Photograph of Edmonia Lewis by Augustus Marshall
(Boston, Mass., circa 1870)

In the spring of 2024, Interlochen Arts Academy will present the staged premiere of the opera Edmonia by award-winning composer William (“Bill”) Banfield. The opera celebrates Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), the acclaimed and pioneering African American and Native American 19th-century sculptor.

Originally commissioned in 2000 by Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, the opera spans Lewis’s courageous life from her birth in upstate New York through her turbulent days at Oberlin College and formative studio days in Boston, to her astonishing move to Rome, Italy. In 1876, at the age of 32, Lewis captivated the world with her larger-than-life marble statue “The Death of Cleopatra” that now stands in the Smithsonian. Even with major art shows and commissions during her lifetime, she fell into oblivion at the turn of the 20th century, only to be “rediscovered” around 1970. 

“We’re thrilled and honored to present the first staged version of William Banfield’s original opera Edmonia,” said Interlochen Center for the Arts Provost Camille Colatosti. “Interlochen Arts Academy students from myriad artistic disciplines will collaborate to celebrate this extraordinary 19th-century artist. Together, we continue to expand our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to create educational experiences that unite diverse perspectives.”

“Edmonia Lewis is one of the most important documented, celebrated Black cultural figures of the 19th century, and yet her story is largely untold and her life forgotten,” said Bill Banfield. “The opera implores us to mindfully examine what happens when we miss the rich heritages cultivated by people and artisans all around us. I look forward to collaborating with Interlochen students to showcase her remarkable life and work.”

The dramatic highs and lows of Lewis’s career are perhaps only surpassed by the astounding drama of her life itself. Accused of attempted murder by poisoning, befriended by Frederick Douglass, undaunted by world travel as a single woman or racial barriers in the late 1800s, she defied the odds of her time. Through her art, she worked for Black and Native American rights as well as gender equality, even as the U.S. Civil War raged and ended.

A celebrated composer whose symphonies, operas, and chamber works have been performed by major symphonies across the country, Bill Banfield is among most performed and recorded composers of his generation. He has served twice as a Pulitzer Prize judge in American music. Banfield’s many academic appointments include serving as professor of Africana studies and music and society at the Berklee College of Music; as an endowed chair and professor of humanities, fine arts, and music at the University of St. Thomas; and as assistant professor of African American studies and music at Indiana University, where he developed the Undine Smith Moore Collection of Scores and Manuscripts of Black Composers.

Interlochen Arts Academy’s 2024 production of Edmonia will be the culmination of a three-year interdisciplinary exploration of the music and art of the African diaspora. This unique curriculum encourages students to study the history, culture, and artistry of music and art of the African diaspora, illuminating how related traditions, techniques, and trailblazers contribute to arts and culture. 

The exploration kicked off in September 2021 when Yuval Sharon, the Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director of Michigan Opera Theatre, and acclaimed bass-baritone Davóne Tines hosted master classes on the Interlochen campus and worked with students across disciplines. Additionally, in October 2021, guest artist Laurin Talese rehearsed and performed three pieces related to the project with Arts Academy students: Talese’s “This Love,” Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me,” and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Folks who Live on the Hill.” 

A major component of the exploration will commence in spring 2022 when Banfield begins his residency at Interlochen. Banfield will start workshopping his original Edmonia opera with musical theatre, orchestra, opera, choir, visual arts, and interdisciplinary arts students. In addition, he will lead a cohort of visiting artists and guest conductors representing the African diaspora. 

Spring 2022 public events will include a concert with American jazz pianist, composer, and conductor Billy Childs, with works by Banfield; and a performance of the Billy Childs Ensemble and the Ying Quartet featuring Arts Academy students. Banfield, Childs, and the Ying Quartet will also conduct master classes and rehearsals, meet with student groups, and address the campus community. 

Additional guest artists scheduled to take part in Interlochen’s exploration of the African diaspora include American jazz pianist and R&B singer Patrice Rushen in the fall of 2022. Over the course of the three-year exploration, guest artists will work with students in all divisions, including dance, film & new media, theatre, creative writing, and visual arts.