Coloradan - December 2009
By Robert Strauss
Fullbacking an aria
Former football player pursues opera career
It was one of those crossroads moments that defines a life. Former University of Colorado fullback Keith Miller (Art ex'96) faced two divergent paths in 2001. He had been offered a spot as a bass/baritone in Michigan's Pine Mountain Music Festival, but he had just finished a good workout with the Denver Broncos.
Having grown up in tiny Ovid, Colo., and attended CU-Boulder, playing for the Broncos was a chance to fulfill the kid-athlete dream of playing for the hometown team.
"By Wednesday at 9 a.m., the Broncos were going to call. I was all set," Miller says. "They called all right."
The Broncos had decided to go with a different offensive set and had no need for a fullback.
But the folks at Pine Mountain loved his low voice.
"Funny thing, too, was I had been all about football my whole life, and now it was really going to be something else," Miller recalls.
Former Buff football player Keith Miller (Art ex'96) pursued a career in opera and sings at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
While he had a decent amount of success in football — he played on CU's winning teams of the mid-1990s and in Europe and minor American pro leagues — Miller is at the top of the opera world these days. He is singing for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, a place he never could have imagined being a decade ago.
"It has a history of being the greatest opera house in the world," says Miller, 35, by phone from New York. "Everything there is the best. The guy who moves the table from left to right is the best. The sets are the best. The audiences, the costumes, just being in New York — that is the best."
Miller's story is a dreamy one, full of epiphanies and fortuitous turns. It starts back in Ovid, in the northeastern corner of Colorado where, like in some grainy rah-rah movie, he grew up on a sugar-beet farm and became the star student and fullback. He won a Presidents Leadership Class scholarship to CU and enrolled with the goal of becoming a professional football player.
"I had always been football, football, football," Miller says.
It all became worth it during the 1994 Michigan game and the famed Hail Mary winning pass as the clock stopped.
"The funny thing about that was we all knew we were going to win that game," he says. "There is no explanation — just it was going to happen."
But one evening midway through his college career, a girlfriend insisted he take her to see the musical Phantom of the Opera.
"It had the same energy and passion [playing football gave him], and that was coursing through me," he says.
He rented countless tapes of movie musicals and then, one day, got a copy of The Three Tenors, featuring Spanish singers Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti who sang in concerts during the 1990s and early 2000s.
"I saw Pavarotti and he had this look on his face," Miller recalls. "The sound, the excitement, the energy. This was the big leagues of singing."
Still, opera was just a pastime — nothing more than singing in the shower. He took opera tapes into the locker room to rev up, but he was still a football guy. He set his sights on becoming an NFL back and had a successful postgraduation workout camp.
But then his coach, Ben Gregory, died.
"I had no one to advocate for me," he says. "My stock just plummeted."
He played in Finland and with NFL Europe and had workouts with the Raiders and Broncos.
But he was playing for a minor league team in Fargo,N.D., when he saw an ad for opera tryouts in neighboring Moorhead, Minn. That led to the Pine Mountain gig in Hancock, Mich., which led to a connection with an agent, which led to attending the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
From singing in the shower to performing at New York City's Metropolitan Opera in just a few years is amazing, admits Miller, and he is not loath to say he is supremely fortunate.
"I was a bass when they needed one several times. The tenors and sopranos are like quarterbacks. A bass, well, you get your best parts when you are between 40 and 60, so I am still looking ahead."
In fact, he is not too far off his football playing weight, carrying 225 pounds on his six-foot frame.
But Carrie-Ann Matheson, his voice coach at the Metropolitan Opera, notes Miller's talent is more than his voice.
"I think Keith has a great voice, but what is most important about him is that he knows what he wants to accomplish with it," Matheson says. "He has a curiosity about acting and singing that is rare. I have seen him at orchestra rehearsals for operas he is not in, taking the score and sitting in the seats studying it. He is always trying to broaden his palate."
Opera also led him to love. Miller met his wife, Joyce El-Khoury, who also sings at the Metropolitan Opera, when they were performing at a small festival in Tuscany. That, too, is a storybook tale.
She was being courted by a baritone in the company and Miller was the third wheel at dinner one night. Miller left them alone for a moment and when he returned, the baritone had left, but an Italian suitor was ambling toward El-Khoury.
"I saw she was uncomfortable, so I told her we should take a short walk for gelato," he says. "In that 150 yards was a bridge off a country road over a beautiful river like in a painting. I turned to her and said, 'I love you.'
"I guess it was just like an opera, and I am one lucky guy," Miller says.