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Border Art: Opera Breaking Barriers

Cover image for podcast episode

Anishka Lee-Skorepa wants to break cultural barriers surrounding both the border and opera music. The San Diego opera singer is part of Artistas Fronterizas, a group that works to paint a clearer picture of border life through performances in places where opera doesn't normally go. Our series of episodes focused on border art continues with a story about an opera singer who’s painting a clearer picture of border culture through song.

Anishka Lee-Skorepa is doin’ her daily grind.
Anishka 1 Clip 16
Bravo. okay. Natsound: practicing singing opera
On Thursdays, the San Diego singer does a cross-border commute to teach opera lessons to students in Tijuana.
Anishka 1 Clip 16
Natsound: practicing singing opera
This is just one of the five side gigs that Anishka swings on both sides of the international border…

It’s pieces of the puzzle she’s put together in order to build a solid runway for her big dream.

Silence.

Anishka wants to be an opera singer like no other in the world…

Opera Singing Clip Fade
Music bump: Emo Momentum

For over a decade now, the artist has been working toward her goal of becoming a performer who captures and conveys the vibe of border life through arias and art songs.

She wants to break cultural barriers surrounding both the border and opera music.

Anishka formed a group with two other artists in Tijuana. It’s called Artistas Fronterizas and the trio is ramping up right now… taking their border sound on the road.

They put on concerts that demystify border life and make opera a lot more accessible to people outside the normal opera-going crowd.

Music comes up, let listener take it all in
Both personal and political convictions are what keep the artist hustling.
And now more than ever, because of the huge divide at the border, Anishka feels like it’s time to make her move...time to make more music and do more shows in more places….
She wants to blow away the seemingly impenetrable cloud of stereotypes hanging over both the border, and opera music.

******Anishka 1 Clip 12
we think of ourselves kind of like ambassadors of another, another narrative of border life. You know, it's not just drugs, it's not, it's not just immigration. It's not the violence that so often makes the media coverage. There's all these other subtle things happening and we want to present that to a wider audience.
Music break
I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today, we continue our border-art series with a story about an opera singer who’s painting a picture of border culture through song.

We’ll be back after the break.

Midroll 1

We’re at the San Ysidro Port of Entry with Anishka Lee-Skorepa.

Natsound: Getting into car with Anishka, talking about sound with Alan

Today is Thursday, which means it’s the day Anishka crosses the international border.

Natsound: Getting into car with Anishka, talking about sound with Alan

She drives from her home in San Diego to a music school in Tijuana where she gives about a half dozen students private opera lessons.
Anishka 1 Clip 3
We are crossing the international border between San Diego and Tijuana. The new. The new little, the little section that the USI just opened and then crossing into the Mexican side, um, at least once a week, if not more, depending, depending on how, like what kinds of rehearsals I have or meetings or whatever. But certainly every day that I come down here to teach, I, I'm making this, this crossing,
Anishka is wearing big gold hoop earrings that spell out the words “I love you” in cursive. She’s also wearing a necklace that spells out her first name.

The opera singer is in a dark purple dress with a big orange flower stuck into her perfectly styled hair.

She exudes this “I-am-an-opera-singing superstar” energy. It’s palpable. You can just tell she’s at the top of her game… or at least very close.

Anishka is in the middle of recording an album right now and she says it’s more “her” than anything she’s ever done.

Solo Opera Clip

And the border performances she’s doing with Artistas Fronterizas feel really meaningful to her in a way nothing else ever has.

Artistas Fronteriz as Performance Clip (you can choose from others here)

But it wasn’t easy getting here. Because before this year, Anishka hit an all-time low.

Music bump: lowkey

A good friend and collaborator of Anishka’s died a few years back. His death crushed her. It changed the trajectory of her life… made her shift from a more traditional opera track to the wild ride she’s on now.

Her friend was black and broke at the time he got a serious blood clot, and Anishka can’t help but think if he’d been rich and white, the hospital would have treated the clot like the emergency it was rather than sending him home. If he’d been rich and white, she thinks he’d still be alive today.

