2022/Aug/13 Lost Time, Discovered Memory: NEC's Song & Verse and J.J. Penna's Proust

“I felt myself still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person.” ~from In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust.

“Every painting is always two paintings—the one you see and the one you remember…the work of art we carry around with us is a memory and not the original as it were.” ~Siri Hustvedt


Memory scaffolds our world and ourselves. It frequently is described by those who study it as an emergent property—which may be a reductionists way of saying: a Mystery. Memory emerges out of J.J. Penna’s Marcel Proust and the Melodie: A Fin-de-Siecle Soiree, part of New England Conservatory’s Song & Verse Recital Series. The evening promised to be intercalations of influences focused through the intertextual and intersubjective engagement by Penna and his students as they presented the prose, poetry, song, and music they associate with Marcel Proust.

Prose, Poetry, Song, Music—these can be fixed in textual representations for us to view and review. They appear permanent (as do our memories), but like our memories their meanings are malleable. We can try to read to understand the author and can learn as much about ourselves because of how we interpret that author and relate to their work. The textual representation is a format for storage to communicate across time, as is a memory. Texts’ meanings change as their viewers change—whether from one viewer to another or from a single viewer across visitations.


Mort Adler points out that, “The symphony is not the score,” and that’s true of the art encoded in these texts. All of these representations, when recited aloud shift us from the visible to the acoustic, but nevertheless we continue to meet the medium sequentially. Our understanding forms note after note and word after word. The text might have been anchored to space in being displayed on a page, but the art reveals itself to us in time. And so, we are faced with a hyperacute ephemeral experience during the present act of catching note after note and word after word to make sense of it (the work of art we see), but later in recalling the experience we are re-experiencing, not as we initially did, but as a global and synthetic re-creation modified by and melded to moods, expectations, and associations not of the art’s content but of the beholder’s context (the work of art we carry with us). I cannot recall the tunes or the lyrics but I remember that beneath Proust’s words I was listening for the works of Hahn, and between Proust's and Hahn's ideas I was listening for a resonance that meant something to Penna and his students. After the recital, I approached J.J. Penna and invited him and his students to reflect upon how their involvement in this recital meant for their experience of Proust, Memory, and Music.

Below please find their reflections


J.J. Penna
JJ Penna


As a college student, my copy of In Search of Lost Time - the Moncrieff translation - was something I carried around with me, in my bookbag, like a sacred text.

Because my introduction to Proust coincided with my discovery of the poets and composers who would become the mainstays of my professional life, I cannot separate my first encounters with Baudelaire and Debussy, Verlaine and Fauré, or Apollinaire and Poulenc from the moment I first fell under the spell of Proust’s sentences.

At a time when minimalism was being drilled into my head in both my performing and writing lives - gather, refine, reduce - here were structures that broke all the rules, sentences whose evocative beauty and relaxed, unburdened expansiveness redefined for me the possibilities of language and nourished my lifelong fascination with other writers of lyrical prose.

From the first, I associated the rhythms and textures of Proust’s syntax with the musical impulses I was discovering in my lessons and coachings. But it was not only the music in Proust that was aesthetically defining, it was Marcel himself, the novel’s enigmatic narrator, a seer and synesthete who is acted upon in profound ways by his environment. Reading the text, then and now, I am transported by the patient, acute precision of his vision, his moments of dreaminess, agitation, idyll, and mystery. His are not merely lush descriptions, but landscapes created in a struggle against loss: he is not simply recreating a known place by heart but constructing a world from the beautiful, ornate ruins he can no longer reach.

For years I entertained the idea of pairing generous readings from Swann’s Way with songs from Proust’s epoch, including those by Proust’s friend and intimate, Reynaldo Hahn. Given the opportunity to curate a new song series at NEC in the spring of 2021, I began planning what would become our April 2022 recital. I pulled passages from the first section of the novel, hoping to link certain images and tensions in Proust’s scenes with similar themes in the songs: Consider the dissonance between beautiful, smooth surfaces and dark shadows in Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, the ecstatic rapture of Banville’s “Le Printemps,” or the tragic moment of loss and transcendence at the end of “Le Tombeau des Naïades.” All resonate with the sense of longing and urgency present in the novel.

As performers of vocal music, we are called upon to make theater out of the expressive force music exerts on a text, to embody the transformations that occur when music and words collide. One of the joys of singing (and playing) songs is finding new ways to mine the dynamic energies alive in poems, to treat poems as little lyric performances.

