Star football player turns opera singer
Just as Keith Miller’s professional football career was on the rise, he had to choose between his successful history -and promising future – as a fullback and his new-found passion for opera – a world he knew nothing about.Prior to 1994, he had never seen an opera, musical or ballet; he grew up in Ovid, Colo., (population 300), became a star fullback for the University of Colorado, played in two Fiesta Bowls, the Cotton Bowl, Aloha Bowl and Independence Bowl, carried the Olympic torch for the Atlanta Games and played pro ball for the European and Arena Football leagues. Just as teams like the Broncos were looking at him, he chose to pursue a career as an opera singer.Though he had never been to a performing arts show, the spark for opera ignited when he took a date to “Phantom of the Opera” on his birthday.”When I saw the first few moments of the show I was blown away, and since I had never seen anything like this before it was like giving chocolate to someone for the first time- unreal,” Miller said. “I didn’t come from a musical family and am the only one who sings to this day. However, my father, who was a state champion wrestler, was goofing around one day, and a beautiful baritone voice came out of his throat, so I know where it came from at least.”Miller doesn’t sound like a tough fullback when he describes the opera:”The combination of visual, music, story and words was more than anything I had ever experienced before,” he said. “It was a perfect story of love, conflict, passion and sacrifice. It grabbed me by my soul and later when I watched the three tenors, it doubled when I saw Pavoratti singing Nessun Dorma. I realized at that moment that everything that I had experienced to that point was nothing compared to opera. This is when the real bug bit me!”The only problem: He had no idea what he was doing. With no musical background, he didn’t even know how to read notes. So, he began singing along to music “in languages that I couldn’t understand and discovering something so out of my environment, but I loved it,” he said. “I loved it so much that I didn’t care.”He credits his passion for football, with the odds of one-in-a-million to make a pro team, and his love for opera, with a two-million-to-one chance of success, for his accomplishments in both.”I didn’t care about the odds,” he said. “I always knew that if you loved something this much, whether it is football or opera and you add enough hard work and dedication to it, that the odds are always one in something. But as long as it’s one in, I put my money on me to figure it out and be successful. I asked questions and followed the advice of the people that I asked, and the next thing I know I end up at the Academy of Vocal Arts to begin training for an operatic career.”In the opera world, Miller’s rise is nothing but meteoric. Nine years after teaching himself to read music, he has spent five years as a professional singer and has performed in nearly 200 operas, in increasingly larger roles, including ones at the Metropolitan Opera.Still, it didn’t come without bumps: While making the transition from football to opera, his football buddies teased him quite a bit, and experts in the opera world told him to stop his athletic training or risk hurting his voice.”You’re always having to prove yourself because there’s a gimmick attached to you,” he said. “I was expected to be on par with vocal students who had advanced degrees and sung in major competitions. I needed to know the history of the libretto, how to sight read, play piano, technique and musicianship. But like anything else, you work your butt off and make it happen.”Though he didn’t get the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program slot a few years ago, he did garner an offer for a full season with the company, starting with “Madama Butterfly.” Since then, he has appeared in “Carmen,” “Tosca,” “War and Peace,” “Macbeth” and more.As a result of his athletic training, he’s one of the few performers how can tackle opera’s increasingly challenging roles, which demand both a beautiful voice and strength and stamina to artfully pull off a stage fight or dance sequence.”He clearly brings more physicality than the average opera singer,” said director Mary Zimmerman, who cast Miller in “Armida.” “He’s doing things that normally dancers -not opera singers – would do.”
While most people view the pigskin as hundreds of yards away from any relationship with the world of opera, Miller says they’re not so different. In fact, one of his former football trainers is helping him train for today’s physically demanding roles on stage. Miller founded Puissance Training, a technique to modify and perfect training for singers.”The worlds are more similar than they are apart,” he said. “Like all things in life, it comes down to a couple of things. What do you want to do and how good do you want to be at it? Once you find out the first question, the second one is easy to answer, but harder to achieve. Everyone wants to be the best at what they do, but few sacrifice, work hard enough and actually see something to the end to ever make it happen. I had to analyze so much when I switched, like why do I continue to train? I had to diagnose why I trained, how I trained and how could this help me sing better.” Miller also serves as director for the Opera Young Artist program at the Crested Butte Music Festival. Since he took over, applications have increased from 34 to 322. The festival trains children between the ages of 7 and 12 and will soon launch a teen division. Through the festival and other school outreach programs, Miller has touched more than 5,000 kids. “I tell these kids: I’m here to teach you how to be more successful than I am,” he said. “I watched, borrowed, stole – in a good way -from all the people around me. I want to inspire youngsters to find a dream and give them the tools to achieve it.”He also enjoys exposing kids to opera, since he didn’t get that opportunity as a kid.In terms of having faith in oneself, he describes faith as a scale: “It’s balancing the scale of doubt with things like hard work, dedication, integrity and vision until the doubt is outweighed by these elements, which culminate in courage. Once doubt is replaced with courage, there is no scale, there is no doubt, there is only opportunity. If you can get to that point, no matter what you do or who you are, take it and run!”In terms of leaving football, he has no regrets.”Regrets are for people who didn’t work hard enough to accomplish what they wanted to,” he said. “My life is too full of opportunities to be filled with regret.”He views accomplishment as giving something your all.”My greatest accomplishment hopefully will come at the end of my career, when I can look back and say that I sang with everything that I am, gave a piece of my soul to every note and that I actually served my music,” he said. “To serve my music would be the greatest accomplishment one can hope to achieve. It means that you have turned the great wheel, that progress has been made, and that in some small way you have shared with someone, even just one person, the gift of love, life, anguish- that you shared with them your music.”
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