Words to Music: Young Poets and Composers Collaborate for Unique Opera

Rehearsal for opera set to poetry at Opera Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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April 5, 2019 - 6:45am

A collaboration that combines young poets and opera will showcase a project that’s teaching fledgling writers how their words can be made into music. Opera Omaha’s Poetry and Music concert takes place on Sunday at Kaneko in Omaha.


Soft-spoken and wearing a Metallica t-shirt, it may not seem like Zach Evans,12, belongs at Opera Omaha’s offices, where trained professionals rehearse a new piece in the next room. But in this case, he does.

“I like a lot of music, from heavy metal to smooth jazz,” Evans said.

He’s one of seven Nebraska middle and high-schoolers picked as winners in a poetry contest that puts their words to music in an opera. Zach is a 6th grader at Johnson Crossing Academic Center in Fremont, Nebraska.  

“I named my poem “Snow” and it was just some of the first snows of the season,” he said.  

Evans’ poem was one of 71 submitted to Opera Omaha and their partners in the Poetry and Music Project, Nebraska Writers Collective and the New York City-based Luna Composition Lab, which picked young composers to set poems to music.

Teacher Shelly Whitman and students Zack Evans, Aislinn Miller and Audrenna Hicks from Johnson Crossing Academic Center in Fremont, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News) 

“All 71 poems are blind-sent to our two composers and they select whatever inspires them, so there was no minimum number for them to select, there was no maximum number,” Opera Omaha Director of Engagement Lauren Medici said. “They just chose the pieces that spoke to them and inspired their music and they felt like they could write music for.”

One of those composers is Aliya Salmanov, a student of the Mannes School of Music in New York City and also a graduate of the Luna Composition Lab. 

“I looked at the depth of the theme of the meaning of the poem in general and then I also tried to pick poems that aren’t so concrete,” Salmanov said. “I like to have hidden meanings in poems.”

Another composer, Katie Palka, is a student at Portland State University and also went through the Luna Composition Lab program.

“Some of the poems I picked, like the one about thunder, that’s very musically evocative in terms of a lot of sound in the poem,” Palka said. “You have this rumbling sound, the crack of thunder, you know, there’s a lot you can with that musically and that really struck me as an example, you know?”

Composer Katie Palka. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Audrenna Hicks is a 6th grader from Fremont and her poem “Ocean” has been set to music. She watched as musicians performed during a rehearsal.  

“When they were singing it and was being played on the piano, I was shocked to hear that people could actually turn a book or a poem into music and then they could sing it, because I never really thought that could happen,” Hicks said.

Shelly Whitman is Hicks’ teacher at Johnson Crossing Academic Center and says the Music and Poetry project has opened up new learning opportunities for her students.

“Students oftentimes at this age especially see poetry as something that they can’t access I think,” Whitman said. “They see it as something old-fashioned or I can’t do that, but when they see it as something connected to them and their emotions and their stories, I think it opens up a writing genre for them that they didn’t know existed before.”

For Lauren Medici, with Opera Omaha, the hard work and practice is all worth it.

“The idea that their words that they wrote on the page are now being sung is really special,” she said.  “To see those students in that workshop where they hear the melody that’s been put below it or sounds that have been included as part of it, it’s a really exciting experience.”

The free concert is scheduled for Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at Kaneko in Omaha.  

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