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Three-year guest artist series contextualizes the art and culture of the African diaspora

Led by composer and musicologist Dr. William Banfield, the series provides opportunities for Interlochen Arts Academy students to engage with diverse artists and premiere Banfield’s opera, “Edmonia.”

Composer and musicologist Dr. William "Bill" Banfield (works with an Arts Academy voice student

Composer and musicologist Dr. William "Bill" Banfield (center) works with an Arts Academy voice student during a master class.

Billy Childs works with an Arts Academy bass student

Acclaimed composer and jazz pianist Billy Childs (right) reviews a score with an Arts Academy bass student.

Davone Tines and Yuval Sharon speak to Interlochen Arts Academy students

Yuval Sharon (left) and Davóne Tines (right) speak with Arts Academy opera students during their master class.

For decades, acclaimed African American and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was forgotten by the art world. Now, her turbulent life and remarkable work are at the heart of an ambitious new curriculum at Interlochen Arts Academy.

Begun in the fall of 2021, the three-year exploration examines the history, culture, and artistry of the African diaspora. The curriculum will culminate in the spring of 2024 with the premiere of the opera Edmonia, a compelling musical dramatization of Lewis’ life, career, and rediscovery.

“Our goal is to help students appreciate the history and culture of the people of the African diaspora and their influence on popular, jazz, and classical music in the United States,” said Camille Colatosti, Provost at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “This exploration will also help students increase their understanding of how diversity makes for a richer and more interesting community.”

Nurturing citizen artists in a diverse world

The three-year series was inspired by The Interlochen 5, the defining and reinforcing characteristics of an Interlochen Arts Academy education. These include a focus on mindfulness, creative capacity, interdisciplinary perspective, community, citizen artistry, and global and cultural perspective.

“In today’s world, the focus on a global outlook and on diversity, equity, and inclusion is so important. We are emphasizing this learning—both in our overall curriculum and in the works our students perform and create,” Colatosti said. “This focus on the art and culture of the African diaspora demonstrates our commitment to this important work.”

“The project also helps our students understand what it means to be a citizen artist in today’s world,” Colatosti continued. “Through the series, students learn how they can be part of creating a better society—one that recognizes everyone, that is based on a culture of respect for all, that appreciates diversity and understands history.”

Colatosti found the perfect partner for the project in her former colleague, musicologist and Edmonia composer Bill Banfield.

“A big piece of Bill’s personal mission is working with young people in developing their artistry and helping them understand their connection to the past,” Colatosti said. “Working with students at Interlochen—the premiere institution for the education of young artists—is a dream come true for him.”

Learning from experience

Under Banfield’s leadership, students of all majors will engage with a diverse cohort of guest artists representing the African diaspora.

“Interacting with experienced artists helps our students make industry connections and see the many different trajectories that a life in the arts can follow,” Colatosti said. “Learning how our guests have reached the point where they are now and how they’ve overcome the obstacles along the way shows our students that being an artist is a commitment that requires intentionality and resilience, and that involves many twists and turns.”

The series’ first guests, Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera Yuval Sharon and acclaimed bass-baritone Davóne Tines (IAC 04), visited campus in October 2021 ahead of the Detroit Opera’s 2022 production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. During the visit, Sharon and Tines addressed the student body at a community meeting, held a panel discussion for music students, and led master classes for musical theatre and classical voice students. A third guest, jazz vocalist Laurin Talese, joined the Arts Academy’s Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Combos for a performance including 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.”

Spring 2022 guests included acclaimed composer and jazz pianist Billy Childs and the Grammy Award-winning Ying Quartet. Childs’ residency included a side-by-side performance with the Academy’s Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Combos, master classes for jazz students, and a joint performance with vocalist Sara Gazarek, Academy flute instructor Nancy Stagnitta, and the Ying Quartet. The Ying Quartet also held chamber music lessons for the Academy’s string quartets.

The series continues this fall with a residency by Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, composer, and R&B singer Patrice Rushen. During her residency, Rushen will lead a recording session, conduct the Arts Academy Orchestra, and discuss film scoring with Film & New Media students. Rushen will also perform side-by-side with singer-songwriter and jazz combo students on Sept. 23.

Banfield will also hold several on-campus residencies throughout the African diaspora exploration—some alone, and some in tandem with other guests. While his position is officially composer in residence, Banfield describes his role as “a senior scholar in the arts.”

“I’m here to help pave the way with ideas and with expertise so that students can be truly impacted,” he said. “None of us can determine what the future will be. We can only help students understand what the current struggles, hurdles, and joys might be, but that’s going to prepare them so they can reshape the world artistically.”

According to Banfield, his status as an outsider to the Interlochen community creates a space for students to examine their interests beyond their chosen major, empowering them to embrace the Academy’s interdisciplinary nature.

