The buses take off from Eagle Pass, the first American settlement on the Rio Grande. Drive east and you’ll take US-57 toward Interstate 35, passing through Austin and San Antonio en route to Chicago or New York. Drive west and you’ll cross International Bridge, from which Carretera Federal 57 takes you over the border into Piedras Negras.
The minimal landscape of the drive — freight trucks, desert yaupon, Bucee’s convenience stores — is ordinary, but since 2021 the route away from Mexico has become known for Governor Greg Abbott’s busing caravans of refugees. Like an obscene inversion of the archetypal American road trip narrative, Republican politicians have been deceptively and possibly illegally using I-35 to deprive migrants of their rights to asylum.
The new immersive opera “Borderland,” performed by Panoramic Voices for its premiere at KMFA’s Draylen Mason Music Studio on Feb. 18, emerges in this context of migrants being moved within and without Texas as political pawns. “Borderland” is part of KMFA’s Offbeat concert series which showcases new contemporary classical music.
It’s not composer Nathan Felix’s first foray into writing about immigration. His 2019 opera “War Bride” retells the story of his grandmother’s emigration from the United Kingdom to Texas after World War II. Her husband, Felix’s grandfather, had acquired naturalized citizenship in recognition of his military service. And like many Latino and Black soldiers, he returned home to a mixed reception — where some legal benefits were extended by the government, and yet, particularly in the South, nonwhite soldiers faced discrimination and racism.
Felix and I spoke recently about his immersion in immigration stories on both sides of his Mexican–English family. These stories, as well as those of other immigrants he met and interviewed in Texas and throughout the US, comprise his latest project. The narratives resonate with the daily news about contemporary nativist propaganda, but also draw upon lesser known histories, such as the infamous Goliad County “Hanging Tree,” where dozens of Mexicans were lynched in the 19th century. The official state plaque marking the location grotesquely euphemizes these vigilante murders as “hangings not called for by regular courts.”
We feel stories about migration palpably. I’ve been representing refugees seeking political asylum in the United States since 2011, and the tactile, corporeal details of their voyages lodge in your memory. You never forget stories of clients wading through mud, flies, and venomous snakes for days in the Darién Gap. Rwandan genocide survivors who play dead in crawl spaces while blood seeps through their house’s floorboards. Ethiopian political prisoners being interrogated by prison guards who scrape razors across their cheeks.
“Borderland”’s libretto pulsates with bodily imagery: the finale, “Blood River,” evokes the Rio Grande’s function as a physical and political barrier. To cross it is to risk personal injury by the natural flora and fauna — spiny hackberry, coyotes and mountain lions — or by apprehension by Border Patrol agents and polleros. Elsewhere the opera’s lyrics engage multiple sensory impressions simultaneously: migrants moving stealthily among these dangers sing of feeling and hearing their own pulse, of straining for breath while seeing their frozen breath droplets in the moonlight. The chorus sings, “Un viento frío / Me hace sentir calor” — a cold wind makes me feel hot.
One of the immigrant friends whose narrative informed Felix’s research likened the fear of crossing to “being on a diving board above a frozen pool, and knowing you have to jump into the ice.” In “Borderland,” Felix deploys a brooding tone of pianos and cellos on multiple floors of the performance venue, playing low octaves, slow tempos, but at the loudest volume — triple forte. The sound is designed to evoke dread and fear, feelings not only present in the crossing into America but in life as an undocumented citizen. Felix tells me about a phone conversation he’d had with an acquaintance who would hang up on any English-speakers who called. Not because they couldn’t understand English, but because they feared that anyone calling who couldn’t speak Spanish might be an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent.
“Borderland” is bound up in narratives about crossing, but it also reminds audiences of ongoing discrimination against migrant communities even after they’ve settled in central Texas. The libretto cites the 1962 partition of Austin by I-35, which replaced East Avenue, a porous multiethnic gathering place for Chinese, Latino, and Black residents, with a new border separating the university and downtown areas from communities of color. The narrator of one passage in the opera evokes this motif of roads and rivers that divide rather than connect: “Pero me advirtió que algunos caminos no llegan a ninguna parte” — he warned me that some paths lead to nowhere.
“Borderland” is a work of immersive opera, which dissolves traditional boundaries between audiences and performers, observers and subjects. Even within the mutable staging of the performances throughout different areas in the KMFA building, Felix opts for staging choices and sonic palettes that push audience’s expectations about where spectatorship ends and performance begins.
One story unfolds in a space where the choir moves outward to the room’s perimeter, encircling the audience. Other pieces blur the distinction between the building’s floor plan, as pianos and cellos from different floors of the studio converge. In the initial rehearsals, Felix and Panoramic Voices have imagined the concert space to be as fluid and open as logistically possible. During our conversation, it was still an unresolved question as to whether the performance could extend onto the KMFA fire escape, or whether he’d have to move that performance into an elevator shaft. Aurally, visually, and tactilely — “Borderland” immerses the audience.
For Felix, narratives about immigration are an underexplored subplot within Austin’s musical heritage. Even in recent journalism about migration to Austin, we’re much more likely to hear about Elon Musk or Joe Rogan, California capitalists celebrating a new frontier of low taxes and high rises. That Central Texas is also home to a million residents who speak Spanish as their primary household language, that refugees from Nepal and Eritrea as well as Guatemala and Honduras live here, or that in spite of this geographic diversity Austin is the largest American city without a federal immigration court — issues of immigration rarely emerge in the ongoing debates over the current state of Austin’s weirdness.
But Felix and other artists are pushing to take up these issues. Juli Orlandini, director of Panoramic Voices and one of the three conductors of “Borderland,” tells me that it’s a priority not just to expose Austin audiences to works like Felix’s, but to push the performers themselves out of their personal comfort zones. She noted that the number of vocalists who responded to the casting call included nearly one-third performers who hadn’t previously performed with the group. It’s even more suggestive of the choir’s interest in the subject matter considering that “Borderland” is partly sung in Spanish, a language less commonly used in the classical choral repertoire. Felix and Orlandini both sought to work with conductors Katrina Saporsantos and Alicia Villarreal to lead the 100-voice choir, along with string and piano accompaniment, through the space.
Felix’s commission for this work was open-ended, and he says his first parameter was to write about Austin. In a historical moment where anti-immigrant resentment on cable news is so frequently and cynically stirred, and conversations about the future of Austin can frequently elide the region’s troubled history with its immigrant populations, “Borderland,” its creators hope, will continue to open up space for the conversation about Austin’s future to reckon with this part of its past.
“Borderland” will be performed at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 18 at KMFA, 40 Navasota St. Tickets: panoramicvoices.org