Edmonia Lewis, courageous African American and Native American 19th-century sculptor, inspires opera

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis is currently in the spotlight with her own US postage stamp. She is also taking center stage in the new American opera, EDMONIA, by award-winning composer William "Bill" Banfield. Originally commissioned by Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, the opera illuminates the life of 19-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis and will receive its staged premiere at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in 2024 as the culmination of a three-year interdisciplinary exploration of the music and art of the African diaspora.

“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 spans Lewis' courageous life from her birth in free, upstate New York through her turbulent days at Oberlin College and formative studio days in Boston to her astonishing transcontinental move to Rome, Italy, because "the land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor." 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, famous works, and lucrative commissions during her lifetime, she fell into oblivion at the turn of the 20th century only to be "rediscovered" around 1970. The dramatic highs and lows of Lewis' 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 1800's, she defied all the odds of her time. She spoke for women's, Black, and Native American rights through her art even as the US Civil War raged and ended.

The EDMONIA narrative is loosely based on the work of Marilyn Richardson, noted historian and leading scholar on Edmonia Lewis. She opened her research to Banfield and provided guidance as well as the following encouragement: "(EDMONIA’s) audience will be entranced, moved, surprised, and impressed. They will, however, also leave with "knowledge" of Lewis that is a creative narrative of fact and fiction. When we first talked, I realized you had re-imagined the historical Lewis, quite appropriately...I really look forward to the premiere and continuing to raise up EL (Edmonia Lewis) and her life and work in many ways and forms!”

Banfield's score immortalizes Lewis' fearless adventures and determined personality to ensure that her legacy is shared with and by current and future generations. Bold as ever, EDMONIA declares Lewis' place in history through Banfield's lyrics "my art will stand tall, tall as justice is true."

Other future presenters and workshop residencies include: Encompass New Opera Theatre, Nancy Rhodes, artistic director; Virginia Arts Festival, Robert W. Cross, artistic director; Vocal Essence, Philip Brunelle, artistic director; University of Michigan Chamber Choir, Eugene Rogers, conductor; and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra featuring singers from the Mead Witter School of Music, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Andrew Sewell, conductor.

Follow EDMONIA's development and performances at https://edmoniaopera.com

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