Miller swaps football for opera roles

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

What opera buffs will see is a man who still looks like a football player.

What they'll hear is a voice that's far removed from the grunting, groaning and cussing on a football field.

Keith Miller is a former running back with the National Football League's Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders. For five years, he tried to make a living playing pro football before giving in to what has become his true calling.

Miller, a bass, joins Fanshawe Chorus London, the Gerald Fagan Singers, the Concert Players Orchestra and special guest soloists tenor Darryl Edwards, contralto Wendy Hatala Foley and soprano Barbara Livingston in a presentation in London of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis -- Mass in D on Good Friday at 7 p.m.

From football to opera? Incongruous? Absolutely.

But the 32-year-old's story is remarkable. He has performed in some of the world's best-known operas, among them Madame Butterfly, the Bridge of San Luis Rey, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro.

Yet in his final year at the University of Colorado as a backfield starter, he knew he could carry the ball but had no idea he could carry a note.

"We just got done the Miracle of Michigan game," Miller said from Philadelphia. "It was one of the most exciting times in my life. We went to the Phantom of the Opera with a girlfriend. I was feeling the emotions of what I felt during football, but a little different.

"I was watching the stage, seeing people disappear, the fire and the music, and even thought it was musical theatre. It was just a completely moving experience for me. It got me listening to more music, more classical -- and finally more opera."

The emotions must have been extraordinary, considering what he had just gone through. That 1996 game he played in produced one of the greatest finishes in college football history.

With six seconds left in the game, Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart threw the football 73 yards in the air. It was caught by Michael Westbrook over Michigan Wolverines' Ty Law for a 27-26 win.

"As I watched the Phantom, I felt that emotion," Miller said.

As he chased a football career, he informally worked on his singing.

In 2001, his football career was dragging. He read a flier from Concordia College in Minnesota saying they were casting Masetto (in Don Giovanni). He listened to the recording, learned it without being able to read a note of music and got the part.

It was then that the hard work began. He has been singing professionally since 2002 in more than 20 roles.

"I had no idea about the work that went into singing," Miller said. "The preparation that goes into each opera, each performance is the same as the first preseason game. A month for training and getting in shape and a month just preparing everything and getting ready to do the first performance.

"Every month you are getting the voice in shape for the different parts, different roles, the different languages sometimes. It's like a preseason game every time."

Miller was born and raised in the small town of Ovid, Colo., population 200.

"There was no music in my school, no vocal program," said Miller. "I was playing five sports in high school. No way I would have known anything about the voice."

"The one comment I get now is I sound like my father. He has a phenomenal voice. He never knew he had it. The voice is something you can't take credit for. I can take credit for my work ethic but not my voice . . . I had nothing to do with it."

Tickets for Friday's performance are available by e-mail at tickets@choruslondon.com, by phone at 433-9650 or through the Centennial Hall box office at 672-1967.


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