Robert Denson could hardly believe it.
As part of the North Stars, an arts-focused after-school program for students from around the city, Denson is used to expressing his emotions through writing.
But when he found himself hunched forward, shuffling his feet on the hardwood floors of the Academy of Music rehearsal hall, listening to a professionally trained opera singer glide through a song whose words he had written, Denson knew he was a part of something special.
"To have your work turned into something bigger than it really is, well, it's pretty cool," said Denson, a junior at Benjamin Franklin High School.
Denson is one of 10 North Stars whose poems depicting the urban experience were turned into Hip H'Opera, a joint venture of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Freedom Theater and the Art Sanctuary, the North Stars' parent group.
Some works deal with absent fathers and hardworking mothers. Some discuss music's transformative power in a teenager's life. Others talk about tough neighborhoods, crime, and crack.
Tomorrow night, the students' work will be presented in grand style at the Church of the Advocate - the poems professionally scored and set to a string quartet, hip-hop turned on its head and sung by performers from the Opera Company. A matinee performance for students is planned for the afternoon.
The after-school program, which is sponsored by Art Sanctuary, is free and meets at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.
Jeffrey Hart, North Stars administrator and youth mentor, watched a weekend rehearsal with a parent's pride.
"It gives us the opportunity to expose young people to another art form, and to show them the positive acceptance of their art form," he said.
Hart calls it "education on both sides: people in the art world will see that everyone in the hip-hop world is not wild and crazy, and people in the hip-hop world will see that everyone in the art world is not stuck up and out of touch."
Standing at the back of the rehearsal hall, Hart motioned to the students gathered round a grand piano and laughed.
"I don't know whether they get the full magnitude of this," he said. "This is a professional opera singer, doing their work. It would be a lot simpler if I brought in a professional basketball player."
Tierra Brown, a North Star and junior at Nueva Esperanza Academy Charter High School, approached the project with caution.
"I've never been to the opera," she said.
But she gave a shy smile when discussing hearing her words - about "art and music - how kids can stay off the street and do something positive" - turned into soaring sounds.
"It feels good," she said. "People can change it up, into music."
Her lack of opera experience didn't keep her from enjoying the music, she said.
"You really have to sit there and pay attention to know what they're singing," Brown said. "But I like the different types of voices that they all have. It's just exciting, really fun."
The students especially liked that their words will be sung by the professional singers of the Opera Company of Philadelphia: Porgy and Bess cast members Julie-Ann Whitely (soprano), DonLeRoy Morales (tenor), Allison Sanders (mezzo-soprano), and DeAndre Simmons (bass-baritone). Joining them is soprano, Evelyn Santiago-Schulz.
Taking the students' poetry and making it into opera-ready lyrics was a challenge, said composer Monnette Sudler-Honesty, a composer and jazz guitarist, and instructor with the North Stars.
"Sometimes I just scratched my head and scratched at the paper," she said. "The words weren't written as a lyric for music. But I enjoyed it. The North Stars are really profound, and they are excellent writers."
Exactly, said Michael Bolton, community programs manager for the Opera Company. And although some of the students struggled with the music at first, they have been changed by it, he said.
"You can see that the kids carry themselves differently now," said Bolton. "They think it's very cool."
Lorene Cary, author and founder of the Art Sanctuary, was instrumental in the Hip H'Opera's birth. Early last year, Opera Company managing director David Devan met with Philadelphia poet Sonia Sanchez about a community-based opera.
Sanchez suggested Cary and the Art Sanctuary, which was developing a hip-hop curriculum, a literacy-based teaching guide that examines the history and language of the music, encourages students to look at popular culture in a larger context, and teaches them how to write about hip-hop.
"I cannot tell you how refreshing that was," Cary said of being approached by the Opera Company. "It was very validating."
Perhaps most gratifying, Cary said, is the thought that the Hip H'Opera might inspire other students to write, or to appreciate opera, or to express themselves in some way.
"They will get it - that these poems were written by kids like them," said Cary. "They might think, 'The work that I do is also worthy.' "
She's been rehearsing her part only for a month - students are part of the performance, too, singing and performing spoken word pieces - but North Star Lydia "La La" Davis is ready.
And she's still a little awed at the whole thing.
"It's like your soul taking flight," said Davis, a junior at Imhotep Academy Charter School. "You never thought that this much work would be put into your poems in a million years."