Caroline Helton, Associate Professor of Music (Voice) in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, is a proud associate of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. She is a soprano whose two albums, L’Infinito and La Tregua, are the first in a series of recordings featuring art songs written by Italian Jewish composers. Along with her pianist, Kathryn Goodson, Helton is spending her summer working on the third album, which will be dedicated to the composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
In art song, composers write a piece of music for voice and piano to a meaningful poem. Helton explains, “Art song is intimate, to be performed in smaller places where it’s about text delivery. It’s a subtle combination of smaller forces to deliver this intimate emotional experience.”
Bringing the work of forgotten composers to a wider audience has been a consistent goal in Helton’s research. Her first CD of solo vocal music, Voices of the Holocaust, featured Jewish composers whose lives were affected by the World War II. She included both well-known and lesser-known composers, bringing attention to aspects of their work that were not widely accessible previously. “I told their immigration stories, along with stories of composers that nobody had heard about. Their music was essentially expunged from the canon, first by the Nazi persecution and then the chaos that followed,” explains Helton. “It’s a way to engage with that history and trauma through art.”
Helton received a Bachelors and Masters in Music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also studied and later taught Italian language, and completed her Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance at the University of Michigan in 1998. Classical singers regularly perform opera and recital repertoire in Italian, German, French, and English, but because of her collaboration with Italian musicologist Aloma Bardi (who has collected a trove of scores and manuscripts by Italian Jewish composers), Helton has pursued an emphasis on the performance of this body of neglected Italian art song from the early 20th century. “I’ve always been interested in Jewish composers and their contributions to the overall canon of classical vocal music, or classical music in general,” explains Helton. “Aloma introduced me to this whole world of Italian recital music by Jewish composers, mirroring my three passions with one subject.”
As she has emphasized when speaking to young singers auditioning for acceptance into the Voice Performance program the School of Music, Theater and Dance: “Music is important. It’s your own creative voice, it’s the composers’, it is understanding the emotional component of a time in culture.”
She also argues that music is a way to better comprehend the inner lives of others. “When we learn a piece we are forever changed because we are called upon to empathize and embody the musical voice of the composer, the literary voice of the poet and the character, making us more empathetic people. We see people differently, we recognize ourselves in people that are different from us.”