The five performers on our concert, all undergraduate voice majors - soprano Emma Strange, mezzo-sopranos Sophia Daisy Chesler and Madeleine Wiegers, baritone Jádon Brooks, and tenor Jack Keller, who also served as the evening’s reader - devoured their assigned material and gave their talents joyfully and enthusiastically to the depths and nuances of these songs. I am grateful to them for their devotion, and to NEC for its unwavering support of this type of programming. I can only hope that this is the first of many concerts inspired by Proust’s staggering work of expressive depth and genius.


J.J. Penna has performed extensively with a variety of eminent singers, including Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, Measha Brueggergosman, David Daniels, Denyce Graves, Ying Huang, Susan Narucki, Roberta Peters, Florence Quivar, and Andreas Scholl. He has held fellowships at the Tanglewood Music Center, Banff Center, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Music Academy of the West, and San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program. He received his training under Martin Katz, Margo Garrett, and Diane Richardson. Devoted to the teaching of classical song literature, he has been on the faculties of The Juilliard School, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Bowdoin Festival, Westminster Choir College, the Renée Fleming Song Studio, and Vancouver International Song Institute. He currently teaches at the Yale University School of Music and the New England Conservatory.


Kelly Arnold
General Inquires


Stephanie Janes
Classical Publicist
Stephanie Janes PR
Stephanie@stephaniejanespr.com / stephaniejanespr@gmail.com


Jack Keller:

Jack Keller

I have to start with a bit of both self-awareness and self-deprecation: This first statement is going to be pretentious… The hardest part about performing song literature is the small window of time a singer has to absorb the audience into the world of the story. I have learned of the term “dropped in” from my studies at New England Conservatory and beyond, and it is a way to describe when a performer has sunk into a character and acts in the space as the character would, not the singer as the character. Instincts come from the character not the singer. As the vocal demands for a piece are greater, the ability to remain in a “dropped in” place becomes more difficult. There also is no buffer zone or margin of error allowed because as soon as the first note is played, the world that you are in is set in stone for the rest of the performance. Yet, if there were some method of creating a series of interludes between pieces to suspend the dream world state that I aspire to attain and bring the audience into during a performance, all of this would become much easier. And that is exactly what our amazing leader JJ Penna achieved through this night of Song and Verse.

The writing of Marcel Proust wanders, and it is a language that, when read aloud, lures the ear into following the lines wherever they may lead. It may be very specific in description and its picturesque way of designing scenes, and at the same time it may take 17 clauses to complete one single idea. But this nature of Proust’s writing reflects the behavior of the compositions that were sung so wonderfully that there was no dead space in the room between performers in the same way it can creep in without the interludes of literature. In the first piece I sang, L’invitation au voyage by Henri Duparc, there is a line that talks about wandering vessels sleeping on canals. The big picture idea of the story of this piece is an escape into a dream-like utopia, and over the course of the piece the singer floats across the wave-like ebbs and flows of the piano accompaniment. I found speaking Proust’s text, and sinking into the colorful wordplay and endless sentence structure, then going segue into this piece fixed the very problem of the pressure of connecting the audience to the environment of the piece. I was able to warm up into the character through the generous groundwork laid down for me by Proust. In a way, JJ allowed me to take a few minutes in front of the audience to build the character work by way of these passages multiple times. It felt like a complete performance from the start to finish of the night, rather than from start to finish of each individual piece.

Speaking text in front of an audience who is expecting music presents its own challenges, at the same time. Music guides the singer by the hand in demonstrating stress and emphasis within phrases of words. It also is supported so incredibly by the music, which makes storytelling and captivation that much more accessible. However, straight text is as bare bones as you can get, especially when riding the line between character and narrator. Throughout the reading of the texts I discovered that holding the audience’s attention is something that relies much more on trust of oneself. You have to trust that you are doing enough, and relaxing into it is what will create the connection. The joy of having the ability to try out this new form of performing song is that what I learned in speaking to the audience also informed how I sang for the audience. Moreover, I believe that this paradigm of performance should be encouraged much more so that singers can develop more skills and facets to their performances. I want to thank JJ Penna for his unbounded wisdom and creative guidance throughout this whole process. This will be an opportunity that I will think about for a while.


Jack Keller has earned a Bachelor’s of Music from New England Conservatory. Before that he graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy with a focus in Voice Performance. He is currently singing Tenor for the First Church in Chestnut Hill, in Massachusetts.


