Bass-baritone Miles Wilson-Toliver, sings the role of City in the new jazz opera A Gathering of Sons, which opens Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s 40th Season.

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Last season, Miles proved his versatility as an actor and singer while appearing in Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s productions of Carmen the Gypsy (Le Dancaïre), The Silent Woman (chorus), and Kiss Me, Kate (Bill Calhoun). This summer he proves the same flexibility and versatility in singing the old and the new, opening a world premiere opera and touring a concert of Negro spirituals within mere weeks of each other.

Miles is a 2017 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University College of Fine Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Vocal Performance, where he studied with Daniel Teadt.


What have you been up to recently?
I just graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with my BA in vocal performance and I’ve been busy applying to graduate schools!


Tell me a little bit about the character you are creating for this world premiere.
My character is a 32-year-old African American police officer, City, whose father recently passed away. He’s recently married and his beautiful bride is having a baby when we start the show. City’s younger brother, Victor, is shot by white police officer, Lockdown, the same time his newborn baby, Freedom, passes away. The show is very spiritual and explores the balance between reality and spirituality.


What’s it like being in a show that is so relevant and about such a sensitive topic?
It can be emotionally taxing, but you have to keep in mind your singing technique and keep your emotions at bay to a degree, so that’s very difficult. Being in any show you have to detach your character from reality, but being in a show that is so close to reality you really have to respect that dichotomy.


And this is your first world premiere. How is it different from rehearsing a show that’s been composed and performed for a couple hundred years?
There’s a lot more flexibility and a lot more creative thinking, especially for an opera singer, there’s a lot of leeway that I’m not used to which almost makes it more challenging. We’re so used to doing things by the book and if you get a note wrong then it’s wrong, but I could get a note wrong in rehearsal and Dwayne might say “oh I like that, keep it!” And the show was written for each of our voices, so if there’s a note or a section that I’m struggling with I can suggest that we change the note or make the section slower or faster. The same goes for actually creating the characters - we’re the first people to play these roles so there’s really no example to go by and we have a lot of opportunity to create in this process.


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Miles Wilson-Toliver (City) with Robert Gerold (Lockdown). City confronts
Lockdown after Lockdown shot his brother. Photo by Patti Brahim.

What are you most excited for this season?
To see the initial reaction of the audience after they see the show - it’s a heavy show, it’s a little hard to get through, so I’m really excited to see how the audience takes it. It’s definitely a show that intends to get a reaction out of people and evoke something, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that manifests in the audience.


What was your first opera experience like?
I did my first operatic role last year. I played Jove in La Calisto at CMU. The show was loaded with recitative and that’s how I learned how to do recit - being in a Cavalli opera it’s pretty much all recitative with short ariettas in between.


What is the strangest thing you’ve ever had to do for a role?
See, I do crazy things all the time, but to me it seems normal because I’m a performer and I’m willing to do anything for a role. Naked on stage, whatever it may be, it’s not weird for me.


Do you have any dream roles?
Leporello and Figaro!


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Miles Wilson-Toliver (City) with Adrianna Cleveland (Violet) welcoming
their new son, Freedom, into the world. Photo by Patti Brahim.

What’s next?
I’ll be traveling a little this summer and doing concert tour of Negro spirituals in July! And in the fall I’ll be heading to College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati to pursue my Master of Music in voice.


More about Miles: While at CMU Miles performed in Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera, Cavalli’s La Calisto (Jove), and in a program of Mozart scenes (Leporello, Figaro). Before pursuing an operatic career, Miles attended the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, where he performed in several productions, including Raisin in the Sun (Walter Lee), Anything Goes (Billy Crocker), and Ragtime (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.). Additionally, Miles has performed at The Hartford Stage in The Barnstormer, and in A Christmas Carol in multiple roles from 2005-2008.  He has performed in Godspell, Jr. with Michael Lamb Productions and was a singer in Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway. He recently performed with the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh as the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah and with the University of West Virginia Choir as the bass soloist in the Mozart Requiem. Miles is a brother of Phi Delta Theta and is the reigning Mr. University at Carnegie Mellon University.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s world premiere of A Gathering of Sons is on stage June 15-July 8.

Hannah Shea