Keith Miller was a bruising fullback out of the University of Colorado who never quite made it to the National Football League. However, he has become a star at the Metropolitan Opera.
How Miller made the unlikely transition from football to the pinnacle of opera is an all-American story of reinvention, made all the more amazing by the fact that he had no formal musical training when he set out to become a singer.
“This is the real thing, this is the juice,” the 38-year-old Miller said. “Instead of a number, you’re a character, but the spirit of competition is the same and you do it for the love of the art versus the love of the game.”
It began almost by chance in 1994, while still at Colorado, when he took his girlfriend to see a traveling production of the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. He was so enthralled that tears rolled down his face. He bought a CD and learned the songs.
Then he got some real opera recordings, singing along in his bass-baritone voice, “kind of like karaoke.”
Yet it was still nothing more than a hobby. Singing along to The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni was something the 1.8m, 120kg Miller did to pass the time while lifted weights, ran sprints and studied playbooks in pursuit of a pro football career.
Miller, a three-year starter at Colorado best known as a blocking back for 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, bounced around the fringes of professional football. He played in the European league, the Arena Football League and US spring football leagues, always keeping in shape for a possible shot with the NFL.
In 2001, he was in Fargo, North Dakota, training for a workout with the Denver Broncos, when he saw a flier announcing an open opera audition for the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan.
On a whim, he showed up.
“I figured, what the heck” he said, his voice rippling into a low laugh that echoes his rich singing bass.
He performed the only aria he knew, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. To his surprise, he got the job, plus four other offers.
Miller then had to learn the whole part, poring over the score and picking out notes on a piano late into the night.
“It was like a baby learning to walk,” he said.
He still had to be formally trained — for four years at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, a top grooming ground for future stars. Then, days before his 2006 graduation, came the decisive break.
He auditioned for the Met’s Young Artist Development Program, but did not get in. Instead, the company hired him for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, broadcast live in high definition to movie theaters worldwide.
He has now sung with the Washington National Opera, the Seattle Opera and other companies across the country and in Italy, Britain and Canada, plus the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall.
This season, Miller appears at the Met in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), opening on Nov. 8, followed by a global high-definition broadcast on Dec. 8.
As his career grows in a competitive field, “it’s like looking at an opponent in football — even if I have flaws or things I need to work on, I will outwork the other person,” he said.
“If somebody is quick, I’m quicker, and no matter what their best card is they lay on the table, you still have the ace,” Miller said.
From home in New York, he travels — 10 cities in nine months last year — with his wife, Sage, and baby Josephine.