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by Assistant Professor Marc Callahan, director of UNC Opera

“On the volcanoes of El Salvador live magic dogs called cadejos. The people who live in the villages on the slopes of the volcanoes have always loved the cadejos. They say the cadejos are really the great-great-grandchildren of the volcanoes. They say the cadejos have always protected them from danger and misfortune”

–Manlio Argueta, Magic Dogs of the Volcanoes


Between 2018 and 2019, 7 children died in US detention:

Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10
Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7
Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8
Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16
Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2½
Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, 16
Mariee Juárez, 20 months

We have seen images of the border and of the detention facilities holding migrant children. We have heard their testimony and witnessed their pain. Now, it is time that we act.

UNC Opera seeks to tell the story of one family’s journey from El Salvador to the U.S.-Mexico border with our upcoming production of Meredith Monk’s ATLAS. The following is a glimpse into our journey with this story, the music, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. The process has been one of collaboration, understanding, heartache, and hope. We have engaged with primary and secondary sources to tell this tale as responsibly as possible.

While we can perform these stories from the comfort of our own concert hall, we acknowledge the suffering of so many immigrants traveling to the U.S. daily. The seven children listed above were not the first, nor the last. By honoring their names, we hope to shine a light on an issue that grows more troublesome every day. In 2021, there has been an increase of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. Most of these children are being held in border detention facilities today.

March 2019

Roadtrip. Driving South for the weekend, listening to Meredith Monk’s opera ATLAS, and occasionally switching to local NPR stations along the way. Full of visceral human emotion and an unspoken narrative that leaves the listener open to their interpretation, Monk’s opera dances in my head as the soundtrack to a reporter’s story of migrant children dying at the border—our border. A mother and child escaping gang violence, a grandmother left behind, the interior of a makeshift detention center, and a dog…let’s call him ATLAS.


Hungry Ghost: the event and why we leave.
Performed by Ally Dunavant, Mackenzie Smith, and Qiao Zheng Goh with video by Susan Harbage Page. Commentary by Ally Dunavant ’21.

Hungry Ghost is the first big “event” in our play. It is the moment when a woman from the village is physically assaulted and the members of the community come together, acknowledging the fact that they need to leave their homes to escape further violence. The percentage of gang-related violence and violence against women in El Salvador is catastrophic and one of the foremost reasons why families flee the country. And, on the long journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, a reported 80% of women are sexually assaulted. While we recognize this violence abroad, we hope that these conversations also make us confront the alarming percentage of violence against women in our own country and–yes–on our very campus.

Student Lena Kanzt and Tarish Pipkins (puppeteer) test out the unfinished puppets in a Spring 2020 rehearsal in Hill Hall. (Photo courtesy of Marc Callahan)

April 2019

A wealth of collaborators. With the generous support of Arts Everywhere, Carolina Performing Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, work begins alongside artist and activist Susan Harbage Page and puppeteer Tarish Pipkins (AKA “Jeghetto”). Together, we research the story and its complex subject matter, begin sketches for puppets representing a nameless boy and a dog named ATLAS and imagine video ideas to act as a narrative landscape for our setting.

August 2019

Primary Sources: Meredith Monk. I had the opportunity to spend a week in Upstate New York practicing, developing, and employing vocal gesture techniques in a cloistered workshop with the composer herself. My dogs, who traveled with me, patiently awaited my return to the rented Airbnb every evening.

January-February 2020

Rehearsals begin. We approach the opera as an improvisatory musical landscape using the building blocks of Monk’s methodology to better understand its composition. We meet with members of UndocuCarolina and hear stories of border crossings and life as an undocumented student at UNC.


Future Quest: a dream and a guide.
Performed by Hannah Lawrence, Julia Holoman, Mackenzie Smith, and Qiao Zheng Goh with video by Susan Harbage Page. Commentary by Julia Holoman, ’23.

Future Quest marks the beginning of the migration from the agricultural community in El Salvador. A coyote is hired to ensure safe travel as each cast member dreams of starting a new life. While some venture out on this journey, others are left behind.

The set for ATLAS with SHP's video playing on the screen above the stage.
The set for ATLAS with Susan Harbage Pages’s video playing on the screen above the stage. (Photo courtesy of Marc Callahan.)

March 2020

Hearts open; doors shut. After a workshop with Katie Geisinger and Ellen Fischer from Monk’s ensemble, our students “open” for Carolina Performing Art’s presentation of Cellular Songs, performing the “vocal rooms” that we have been working on in the classroom. Covid levels spike. The world goes remote.

March 2021

One year on and we are finally back in the rehearsal room, creating the story of a Salvadoran family as they make the journey through Central America on a journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.


Treachery. A Border Patrol facility.
Performed by UNC Opera, and Qiao Zheng Goh with video by Susan Harbage Page. Commentary by Laney Dowell, ’23.

Treachery is a human sound installation that depicts the inside of a detention facility at the border. The mother and child have been separated. ICE agents are doing their jobs. The coyote is being questioned. ATLAS, our canine companion…our cadejo…is laid to rest.

“It is always cold in the cage.”

-a 17-year old boy

ATLAS will premiere in early May on the department’s YouTube channel.

UNC Opera students
Video by Susan Harbage Page
Puppets by Jeghetto
Directed by Marc Callahan
Music direction by Yumi Kita
Texts by Nijah Poteat

For more on immigration crises across the globe and ways to help refugees in crisis, please visit the UN Refugee Agency website.

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