His death sealed her dislike of big institutions and made her double down on her effort to connect opera to communities of color and other folks who can’t normally access opera, especially when it’s held in traditional, fancy opera houses and theaters.

She also had family turmoil and big, personal issues boil up all at once. Her dog was seriously injured, she got a staph infection, her bike got stolen and she became a caretaker for a family member who was really sick.

All the troubles caused her to run out of money. The artist was totally broke and, for the first time in her life, had to borrow money from friends to stay afloat.

It was scary until she finally figured out how to piece together her five side hustles.

But now, she says it feels like she’s coming into her own as an artist. She feels like her luck is finally turning around. She’s ready to resume her mission of demystifying the border and opera.

Music fade: Pregnant Pause

Anishka grew up in San Diego.

She fell in love with opera as a young kid. The music washed over her like a big, powerful wave the first time she heard her mom listening to Carmen.

Carmen opera clip
Anishka 1 Clip 6
And my goal was to get my mom to teach me how to use the record player because that was like a big deal. So that I could put the records on and play and listen to music as well. Specifically Carmen. And I just remember being enchanted by it, and that was kind of a defining moment of like, Oh, I want to be a part of this.
Carmen opera clip
As a kid, Anishka lived in a neighborhood in San Diego alongside lots of Mexican-Americans.
Her parents put her in a dual-immersion school where teachers taught en español half the day, and English the rest of the day.
Anishka Clip 9
Where I grew up, I was like one of the few, um, English speakers. And so whatever I learned in school, I could come home and immediately put to use with all my friends and neighbors. And like, if I wanted to go out and play after school, I was going to be speaking in Spanish and that was this incredible thing to be able to just go between the two languages and not have to feel that distance or separation from my neighbors.
Her family also took lots of trips to Baja. And so, early on, her love of the border region took root.
Anishka says bilingualism has been a total gift, one that’s shifted the course of her entire life and set her on the path she’s on now.
****Anishka 1 Clip 10
it's profound. It's profound. I think it has impacted me in ways that, um, I'm only just, uh, coming to appreciate. Especially right now, I'm really kind of coming into my identity as like a border person, like a border inhabitant or, um, artista fronteriza and to feel that sense of like constantly having access to two cultures because you speak more than one language and not just do cultures, right? Cause there's all kinds of cultures that speak Spanish. Um, I think it's Created like a constant desire within me to experience other things and to learn and to be exposed and to travel. And even within my art, you know, to want to, uh, make more connections and to be focused on connection rather than art as just like, Oh, this music is beautiful. Let me sing it. No, I want to sing this because I want to have a profound connection with my audience, and so what do I have to do to do that? You know? And figuring out more ways to do that. I think being bilingual impacts all of that. All of it. Beautiful.
Anishka 1 Clip 11
If I wasn't bilingual, I wouldn't have had the desire to cross the border and start connecting with the opera community here in Tijuana. And that's had a profound impact on my career. So it pops up all over the place.
Anishka strayed a bit from opera when she was young. She tried to use her natural talent for singing in other genres, but opera was seemingly in her bones.
Anishka 1 Clip 7
like from the time I was s kid, I sounded like an opera singer, which was really awkward when I was in junior high, but now it's cool.
Alan: What was that like? Did you try try to sing other genres and you were just like, no, opera is just the one that my voice was suited for?
Anishka: Yeah, it wasn't good. I'd sing other stuff, or, I remember when I was at San Diego high, I auditioned to sing the national Anthem at like, I don't know, like a homecoming game or something, and they were like, no, she's too opera. I was like, Oh, okay. [laughter]
Anishka eventually joined the San Diego Children’s choir. It was there where a pianist pulled her aside and told her she had something special. He told her to take private voice lessons to develop her talent more.

Anishka 1 Clip 17
And in high school I went to him like around the time that I was graduating and I just said, you know, like, be honest with me. Is this something that you think I could do? Is this a career you think I could have as an opera singer? Cause my understanding is that it's very competitive. And his response was, yeah, I mean you'll have to work your butt off, you'll have to work really hard for it. But. If it's something that you want, you have the talent. It's just a matter of, you know, putting in the work for it.
Anishka went on to study opera and voice in college. After she graduated, she eventually landed a gig with the San Diego Opera. And her bilingual skills scored her a few jobs with the Tijuana opera, too.

