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York College Alum Follows Music to the Opera

Imara Miles

Imara Miles ’17 always knew she wanted to be a musician, but she wasn’t always sure she wanted to be an opera singer.

The York College alum (Bowie, MD) graduated from the College in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in Music. But her path to music—and college—wasn’t always so clear.

A love for music runs in Miles’ family. Her mother had wanted to be an actress and musician and took Imara to musical productions as early as age five.

“I went across the stage at kindergarten graduation and said, ‘I want to be a singer,’ and my mom said, ‘No, you want to be a musical entertainer,’ “ Miles says. “And she said, ‘You're serious about this?’ and I've been more or less serious 22 years later.”

Time only deepened her love for and commitment to studying music. Miles was already involved with the orchestra as a cellist, and at age 14, she heard a recording of Kathleen Battle performing “Una Voce Poco Fa” from The Barber of Seville in school. Sensing her interest in studying opera, her teacher encouraged her to explore the art.

“She said, ‘Honey, if you want to study opera, you got to know all the great Black singers. You have to listen to Jesse Norman—God rest her soul—Kathleen Battle, Leotyne Price.’ She made me listen to everyone,” Miles says fondly.

When her mother passed away that same year, Miles threw herself wholeheartedly into music, using it as a coping mechanism to deal with the untimely death. She still looks back upon those singers as inspiration when things get tough.

“Life throws us so many curveballs, whether it be disease, deaths, poverty, or war, and during every single one of those instances, some beauty comes out, and some of the most obtainable beauty through sound alone is music,” she adds.

A new beginning

When it came time for college, Miles was unsure if she would even choose to go. She was still dealing with grief, and undiagnosed ADHD presented additional challenges. But when she decided to pursue college, choosing to attend York, she felt “seen.”

“What I love about York College is that I got there and I felt seen. It was a great transition from being in the Washington, D.C., area to this town in Pennsylvania and learning, ‘Oh, this is what it's like to not be in my little bubble,’ ” Miles says.

In the Music program, personalized experiences with faculty helped Miles with her learning. She was one of only a few students pursuing classical music full-time. But with the strong pop and musical-theater training Miles received at York, she was fully prepared for the path ahead.

“Everyone else was studying pop, which was wonderful because it taught me that I don't have to put myself in a box,” she says. “It’s funny because looking back on my performing career, musical theater is a strong suit of mine. I get hired for classical performances, but having a solid musical theater foundation is getting me work. And that's the name of the game.”

Miles also appreciates having received a strong foundation in technique while at York College. She studied not only the operas of the past, but learned the basics of singing opera so she would have something to build upon later in her career.

“I have always thought that there is much wisdom and much truth in studying the past, and when I study classical music, I learn about people many years away from me,” she explains. “There are more modern operas that tell tales. But there is a reason that almost every single student who’s taking lessons has to sing something from the 24 Italian art songs and arias book. You have to eat your vegetables before you have dessert.”

One of Miles’ favorite parts of opera is having the opportunity to work and collaborate with other artists and get to know and learn from them.

“It really is a fully collaborative thing. You give feedback, you get feedback,” she says. “It's a group project for a musical, which is funny because I hate group projects, but in the case of performing, we're all in this together, Kenny-Ortega style. You're going to do your work; you're going to be happy about it.”

For the love of the art

When she first considered pursuing opera as a career, the profession’s ‘respectability’ was at the forefront of her mind. But now, she loves opera for the art itself.

“Unfortunately, when I was younger, I was dealing with a lot of internalized anti-blackness and chose opera because I thought it was a respectable art form,” she explains. “And now I'm doing this because I know opera is one of those things that truly has every bit of magic from the arts in it, like the set design and paintings, the costume and the music, the orchestration and dance.”

After graduating from the Music program at York College, Miles went on to Indiana University, where she received her master’s in music in 2021. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Miles took a sabbatical and moved in with her aunts in Alaska. She returned to the continental United States the following semester to graduate and continue pursuing her musical dreams.

“I came back in the midst of the pandemic and was just like, ‘Who am I? What do I do? What is my purpose?’ ” she says.

Miles worked at the Finger Lakes Opera in Finger Lakes, NY. She then did a full-year residency with the Pensacola Opera in Pensacola, FL, and spent a summer at the Des Moines Metro Opera before ending up at the Toledo Opera in Toledo, OH, where she is an artist in residency. This is her second year in the position.

A recurrence of Graves’ Disease in March 2023 forced Miles to take a second sabbatical. But she credits the Music program at York College–specifically, Dr. Erin Lippard–with helping her deal with these setbacks.

“She told me, ‘Sometimes you just have to put stuff down. Sometimes you just have to leave it there and let it grow. And when it's right, you get back into it and it's fine.’ And she was very right,” she says. “I'm not patient with myself. I don't know what this next year holds for me. But that's the beauty of this industry. That's the scariest thing. There's no stability, but next thing you know, you'll get a contract in Italy.”

For Miles, what makes opera worth the risk is the ability to provide her audiences both with a chance to escape and an opportunity to receive a message of change in a form they can “easily digest.”

“Art saves lives,” she says. “I wish I knew how to calculate equations to serve world hunger. I don't, but I know how to sing a song that somebody can feel. I know we use escapism a lot, but if anything, we use it to feel seen. I can show my audience in a form that they can digest that this is the reality of what is going on outside of your bubble.”

Despite more than a fair share of hardships and struggles, Miles has proved that what’s important is focusing on the road ahead and where you want to be, but also stopping to take time to see the beauty around you along the way.

“Even in the midst of all the stress, pain and hurt, there's always going to be a light shining through, even if it's a flashlight,” she says.

“Sometimes, it's important to remember that where you are right now is what you were praying to be.”