“The students feel very safe to come to me and say, ‘I sing opera here, but I want to sing bluegrass,’” he said. “I can foster a discussion that allows a greater absorption of the wide palette of ideas that are already available at Interlochen. Sometimes you just need an outside person to say, ‘It’s okay to listen to rock n’ roll and bebop while learning Puccini arias and vocal exercises.’ In fact, not only is it okay, it’s required: The mono-path musician is the on-the-way-out-the-door musician. Today’s society calls for a deeper understanding of the many paths there are in the music industry.”

Banfield’s biggest lesson for students, however, is the importance of understanding the context of the art they create and perform. “The most important thing I want the Interlochen students to see, as an educator and a pedagogue, is that their pedagogy has to be inclusive,” he said. “It has to include repertoire that is current, but it also has to be wide enough for them to see how the past was constructed, how the present exists, and how the future might happen if they engage it in a transformative way.”

Giving voice to a forgotten artist

In addition to hosting master classes, leading community meetings, and helping with the Academy’s performance at the New York Philharmonic’s Liberation Festival, Banfield will also workshop his opera, Edmonia, with Arts Academy students and faculty from a variety of artistic disciplines. The Academy’s Spring 2024 premiere of Edmonia serves as the centerpiece for the entire series. For Banfield, it’s the fulfillment of a project more than two decades in the making.

Edmonia was first commissioned in 2000 by author Toni Morrison in collaboration with poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Under Morrison’s guidance, Banfield served as a composer-in-residence at Princeton’s Atelier program. The opera’s first act—which featured a libretto by Komunyakaa—premiered at the conclusion of the residency.

Fifteen years later, in 2015, Banfield was awarded a second grant to complete another act of the opera. After the premiere of the second act, Banfield resolved to complete the opera. He finished Edmonia during a 2017 residency in upstate New York—the same region from which Lewis hailed.

“It was as if she was calling to us from those very soils and hills in upstate New York to carry her story forward,” Banfield said. “After more than 20 years in development, finally getting Edmonia up on stage and in the eyes and ears of an audience is a thrill.”

A hybrid opera, Edmonia takes its direction from an eclectic mix of styles and approaches. The plot chronicles Lewis’s dramatic life—which Banfield describes as “an American artist’s story at every level.” The first act examines Lewis’s turbulent time in Oberlin, Ohio, including accusations that Lewis poisoned two fellow Oberlin College students and the resulting court case. The second act follows Lewis’s burgeoning professional career from Boston to Rome to Chicago. The epilogue, set in 1970s Chicago, dramatizes the rediscovery of Lewis’ most famous work, Death of Cleopatra.

“What I can’t believe is that [Lewis’s] story had been hidden for so long,” Banfield said. “She was one of the first women—and women of color—to be an integrated student at Oberlin, and like many American artists, she had to find recognition in Europe first. She hits all of these benchmarks of how we define a great artist.”

Since arriving at Interlochen in the spring of 2022, Banfield has been working closely with Instructor of Voice & Opera Laura Osgood Brown to prepare for the premiere.

“She’s been really pivotal,” Banfield said. “[Osgood Brown] knew the opera—she read the music, she listened to recordings, and she was really prepared to tell me what were potential challenges, what were potential springboards, and what the capacity of the students would be.”

Interlochen Arts Academy’s performance of Edmonia will expertly utilize Interlochen’s many resources, particularly its gifted students.

“At Interlochen, we can have 40, 50 people on stage—a number you would not normally be able to have at a professional company, even a major company,” Banfield said. “Here, we’ve got students who can dance, sing, paint, and understand technology. We can take advantage of being able to work with these talented students, and in return, we can give them a modern opera to help sculpt. Edmonia gives everyone involved a chance to paint with a deeper, wider palette to come up with something truly special.“

Banfield and Osgood Brown also plan to host an all-campus call for singers, inviting students and staff from all divisions to take part in the collaboration.

“We’re going to take a flute player or a dancer or a poet who can sing, and we’re going to put them up on stage,” Banfield said. “We hope that this will allow a cross-section of the departments’ students and staff to work together to bring to life this modern opera around this special figure, Edmonia Lewis.”

A cohort of graduate students from the University of Michigan will also work with Arts Academy students in preparation for the production. Performance dates will be announced prior to the 2023-24 academic year.

“Staging Edmonia is a tremendous opportunity not only to celebrate this remarkable artist, but also to show our students that opera is a living, breathing artform that remains a viable way to communicate important themes in the modern world,” Colatosti said. “It’s a great benefit for us and our students.”

Billy Childs’ residency was supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a grant from Arts Midwest. Patrice Rushen’s engagement is supported by the Arts Midwest GIG Fund, a program of Arts Midwest that is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional grants from Michigan Arts and Culture Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.