CarmXn cast member Melisa Bonetti Luna (CarmXn) watches as Maria Mazorra dances Flamenco and Behzad Habibzai play flamenco guitar
CarmXn cast member Melisa Bonetti Luna (CarmXn) watches as Maria Mazorra dances Flamenco and Behzad Habibzai play flamenco guitar at the Hogfish "Kegs & Roses" event in June 2023. The artists are three among a dozen performing in the production running July 26-29, 2023. (Photo credit: Meredith Brockington)
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The 1875 Georges Bizet opera “Carmen,” set in southern Spain, is a story of officers, smugglers, a bullfighter, and of course Carmen, a fiery, powerful woman killed by a soldier who hoped to possess her.

In “CarmXn,” Hogfish’s new devised and exhilaratingly interdisciplinary adaptation, which premieres July 26 and 28-29 at Mechanics’ Hall, the story is set on the U.S.-Mexican border — and the opera also explores the liminal spaces of several other borders. 

With a cast of 12 performers and a creative team of dozens more, Hogfish’s modern “CarmXn” is peopled with asylum seekers, border patrol agents and ICE officers, who move between Spanish, English, French, and the Indigenous border language Dari. 

CarmXn, an undocumented Afro-Latinx immigrant, has been separated from her mother across the geopolitical border. Don José, the soldier who falls for CarmXn, is from the U.S.-Canadian border up in Maine. And the bullfighter Escamillo, who sings the opera’s famous “Toreador” number, is now a drag performer who performs as Tori Adore — blurring boundaries of both gender and genre.  

The script of “CarmXn” has been rewritten in spoken prose and devised and adapted, moment-to-moment, through the improvisations, stories and innovations of its local and international artists, transcending the boundaries of author, director and performer. Even the border between audience and performer will be broken down. Between the show’s first and second acts, Mechanics’ Hall (which also holds an accompanying visual art exhibit on border-crossing) will briefly transform from an acoustic performance space to an electronic dance party venue, complete with flamenco lessons, margaritas and Tarot readings. 

Melisa Bonetti Luna, who plays CarmXn in the production, performs during in her Farm to Stage performance “Release” at Wolfe’s Neck Center in 2023. (Photo credit: Meredith Brockington)
Melisa Bonetti Luna, who plays CarmXn in the production, performs during in her Farm to Stage performance “Release” at Wolfe’s Neck Center in 2023. (Photo credit: Meredith Brockington)

The transcendence of boundaries, attention to vital social issues, and radical communal joy of this adaptation are practices in what Hogfish founders Matt Cahill and Edwin Cahill call “regenerative arts.” By bringing to the performing arts principles of regenerative agriculture — including biodiversity, sustainability and localism — the artist-training company seeks to regenerate the opera and the artists creating and performing it.

Matt Cahill, who co-conceived and co-directs “CarmXn” with his partner Edwin, describes the realm of musical theater and opera, with their disciplines of dance, song, movement, words, music and visual arts, as a “microcosm” of the larger work for diverse, sustainable, non-appropriative cultural creation. 

“How do we create something together that’s greater than the sum of the parts, where it doesn’t feel like anyone has to lose their identity?” he told the Phoenix. “It seems to me that that’s a cultural question that we’re always asking: how do we honor all individuals, yet find a joint vision together that doesn’t sacrifice any of our individuality or rights?” 

While Hogfish seeks to address intersecting issues of identity, power and justice, “CarmXn” explicitly depicts the experiences of refugees, naturalized citizens and border agents whose lives are more complex than an arbitrary delineation on a map or a gender binary. The harm CarmXn endures for rejecting a man’s desire to possess her speaks to the ongoing fight for women’s autonomy over their bodies. In a more structural move for regeneration, the show’s musical director and conductor is Monica Chung, a woman of color in a field that is overwhelmingly white and male.

three performers laugh during a plainclothes rehearsal for CarmXn
Amelia Rose Estrada, AJ Paramo and Matthew Anchel in “CarmXn,” presented by Hogfish at Mechanics’ Hall. (Photo credit: Cynthia L. Dorsey)

Hogfish’s organizational mission involves regeneration in personal and daily ways, as well. While the professional performing arts world is often grueling and fast-paced, Hogfish centers health, holism and slowness. The performers of “CarmXn” have been in residency since June in Hogfish’s artist-training program in Cape Elizabeth. In addition to collectively devising the show, they have taken part in wellness coaching, lessons in Alexander Technique, performance enhancement from a psychotherapeutic approach, hypnosis, and mentorship for artists’ personal projects (Hogfish has also presented a series of residents’ works-in-progress performances in advance of the show’s opening). 

Thinking locally is also a part of Hogfish’s regenerative mission. While most of the 11 residents are from beyond Maine, many of the show’s creative and community partners are local artists and organizations. Local flamenco virtuoso Lindsey Bourassa served as co-choreographer for the show; and Behzad Habibzai, a percussionist and legendary flamenco guitarist who grew up in Portland after emigrating from Afghanistan, plays flamenco. The opera’s chamber orchestra features Maine’s Palaver Strings quartet, and Madison Poitrast-Upton and Jordan Carey of Portland-based fashion business Loquat, which focuses on empowering marginalized people, designed costumes. And Hogfish has partnered with Reza Jalali and the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center to make free tickets to the opera available to local asylum seekers. 

In seeking to create art born of the world of the U.S.-Mexican border that also contributes to transforming it, the Cahills traveled there with “CarmXn” designer Charles Mary Kubricht, who has studied the border for many years, and in partnership with Abara, an El Paso nonprofit that seeks to teach and change the narrative about the border. The “CarmXn” team volunteered in asylum-seeker shelters in El Paso and Juárez, toured an ICE detention center and visited memorials. And next year, Hogfish will bring “CarmXn” back to the border, where they will perform it at the border wall in El Paso and project it live into Juárez, with imagery collaged from both the U.S.-Mexican border wall and the wall surrounding the Scarborough ICE facility here in Maine.

Here in Portland, experiencing “CarmXn” will be interactive, genre-confounding, and rich for the senses, as staged in the open, versatile space of Mechanics’ Hall. “This is adventurous work,” says Annie Leahy, executive director of Mechanics’ Hall. “They are willing to break out of the traditional barriers of how art, opera and music are presented.” 

Hogfish’s multidisciplinary forms are expressly designed to foster connection, dialogue and embodied pleasure. “To that end, there’s food and drink, but there’s also teaching people some flamenco steps to get them in their bodies and socializing,” Matt Cahill says. All that, plus some Alexander Technique practice, that electronic music dance party, a drag act, and, of course, those tarot readings. 

The goal, says Matt Cahill, is “just getting people open and ready to listen and dialogue with lots of different ways of being.” 

In a world in which we’re ever more confounded and divided by all manner of boundaries, that listening and dialogue – and finding pleasure in them together – are ever more vital to everyone’s survival.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at

“CarmXn,” an adaptation of the classic opera devised and presented by Hogfish, at and in collaboration with Mechanics’ Hall, 519 Congress St., Portland | Conceived and directed by Edwin & Matt Cahill. New book, lyrics, and music devised by and with the cast. Musical direction by Monica Cheung | July 26, 28 & 29 |

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