Decolonizing the Art Song with Patricia Caicedo

 

Singer, scholar, writer, and educator Patricia Caicedo has made art song by Latin American and Iberian composers more accessible. In this interview, she shares her creative mission, entrepreneurial spirit, and process for decolonization, opening up new pathways for singers.

 

Few musicians are as brave and generous as Patricia Caicedo. Her relentless work, study, and pursuit to expand the reach of Latin American and Iberian Art Song repertoire have inspired me ever since I attended the Barcelona Festival of Song. A singer, author, publisher, scholar, and serial entrepreneur, the Colombian soprano is the reason why so much of this repertoire is available to all of us today. 

However, as this repertoire continues to be viewed as lesser-than by so many classical music professionals and institutions, putting the focus on decolonizing educational structures has become as crucial as ever to nurture an inclusive and culturally rich future for our industry. 

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Patricia Caicedo’s anthologies are an invaluable resource when it comes to programming, learning, and teaching this repertoire beyond the few pieces that have become part of the standard. Her two-volume Latin American and Spanish Vocal Music Collection: Anthology of Latin American and Iberian Art Songs by Women Composers (Mundo Arts, 2020/2022) is of particular importance as our community works toward expanding the appreciation for repertoire that is outside of the canon.

 

2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Barcelona Festival of Song (BFOS). How has the program evolved over time since its creation? What have been some surprises along the way, and what are some special features we can look forward to for this big anniversary edition?

The BFOS was born to preserve and promote the Latin American and Iberian art song (in Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese), its composers, poets, and performers. Its centerpiece is a summer course for singers, collaborative pianists, and voice teachers of all ages. At the same time, we present a series of concerts in emblematic spaces of Barcelona, like the National Library of Catalunya, where we use the piano that belonged to Enric Granados. 

When it was born almost 20 years ago, this repertoire was practically unknown because, in the minds of lyrical singers, some prejudices and stereotypes link Latin America and Spain only with folk music—partly because access to sheet music is complicated and partly because of the Eurocentric thought structures in which we are installed. Because of this, I have dedicated a lot of effort to researching and creating resources, books, articles, scores, and recordings to promote the repertoire, position it as an object of value, and facilitate its learning and teaching. 

Our most outstanding achievement through these years has been creating a global network of performers, composers, poets, artists, and friends who appreciate and promote the repertoire. This family spans the world, helping to promote and value the repertoire. The festival has grown in concentric circles, integrating more and more elements into its identity. 

Initially, we only studied Latin American repertoire in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish repertoire in Spanish and Catalan. Every year we integrate new aspects, such as art songs in indigenous languages, Sephardic songs, the songs of Afro-Latin composers, and songs by women composers. Our identity has expanded and enriched, reflecting our culture‘s diversity, miscegenation, and richness. 

Among our students, we have outstanding singers and professors from prestigious universities who serve as disseminators, taking the repertoire worldwide. Their success is our greatest achievement! Recently our alumnus, Isaí Muñoz, was nominated for a Grammy for an album of Catalan songs, repertoire he discovered at the festival. Our alumni present concerts all over the globe, fulfilling our mission. Last year we won the Brasil Ibermúsicas Award, an important recognition of our work promoting Brazilian art songs. We have also commissioned 20 song cycles! 

Our 20th birthday will be a great party in which we focus on bringing our alumni back to participate singing in concerts in Barcelona and also in online concerts throughout 2024. We will also premiere a new song cycle. More than anything, next summer we are looking to fill the world with Latin American and Iberian songs through a big family reunion that shares a communal love for these repertoires. 

 

You created the International Day of Latin American and Iberian Art Song, which is now celebrated every May 11th. What are your hopes for this special day in the future? 

Important things must have their day, so I instituted this day to increase awareness of the importance of our repertoire and honor one of the most influential composers of the genre, the Colombian Jaime León. He composed wonderful art songs with texts by great Colombian and Ecuadorian poets. 

León died on May 11, 2015—to celebrate the day, we create a singing challenge giving incredible awards for singers who participate, including scholarships to participate in the Barcelona Festival of Song. In 2023 we celebrated this date for the third time with a global online concert featuring the participants in the challenge. It is beautiful to see how today it is celebrated by singers from all over the world! 

 

You are a soprano but have never limited your creative output to that label and have fully embraced artistic entrepreneurship through your recordings, your company Mundo Arts, writing, academic research, masterclass tours, composing, now a jewelry line. What can you say about making a career in the arts, and where do you see the education system for singers could be more supportive of such endeavors? 

