‘Cold Mountain’ hits the stage this weekend

John David Miles

Opera Philadelphia’s current production, Cold Mountain, is a highly anticipated event — and for good reason.

The music is composed by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon. This is her first opera, and it’s based on the novel by the same name, which won a National Book Award and is this season’s One Book One Philadelphia selection.

The setting is the Civil War, and the story follows the journey of Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, who deserts the army to reunite with his love, who lives on Cold Mountain in North Carolina.

When the opera premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in August, all six performances were sold out and it earned rave reviews.

Now, Philadelphia audiences can experience Cold Mountain at the Academy of Music. Five performances begin this Friday, Feb. 5, and continue through Sunday, Feb. 14.

“An opera based on a historic event that happened in our own country — and that we have intimate knowledge of — adds an extra layer of understanding for the audience and for us,” says John David Miles, of Jenkintown, a member of the Opera Philadelphia chorus for six years.

Miles, a baritone, is one of 25 male chorus members who are in this production. Even though they do not have solos, the chorus members are an integral part of the overall performance.

And they’ve spent hours in rehearsals — 18 rehearsals just for the chorus members, culminating in full dress rehearsals on the stage of the Academy of Music.

Composer Higdon, who lives in Philadelphia, attended several rehearsals as the singers prepared for this East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain.

“It’s fabulous to have the composer right there to tell us what she’s thinking,” says Miles. “She’s very hands-on with the creation of this, helping us to make it the best it can be. It’s refreshing to see this kind of collaboration.” .

Although the key role of the chorus members involved singing, there were other challenges with this new opera, including adapting to an unusual stage set.

“The story takes place in the midst of the Civil War, so the set looks like a burned-out structure that has collapsed on itself,” describes Miles. “And there are objects that look like planks and project out in every direction.”

The chorus members, in their role as soldiers, must climb up and down the planks.

“It’s the most jungle gym set I’ve ever worked on,” says Miles.

Then, too, he has quick costume changes as he goes from being a Confederate soldier to a Union soldier, and also to a wounded Union soldier missing a right arm. For that costume, his arm is tied up and trussed.

In one scene, Miles is not a member of the chorus, but instead, sings with two of the principal singers.

“It’s just a brief singing role, but the action is complicated,” he says.

The soldiers discover a cabin in the woods and because they are starving, they ask for food.

“A woman living in the cabin tells us she has a hog in the back. I’m told to go look for the hog,” relates Miles. “And when I do, I’m strangled.”

The scene involved working with a fight choreographer.

“We wanted it to be believable — but also safe,” he says.

The Jenkintown singer is now in his sixth season with Opera Philadelphia, and so far, it’s been a busy one. It started with the world premiere of Andy: A Popera, about Andy Warhol.

For this, Miles was not in the chorus but had a featured role as one of the Andys,

“We were all aspects of Andy’s personality,” he says.

His role involved solos, and he’d been involved in workshops for a year and a half leading up to the performances.

The second production of the season was La Traviata, with Miles in the chorus, and now comes Cold Mountain.

Besides his work with Opera Philadelphia, Miles sings in a small chamber choir, the West Jersey Chamber Ensemble, based in Moorestown, which presents three concerts a year. He’s also in the choir of the Church of Holy Trinity in Center City, where he sings every Sunday. This ecumenical performer also sings for High Holy Day services at Rodeph Shalom synagogue.

He’s not the only singer in the family. Wife Sheryl Heather Cohen does cantorial solos in area synagogues. Husband and wife met while both were students at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts and have done recitals together.

But right now, Miles is focused on Cold Mountain.

“It’s especially satisfying to put on new works and be involved with people who are creating something new,” he says.

But whether it’s a premiere or an opera staple, he looks forward to every Opera Philadelphia performance.

“Everyone is very professional and committed,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to rehearse with them and then perform for Philadelphia audiences.” ••

IF YOU GO…

Opera Philadelphia presents Cold Mountain at the Academy of Music for five performances — on Feb. 5, 7, 10, 12 and 14. Tickets available at www.operaphila.org or by phone at 215–893–1018.