Musicologist draws on emotion to transcend language

“It’s a misconception that singing is about having a beautiful voice,” Patricia Caicedo, a world-renowned soprano and musicologist, said to the crowd at Christiansen Hall of Music on Monday, Sept. 22. “It’s not about having the most beautiful voice. It’s about communicating a story.”

Dr. Caicedo is an M.D. who sings in five different languages. She abandoned medicine in her twenties and devoted her life to raising awareness of, and bringing new life to, Latin American and Iberian art songs. Her voice has reached the far corners of the globe, and she has even founded her own annual musical festival: the Barcelona Festival of Song. Despite her immense success and global popularity, the St. Olaf community holds a special place in Caicedo’s heart.

Almost ten years ago, St. Olaf Associate Professor of Music Alison Feldt met Caicedo at the International Congress of Voice Teachers. Caicedo was lecturing about Latin American and Iberian repertoire and its vast number of beautiful but undiscovered songs. Feldt decided to buy her songs to be kept at the Rolvaag Memorial Library; the CD remains in our library today.

“St. Olaf has always been here with me,” Caicedo said, motioning to her heart, “and now I’m finally here.” Since then, she has lectured and recited at many U.S. and European schools and universities. She believes that, in a way, St. Olaf was at the start of her musical journey, despite this being her first time on campus.

Caicedo gave a series of lectures and recitals throughout the week. She held a master class on Monday, where five students came up one by one on stage to recite their carefully-chosen soprano Spanish songs. Caicedo gave each of them live feedback.

Caicedo had each student explain the lyrics of his or her song in English, as well as give some background about the composer. She explained how important it was to listen to music in the context it was written in.

Katerina Middeldorp ’15 was first up, singing “La Majo Dolorosa No. 1.” She explained that the song told the story of a woman whose lover has died, and she is asking God to bring him back. Middeldorp filled the room with her powerful voice.

When the song ended, Caicedo got up on stage and asked Middeldorp to imagine that her boyfriend was suddenly taken away from her. She encouraged her to communicate that emotion to the audience. It was enlighteining to hear this sort of advice in such a public setting, as it is the sort of advice that is normally only spoken of in practice rooms or backstage.

Caicedo pointed out all the nuances that make a great performance, including examples such as altering the tempo and volume of her voice as she went through the various stages of grief. On Middeldorp’s second try, the audience did not even have to understand the lyrics to percieve the emotions of love and loss.

The performance took a lighter turn as Kristen Overdahl ’15 stood up to sing “El Vito,” which means “The Dance.” While it was a beautiful song that sounded like it might have been played for some royalty or nobleman, Caicedo mentioned that it was actually an old Spanish folksong.

“Imagine that you are a young boy,” said Caicedo, “all roughed up and singing to attract all the nice young girls.” The song was quite different the second time.

Maria Coyne ’15 sang the third piece, “Rima,” which tells the story of a shape-shifting angel trying to seduce a man. Afterward, Eric Broker ’15 sang “Encantadora Maria,” and Sarah Hammel ’15 finished the performances with “Pampano Verde.”

All of the students had incredible and powerful voices, and admitted that getting to where they are has not been easy.

“I’ve been taking weekly lessons and practicing daily for the last five years,” Broker said. Coyne agreed.

“It’s taken many years to get to the place vocally where I am now. I feel very lucky to have had such wonderful voice teachers throughout my life,” she said. “At Olaf, I study with Jim McKeel, and he has been a wonderful mentor to me not only in technique but in interpretation of song, which is equally important.”

They were all passionate about this beautiful and unique repertoire, and each had a different approach to delivering a brilliant performance. Coyne relies deeply on her emotions.

“I allow myself to be vulnerable to experiencing the sentiments expressed in the song and immerse myself completely in the moment. It makes it more meaningful to me and to the audience,” she said.

For Broker, surprisingly enough, emotions tend to hinder his performance, and he has his own mechanism for separating what he feels and what he wants the audience to feel.

“I try not to feel the emotions of the music when singing because it’s very easy for emotions to complicate the functions of the vocal mechanism,” he said. “I try to portray emotions, but not be caught up in emotion.”

Caicedo is an amazing singer with a rich cultural background, but perhaps above all, she is a very inspiring woman. She has proven that it is never too late to do what you love, and has shown just how far you can go doing what you’re really passionate about.

“I just felt that music makes me happy, and I wanted to express myself that way,” Caicedo said. “Besides, I was too sensitive to be a doctor anyway.”

She hoped that these performances would spark the students’ curiosity to learn more, not only about Spanish art songs and repertoire, but about the diverse set of peoples who pass on their culture through the art of music.