Music has been my best companion since I began studying it at age 5. I can’t imagine my life without it. I feel fortunate because, thanks to the study of singing, I am a better person, more aware of my body and emotions. Singing makes me a more balanced and happier person. I also sing to express who I am, a diverse identity I have gradually discovered and built. However, my creativity is expressed in many ways. 

In my latest book, We Are What We Listen To: The Impact of Music on Individual and Social Health [Mundo Arts, 2021], I dedicate a chapter to analyzing how studying music at the brain level contributes to developing many skills in nonmusical fields, the so-called correlative talents, and skills that extend to other areas such as creativity, language learning, pattern recognition, the ability to recognize and express emotions. 

Musicians, being super creative and curious people, are born entrepreneurs. However, the development of these skills is not encouraged in music schools. Too often, musicians are trained as technicians on their instruments, performing the same repertoire. Furthermore, they are presented with only one model of how to be a “good musician”—the message seems to be either you sing at the Met, or you are a failure. Nobody teaches us that there are many ways to fulfill the crucial social function of musicians; this contributes to many singers and musicians feeling frustrated and not taking advantage of their gifts. 

I was lucky to identify my mission to preserve and promote Latin American and Iberian art songs very early in my career; I wanted to revolutionize the world of lyrical singing to include underrepresented and previously undervalued music and composers. To follow my vocation, I quit practicing medicine to become a full-time artist. 

Being a freelance artist-scholar, I often didn’t have the necessary resources to pay for things, and since I wanted to achieve my goals, I had to develop many skills and learn many things from different areas. Not having the resources became an opportunity to learn and develop new skills and projects. 

For example, I began to research to discover more repertoire, understand it, and understand myself. This is how my recordings, books, and musicological research area that links art songs and Latin American national identity were born. Publishers and record labels published my first books and recordings, but later I decided to create my own publisher and record label to have more creative freedom. I started the festival in 2005 against all odds because I was trying to promote an unknown and underappreciated repertoire, a counter-narrative. 

The revolution I have worked to ignite has been possible thanks to my interest in technology. The Internet has provided me with incredible tools to disseminate the repertoire globally. I have developed an unusual career expressing my creativity without barriers, which all musicians can do because we have the cognitive skills. That is why I encourage young singers to break stereotypes, get out of the curriculum, be curious, and not limit themselves to interpreting Central European music—we need to know, promote and enjoy thousands of unknown musical traditions. 

 

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, what would you like to see more of? How can we promote Latin American and Iberian repertoire in a way that supports long-term inclusion of these cultures, stories, languages, and music? 

My dream is to see Latin American and Iberian vocal repertoire as part of the curricula of universities and conservatories around the world, that just as we study the diction of German, French, and Italian, we study the diction of Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan and that we get to know the composers and poets. The repertoire is immense and of great quality; musicians and audiences deserve to enjoy it. 

A good way to contribute to promoting this repertoire would be to acquire the Latin American and Spanish Vocal Music Collection and start singing and teaching this music. The collection now has 12 books, including beautiful songs by men and women from the region. They are bilingual and have IPA and poetry translations, so there are no excuses not to perform this music! I also created the Latin American & & Iberian Art Song Podcast where I interview composers and performers and reference hundreds of Spotify playlists that serve as pedagogical tools for teachers and singers.

 

How has the Western colonialist mentality and education structures affected the performance, teaching, and programming of Latin American and Iberian repertoire in Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, and Indigenous languages? How can we break with those cycles? 

My research is part of the so-called decolonial studies; I analyze the social and thought structures that historically determine our tastes and values. In the case of music, the paradigms penetrate educational institutions and make us continue to perpetuate the music and performance practice of the old centers of power. These paradigms limit our vision and concept of music, privileging only music from Central Europe. 

Being aware of the existence of those structures requires a lot of work and malleability. We need flexible and brave minds to explore new territories where we will surely discover treasures, but we must be willing to work for it; it is a personal and collective challenge.

Eugenia Forteza

Eugenia Forteza is a French-Argentinean Mezzo-Soprano, Actor, Influencer, Writer and Producer based in NYC. In 2016, Eugenia founded the popular social media platform dedicated to the behind the scenes of the opera world, @360ofOpera. Eugenia enjoys a versatile international career in opera, concert, theatre and film, which has taken her worldwide from NYC’s Carnegie Hall to Singapore’s Wild Rice Theatre and beyond. Follow Eugenia on Social Media at @fortezaeugenia & @360ofOpera. For more information, please visit www.eugeniaforteza.com.