Music bump: Upbeatish
When Anishka performs in Tijuana, she says she feels a different energy here. She’s never felt the same thing anywhere else.
Anishka 2 Clip 17
there's an enthusiasm that's actually really satisfying as a musician. Um, they have Opera en la Calle once a year, the puts on this big festival, and that was my first time singing in the corner. I sang the part of Aida in the finale that they do like a big production. And that year they did the opera Aida and I sang the role of Aida and. When I stepped out on stage and saw like a city street just filled with people like walking around, you know, sitting down, paying attention, but there was just like a certain, like controlled chaos to it that was really beautiful and exhilarating. And I had never experienced anything like that in the U S you know, and still to this day, we don't have a festival like that that's just packed full of people who are hungry for opera.
Music fade
Anishka 1 Clip 13
We are at the music school, and we're here to teach voice lessons.
Alan: How many students you have today?
Anishska: Today I have five. Five students.
Alan: Oh, you hear the drum clearing over there? Yeah.
Anishka parks her car and makes her way through the Tijuana music school’s sweeping campus to a small classroom with a piano in it. Her first student shows up and she begins the day’s lesson.

Anishka 1 Clip 15
okay, so Okay, so Okay, so, ah ver….
Right now, most of Anishka’s professional life is spent teaching. She’s here in Tijuana once a week. The rest of the week, she’s back in San Diego at various schools, plus teaching a few private lessons, too.
Bring up teaching ambi
So is the Brahms or these if doff deigns Vic to Duke. Um, cause when I can see on the Brahms come with Deepika Bonita, no, sir. I would say Ambien or low. The, um, the Berlioz

Teaching is great. She digs it, but it’s not all the singer wants to do with her life.

Like a lot of artists and performers, Anishka wants to be famous. Or. in other words, she wants to have a big platform where lots of people can hear her.

Not because she wants to be rich necessarily...although, one day making real money does sound super nice. But, more so because the artist has something to say, and she thinks people need to hear it now more than ever.

First off -- there’s the whole misunderstanding of what it’s really like to live at the U.S.-Mexico border.

****Anishka 1 Clip 5
You know, it's more, it feels relevant. It feels like this is an important time to be telling, um, alternative narratives about the border. You know, that there's, there's this incredible exchange of culture and there's a lot of going back and forth. And, um, that it, that it's not just people wanting to immigrate to the United States. For example, our pianist immigrated from the Ukraine to Tijuana and the other singer, She moved from Puebla to San Diego, or excuse me, she moved from Pueblo to Tijuana. And so it's not always the story of people wanting to come North and I come South to work, you know? So there's. An interesting contrast there that people don’t anticipate and i think it’s important for people to hear and understand...
******Anishka 1 Clip 12
A lot of times people think that it's the, the, the Americans that don't understand, um, that don't understand the border life or don't understand Mexicans and Mexican culture. But honestly, I've seen it on both sides and a lot of, um, folks in Puebla came up to us afterwards and talked to us about like. Oh, we thought Tijuana was this really bad place this dangerous place. And here you guys are doing this thing that's so different from what we anticipated. And I think it really has been, um, profound for our audiences on both sides of the border.
Music bump: Rising Tension

And second on Anishka’s list of things she wants to change...

She thinks opera institutions are way too disconnected from normal people. The shows are too exclusive and expensive. She wants to reach a more atypical opera audience.

And that’s where Artistas Fronterizas comes in. The group takes opera to places it’s rarely been -- art galleries, bars, restaurants, theaters, music festivals and concert venues.