Madeleine Wiegers

Madeleine Wiegers

The sometimes-overwhelmingly beautiful and challenging push and pull of the music learning process is one of the greatest thrills I have come to know in my life. I began taking classical voice lessons at age 15 and dove straight into the competition and summer opera program circuits. Nearly a decade later, I am constantly dazzled by the depth of vocal repertory, from ancient chant to post-modern opera. A sweet spot can be found in late 1800s France, flirting with, and heavily influencing, the cusp between late romanticism and early modernism. I have studied turn-of-the-century composers such as Schoenberg, who shifted the tides for all which has followed the Second Viennese School, consisting of him and his students, but Gabriel Fauré’s “Cinq melodies de Venise” introduced me to more harmonic depth than I imagined possible.

Obsessing over harmonic theory in my choral, operatic, art-song repertoire, as well as my own compositions, has been a great treat for me, and New England Conservatory has provided more than I could expect in terms of support and nurturing my fixations. Post-tonal theory whirls in my brain with serialist compositional methods and Fixed-Do Solfège exercises. When beloved professor JJ Penna extended the invitation to perform the Fauré with him in his concert, giving no pressure whatsoever to sing the entire set, which I did, I began my learning with the first piece (as listed in the first PDF I could get my eager hands on) “Mandoline”. It was not the biggest challenge of the set, but I sensed more personality beneath the surface of both the song and me. Something mighty emerged from the soul of my voice itself as we swept along with the legato lines over the bouncing, rhythmic piano. The narrative nature of the piece allows an approach of separation of oneself in the music learning process. Naturally, one digs deeper to find a personal connection with the speaker of the piece. In my digging, I found, and cultivated, seeds which Fauré so thoughtfully planted, and they bloomed within me as much as I within them.

Each song that followed expanded my world in unexpected ways. Trying to harmonically analyze this set was a task I put on myself, that I must admit remains incomplete, but not for any reason other than the new point of view of music offered to me by Fauré through his writing. He makes octaves sound like a color never seen by the human eye, tucking them into woven, harmonic cradles which hang in the air for a moment before dissolving into a completely different, equally enchanting motif. He tugs at the heart strings by twisting through tonal centers, forcing performers and audiences alike to be comfortable with the possibility of their feet never again touching the ground. It feels like flying in a dream, but one can relive it time and time again in great detail.

The poet of these pieces is Paul Verlaine, a contemporary of Fauré, whose drunkenly passionate lyricism threads together more than feelings, but a deeper sense of what it means to feel. Verlaine and Fauré’s work together is a match unlike any other I have studied, in that their poetic and musical nuance is that of twin flames; each effortlessly mirroring the other. I am taking this set with me into my senior recital this Fall, and I am experiencing maximum excitement for the deep dive, even further this time, into the collaborative study of this set with its poet and composer.

The school year leading up to this concert was one of the most difficult passages in my life, as I experienced challenging health complications, heartbreaking loss, and, shortly before the concert, at age 24, I was diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive. In addition to an already challenging year, I had COVID-19 immediately preceding this concert. I am eternally grateful I was able to recover in time to perform in this brilliant evening with fabulous peers. There are times in a person’s life, seemingly especially an artist’s life, in which the most taxingly difficult thing to do every day is wake up and breathe. To show up for oneself and commitments is unspeakably difficult. This is when music becomes more than a hobby, more than a study, and more than a task. Music becomes a hero. The application of music to instrument, instrument to body, body to soul, and soul to audience, is profound. I thank JJ for his work with me on this event, and I thank Fauré and Verlaine for teaching me new ways to view myself and the world around me.


Madeleine Wiegers, mezzo-soprano, has performed in venues across Europe in operas, workshops, and as a choral soloist. Her first venture overseas to pursue opera was at age 16 in Verona, Italy, where she fell in love with the nuances of Mozart’s recitative for the first time. Her awards include National First Place Winner at the Music Teachers National Association national convention in 2016, as well as National Finalist in 2015, and National Finalist at the National Association of Teachers of Singing national convention in 2015 and 2016. She currently studies with dynamic soprano Lisa Saffer at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she was the recipient of the Presidential Distinction Scholarship. Madeleine is an avid reader of nonfiction, studier of languages, and prefers to work under candlelight.

Follow her on:

Instagram: opera.madeleine

TikTok: operamadeleine

Twitter: OperaMadeleine


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