries and migrants, and that as a nation, we aren’t prepared to find the necessary solutions and make them happen.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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