The group does that by reorchestrating traditional arias and art songs for the double bass, piano, percussion and voice, which makes the artform more mobile.
Anishka 1 Clip 2
...For example, this is music that might normally be very orchestral, especially arias which are written for an orchestra. But you can't like take an orchestra with you everywhere you go. But I can take those four instruments with me. That's a much smaller group to pick up and transplant in different places and make the art forum more accessible, alive in different spaces where maybe it wasn't, wouldn't have been alive before.
Artistas Fronterizas has a bold mission statement: they want to close the Mexican-American cultural divide with bridges of song.

Anishka thinks they’re doing just that.
******Anishka 1 Clip 12
And, uh, I started to realize that this was like. This was a thing. This was a thing that people were interested in and that it felt really good to talk about our border experiences in other places, and that there was fear. And, um, for lack of a better word, ignorance on both sides of the wall.
******Anishka 1 Clip 12
... the three of us, were just kind of all craving a way to make this art form a little bit more relevant…. And to tell our stories as, um, as people of the border.
The trio has toured across parts of California and Mexico. Their performances present a different vision of border life than imagined by most outsiders.

Anishka really loves the border region. She loves crossing the border so much that she keeps teaching in Tijuana, even though she could make triple what she makes if she taught the same classes in San Diego. Her passion for the border comes out in the performances, especially during the conversations in between the songs.
Anishka 2 Clip 20
If I didn't have access, if I wasn't able to kind of live simultaneously within these two cultures, I probably would have left San Diego a long time ago. But being in a place where I can cross a line and be in a world that is profoundly different from the one that I woke up in, and then have all the experiences that go along with that, makes my brain any on the synapses in my brain go off on a level that like. I really enjoy and I want to take advantage of as much as possible
At Artistas Fronterizas shows, the group uses both English and Spanish to translate and explain the songs they perform. Then they tie the narratives in the songs to stories about border life.

Music fade

Clip from teaching opera
Ok, vamos a cambiar….

Even if Artistas Fronterizas or Anishka’s solo career completely takes off, the singer says she’ll probably never totally give up teaching.

Clip from teaching opera
Ooooooooooo, singing

But she does want her teaching gigs to evolve a bit. She wants to give more meaningful opera lessons to struggling young people who really need it.

Because she knows firsthand how impactful music lessons can be for kids trying to find their way.

Music bump: Momentum Positivity

Anishka will never forget the first time she felt it…. the feeling of recognizing her body as the powerful tool it is…. The moment she realized she could tap into it and harness it if she worked hard enough.
Anishka 1 Clip 8
…..it was this incredible moment, especially as a, as a high, like a high school or a teenager, right? To, to have this moment to get to be in my body and be like, oh, this is awesome. You know, you don't get too many opportunities like that in high school to feel awesome about your body.
A few years ago, when one of Anishka’s side hustles was working at Whole Foods, the kitchen staff of Mexican men gave her a nickname - Tremenda, which literally means tremendous, but is really used for someone who has big, wild energy.

At first, Anishka was offended.
Her whole life, she’s had people telling her she was too much. Too loud, too intimidating. That she took up too much space.

But she’s done apologizing for that. She’s unwilling to shy away from celebrating her size anymore. And now she actually likes to think of herself as Tremenda...the super opera star. Her handle on Instagram is actually “Nishi La Tremenda,” and it’s not uncommon to see things like her dancing to a Lizzo song about being proud of who she is.

Anishka’s feeling good about her body, her life and her career. And that’s great, because she says quitting opera is not an option.

Anishka 2 Clip 19
The first word that comes to mind is, like, it feels necessary. It's a necessary part of my life.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast….the border wait….

Bathroom Clip 1 Waited Six Hours
Last time when I waited a long time. I waited. I waited to cross the border for six hours and a half. Wow.
Bathroom Clip 2 Improvise With Bottles
What is important is the restroom part, because if you're driving on your own, you have to be prepared to do not use the restroom for like three hours. Yeah. I've seen some people that they have a little bottles or to improvise

We talk to people stuck in the border line, then learn about an entrepreneur’s efforts to make the sometimes hours long border line more efficient.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming.

You can see more photos and videos of the people in Only Here episodes by following us on Instagram. We’re onlyherepodcast, all one word. We’re also on Facebook, so you can follow us there, too.

Only Here podcast branding

Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.