Three Florida Southern College students performed at the Imperial Symphony Orchestra’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, not with arias, but with poems.
Jim McKenna, an honors English major, Philosophy major Corinne Cuddeback and Marcos Martins, a Musical Theatre major, all seniors, read poetry about music and the opera written by themselves or other poets during the intermission.
“It’s another notch in the belt,” McKenna said. “Getting to do any experience like that is really exciting… I like the chance to share poems that I know are super dope.”
McKenna read first. As a writing concentration in English, he has already written two bodies of poetry (both of which he has read publicly, at events like Fiat Lux). He chose to read poems by Rita Dove and Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. poet laureate.
“In the week leading up to it, we all met in her office and had ideas about what we wanted to read,” McKenna said. “I just went to some of my favorite books… I went to [Tracy K. Smith’s] book that won the Pulitzer, Life on Mars—it’s just a book that I haven’t been able to put down—and in it she has a poem on music.”
Martins, who read second, had written his own selection in the week before the opera. He wrote a sestina that touched on opera and the band Queen and its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Sestinas are 39-line poems with a strict structure and repeating line-endings.
“I really wanted to do something original,” Martins said. “It ended up being one of my favorite forms… It gives you the opportunity to be really clever, so I really like that.”
Cuddeback read third. She read a selection by from Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass, which McKenna described as “more canonical”; it was published first in 1855. Though each reader had friends attending, Cuddeback’s father and grandmother also attended.
The opportunity was the product of a partnership between music professor Dr. Kira Omelchenko, Director of the Orchestra and String Studies, and Dr. Erica Bernheim, English professor and director of the Creative Writing Program at FSC. Bernheim has collaborated with the music department before: she worked on a project with Dr. Gibbs that featured a number of poets with pieces about time, “from Dr. Seuss to Emily Dickinson.”
Omelchenko contacted Bernheim midway during the fall 2018 semester with the idea for student interaction with the opera production, and Bernheim reached out to McKenna, Cuddeback, and Martins about the opportunity in November and December. Many music and musical theatre students already participate in the few operas FSC features each year as on-stage singers.
“I’m always happy to collaborate with my colleagues in music,” Bernheim said. “This was the first time with students… and hopefully not the last.”
The poetry that each student read was difficult to hear over the din in the Honeyman Pavilion, which is adjacent to bathrooms and had a concession stand.
“At first I thought, ‘oh my gosh, maybe people won’t know that there’s something going on,’” Bernheim said. “It was a different atmosphere from a traditional poetry reading.”
“There were a lot of people about and, you know, intermission is a time where you can just chill out, so a lot of people were talking and around but we had a little bit of a crowd watching us,” Martins said, “I knew that I had to be really loudly or else people wouldn’t hear me so I spoke into the microphone really loudly and hoped that it got across.”
“I don’t think people necessarily always seek out poetry,” McKenna said. What people seek out, he believes, can sometimes be “limited in scope.”