Peter Miles ’24 has always had a passion for music. In addition to teaching himself to play the guitar, he sang in choirs throughout high school and was a member of the Springstreeters in college. “I’ve always loved singing,” Miles said. “It’s always been a great way to feel emotion more deeply when it can be difficult in the daily hustle and bustle.”
Miles, however, had no idea that his interest in singing would lead him to study at the Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival in Caltagirone, Italy last summer. After joining the Springstreeters in the spring of his freshman year, Miles was introduced to opera by associate voice artist and co-director of the Williams Opera Workshop Paul La Rosa, who encouraged him to audition for the workshop during Winter Study his second year.
“It was a huge learning curve,” Miles said. “Freshman drop, Zoom. Spring, Zoom again. Then sophomore fall was in person for the first time, then I had to learn an opera. I had no idea how to do it. »
For the audition, Miles explained that he first focused on the beats in the score. Then he learned the notes, then superimposed the pronunciation of the language – in this Italian case – up. “We don’t usually think of learning music that way, especially if you’re just going to sing something for fun, because it’s more intuition-based,” Miles said. “For opera, it’s about learning music that isn’t intuitive to us, and on top of that, learning a language that isn’t intuitive to us either. You actually have to break it down into several parts.
Miles played the role of Schaunard in the Williams Opera Workshop production of Bohemian and enjoyed being a part of the show, despite the challenges of navigating the rising cases of COVID-19 and canceled rehearsals. “It was really intense – we spent a lot of time rehearsing because we missed the first week of Winter Study due to COVID,” he said. “So we had to learn everything in two or three weeks and put it together.”
Attending the Opera Workshop highlighted the differences for Miles between performing in a student-led a cappella group like the Springstreeters and performing opera. “They’re so different, which is weird to say because they both sing, right?” he said opera and a cappella. “But I have a different appreciation for the two.”
Miles mentioned that Bohemian, as well as many operas, has darker themes than the songs he sings with the Springstreeters. “I love the show, but it’s also very depressing because it’s full of violence,” he said. “Honestly, that’s the other thing about opera. I’m like, ‘why am I doing this?’
Bohemian also allowed Miles to experience a different part of his vocal range. For the Springstreeters, Miles usually sings as tenor 1, which is the highest male voice typically found in a choir. For Bohemianhowever, he was a baritone – a much lower voice.
Miles said he particularly enjoyed the technical focus required to sing opera. “Physically the sound is much clearer, much richer,” he said. “You can get better resonance. And if you have the context of opera with some kind of cultural background, it also has a lot of emotional capacity, but opera [is] a bit inaccessible because many people don’t grow up listening to opera music or speak Italian.
Miles heard about the Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival from friends at the College and La Rosa, who encouraged him to apply after the Opera Workshop. With a cast of around 50 singers from around the world, including other College students, Miles spent six weeks taking Italian lessons, exploring Italy and participating in daily opera sessions focused on on learning cultural conventions rather than vocal technique. “They would say, ‘this tradition in Italian opera is that you have to sing it that way, and you have to make sure that you put both vowels under the same note,'” he said. “It was about learning the details.”
Miles performed almost every night in three separate shows: Gianni Schicchi, Rigolettoand Bohemian, in which Miles takes over the role of Schaunard. “Bohemian was my favorite, I think, because we did it here [at the College]then I played it there,” he said.
Miles hopes to continue pursuing music in the future, potentially starting a band. Although he is not yet sure whether to include opera in his repertoire, he said that opera has already improved his ability to perform. “Even if I completely ignored everything I learned, only muscle memory and technique will be retained and will make all other things easier, freer and more expressive too,” he said. “I learned a lot about letting myself play and expressing my emotions in a very deep way.”
Miles explained that fostering the appreciation of opera would require greater means of accessibility to combat a growing disinterest among younger generations. “I wish opera was more accessible, and it just isn’t,” he said. “There are language barriers, and that’s not a big part of the culture either. But it remains a respected art.
Miles mentioned that it even took him his three years of training to appreciate the medium. “Sometimes I’ll play the music of Bohemian and be like, ‘this is awesome,'” Miles said. “But that’s only because I listened to it so much and threw myself into it.”
“People ask me now, ‘Are you an opera singer now?'” he added. “And I’m not going to have a linen scarf or a big beard, you know, it’s not my goal. But I wish it was more appreciated.