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'Making music exciting again': Soprano Amber Cierra Merritt brings 'Edmonia' title character to life

Amber Cierra Merritt
Daniel Hughes/Daniel Hughes
Amber Cierra Merritt

Soprano Amber Cierra Merritt will portray sculptor Edmonia Lewis in the world premiere of the opera "Edmonia" by composer Bill Banfield - happening in May at Interlochen Center for the Arts.

"Edmonia" is a new opera by American composer Bill Banfield that tells the story of 19th-century sculptor Edmonia Lewis.

Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American ancestry to achieve international recognition.

Lewis attended Oberlin College in the late 1850s but was expelled following allegations that she poisoned other students. She moved first to Boston and then to Rome, where she found artistic and financial support for her sculptures.

She created portrait heads as well as figures from both her African American and Natives American heritage.

Banfield's opera "Edmonia" is getting its world premiere at Interlochen Center for the Arts in May.

The production will feature student musicians from Interlochen Arts Academy in many of the roles, but the title character will be portrayed by soprano Amber Cierra Merritt.

Merritt recently visited IPR's Studio A when she was on campus for "Edmonia" rehearsals.

With collaborative pianist Susan Snyder, she performed some music from the opera as well as another one of her favorite art songs.

Merritt spoke with IPR about bringing a figure like Edmonia Lewis to life and how her relationship with composer Banfield has helped both of them shape the music and the character.

She also talked about her newest role - that of being a mom.

Excerpts from the interview are transcribed below. They have been edited for clarity.

Content note: this interview includes mentions of racial violence.

Music performed in Studio A
Bill Banfield, "Dreams" (from "Edmonia")
Irene Britton Smith, "Why fades a dream"

On Edmonia Lewis as a historical figure

Edmonia Lewis is an amazing sculptor who has this large breadth of work that most people don't know about. "The Death of Cleopatra" is one of the main sculptures that people may know.

She is of Native American and African American background, which makes her so interesting. When she went to Oberlin College, she faced a lot of racism while she was there. She was severely beaten after [accusations that] she had poisoned some people from the school. She was later acquitted and actually wasn't able to finish school because of everything that had happened. They even accused her of stealing art supplies.

She's somebody who probably from a very early age realized that she had to make her own way. Along the way, she met Mr. [Edward] Brackett, who helped her establish a studio in Boston, where she was able to begin her life as an artist, really getting her own ideas out into the world.

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, 63 x 31 1/4 x 46 in. (160.0 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois, 1994.17
Gene Young Photographer/Smithsonian American Art Museum
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, 63 x 31 1/4 x 46 in. (160.0 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois, 1994.17

On working with composer Bill Banfield

It's so special to be able to have that type of relationship with the composer. He has so much energy, and the music portrays that energy that he feels.

It's so lively, and you have so many different genres within it. You have jazz sections, you have a gospel section, you improv here. I think he really speaks to how you have to be multifaceted to be a musician today.

What he's doing with this piece is making music exciting again. It just reminds me that opera is going to survive just fine.

On originating the role of Edmonia Lewis

To read about Edmonia and to put my own experiences into the role - I like that better than any role study I've done in the past.

When somebody wants to do Edmonia later and they look up a recording, they're going to be looking at me. I think that's so special, so exciting.

On working with Interlochen Arts Academy students

It's amazing being able to be around the students, remembering what it's like to be a student. At this point, high school feels so far away, but I just remember how exciting music was.

It's so exciting being able to see their ideas come to life. We have so many musicians coming behind us that we know we're leaving opera in good hands.

On her newest role, that of being a mom (her daughter was born in January)

It's so super weird because now I'm somebody's mom, like, that's a new title. Every moment of every day you're thinking about it. I've never had to share, really, you know? [laughs] So now, sharing my body with her every single day, being able to feed her, it's truly a blessing.

But it's also just so tiring and just trying to figure out, how does a career work when you have a newborn? I'm so fortunate that Interlochen has been accommodating of my newborn, because I feel like a lot of spaces maybe wouldn't be.

Soprano Amber Cierra Merritt records in IPR's Studio A. She is wearing a black dress and has her hands folded in front of her while she sings into a microphone.
Soprano Amber Cierra Merritt records in IPR's Studio A

Bill Banfield's opera "Edmonia," starring Amber Cierra Merritt and Sydney James Harcourt, will premiere at Interlochen Center for the Arts on May 3, 2024.

Performances are Friday and Saturday nights with a Sunday matinee. Learn more and purchase tickets here.

The Friday night premiere performance of "Edmonia" will also be broadcast live on Classical IPR.

Kelley DiPasquale engineered this edition of Studio A.

Thanks to Shelby Eppich for additional support.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.