An inside look at "Edmonia": A conversation with co-director Laura Osgood Brown

Brown shares about the exciting new set pieces, challenging music, and groundbreaking collaborations that will make this premiere a performance to remember.

Two students in long skirts smile at each other as they hold hands.

Two Arts Academy students practice a dance in a rehearsal for Edmonia.

When Laura Osgood Brown ponders Interlochen’s upcoming premiere of Dr. Bill Banfield’s opera Edmonia, she’s struck by the power of the story it tells: the true tale of a Black and indigenous sculptor who found the courage to excel in her art form during a deeply intolerant and prejudiced era. But Edmonia’s story isn’t just about the past. According to Brown, the opera is extremely relevant both to modern audiences and to the Interlochen students who are performing in it.

“This piece resonates here at Interlochen because it is the story of a young artist who started early, left her family and home, and showed incredible passion, drive, and faith in herself,” says Brown, who is co-directing the production. “She was absolutely audacious for her time, and I think our students really connect with that.”

Such an extraordinary story deserves to be staged in a way that’s fresh, memorable, and compelling. Here, Brown offers an insider’s look into the opera’s collaborative process and reveals new set pieces that allow for creative staging possibilities. She also shares the responses she’s heard from students involved with the production, as they wrestle with challenging music and prepare to bring Edmonia’s story to life.

A woman dressed in purple speaks to a group of students.

Laura Osgood Brown helps lead an Edmonia rehearsal in spring 2024.

This piece resonates here at Interlochen because it is the story of a young artist who started early, left her family and home, and showed incredible passion, drive, and faith in herself. She was absolutely audacious for her time, and I think our students really connect with that.

Laura Osgood Brown

Collaboration and innovation

Brown first became involved with the project back in 2020, when Interlochen Provost Camille Colatosti introduced her to composer Dr. Bill Banfield. As an instructor of voice and opera at Interlochen, Brown has gathered years of experience interacting with compositions and lyrics. It was only natural that she’d end up working closely with Banfield to edit Edmonia’s script and score.

Since then, Brown has stepped into the role of co-director alongside colleague Justin Lee Miller. Brown sees the duo’s work on the project as a chance to synthesize different artistic disciplines into a cohesive production.

“We’ve spent considerable time talking to our Interlochen colleagues and asking, ‘What can you bring to the table, and how do we put all that together?’” she says. “As directors, Justin and I organize and facilitate. We take all the wonderful things happening at Interlochen and put them together into a unified vision for the piece.”

The opera is truly a collaborative piece, with students and faculty from across Interlochen’s campus contributing their talents to make it a success. The cast is between 60 and 70 people, without counting the orchestra or backstage team.

“This is one of the biggest collaborative projects that we have ever done,” says Brown. “Our audience is going to see singer-songwriters, opera students, musical theater students, jazz students, interdisciplinary arts students, actors, and dancers all on stage.”

In working on Edmonia, Brown has witnessed some beautiful moments of collaboration. She recalls one particularly memorable day on set, when she watched students from multiple disciplines working together to depict the sculptor’s creative process.

“We had a visual arts instructor teaching the musical theatre and dance students how to sculpt marble,” she says. “Meanwhile, film & new media students were capturing that in a video shoot, which was then used to generate some of the projection art for the production.”

This innovative mixture of media forms, combined with an imagistic storytelling style, gives Edmonia a distinctly postmodern aesthetic. Banfield’s forward-thinking approach is supplemented by several moving stage parts, including a push stick and a turntable.

“We’re using the turntable in a variety of ways,” says Brown. “It can show characters traveling and walking. It can also turn and shift pillars and pieces ever so slightly to show that you're in a different place, or jumping to a different part of the story.”  

These elements allow Edmonia’s story to be told with immense creativity and flexibility, bringing the sculptor’s journey to life for today’s audiences. 

This is one of the biggest collaborative projects that we have ever done.

Laura Osgood Brown

“A leap of faith”

When asked how Arts Academy students are feeling about the production, Brown says the atmosphere on set is very positive—despite the fact that they’ve had significant learning curves to overcome.

“The students are having fun and learning a lot from one another,” she says. “The beginning of the process was a little tricky because it's such a leap of faith. It’s not like doing Cats, or another production that’s been done many times.”

Part of the challenge was the music itself, which Brown calls “the hardest music that we’ve ever taught to students before.”

“It's a really contemporary jazz idiom,” she says. “You’ll hear lots of crunchy chords and dissonances. It’s a musical language that is different from anything our students have ever encountered before.”

Now that the students have mastered many of the most challenging parts of the music, they’re starting to find their stride.

“We had to get through the first stages, and help students realize that they were capable of performing really difficult music. Now that they're comfortable with those aspects, I think they're starting to see the bigger picture,” says Brown. “They're excited about the music and the storytelling. They know that it's a great honor and responsibility to be premiering this.”

As they master difficult music and prepare to premiere a piece that’s never before been seen, Arts Academy students have a chance to embody the determination and resilience of the opera’s titular character. The performances in May will celebrate the culmination of years of dedicated effort for Banfield, Brown, Miller, and many others. When audiences gather to see Edmonia, they’ll witness history in the making.

Edmonia will be performed May 3-5, 2024, at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Tickets are available for purchase.