Crested Butte News - July 2011
By Seth Mensing
Football to Figaro
"I wanted to find someone who has gone through hell and developed as a singer."
Beneath a polished and soft-spoken exterior, Keith Miller, a fullback turned bass-baritone at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is a man of extremes. Now in his eighth year with the Crested Butte Music Festival, he's helping young students learn through a breadth of experience that has taken him from wearing eye-black to blush.
His unlikely story started in Ovid, a tiny town in rural eastern Colorado, with a population of a few hundred and a six-man football squad, and turned into a shot at the big time after gaining notice as a fullback for the University of Colorado.
Soon he was seeing the possibilities of a future in football, with offers in European and Arena football leagues, as well as in the NFL. But after a fateful date in college that took him to see The Phantom of the Opera, he fell in love. Not with his date, but with the music.
Then he was taking in the art at the library and by any means he knew how; learning the stories and orchestra scores as a way of teaching himself to read music. The change was taking place while he weighed his future as an athlete. It was a dance between the machismo and brutality of football and the refinement of opera, both of which had visceral qualities that were appealing and real.
Miller had learned the lessons vital to success. From the football field to some of the world's bestknow opera houses, he has applied those lessons and is making his mark. "Football gave me the ability to do what I was told without question," he says. It also taught that there's no substitute for ability and experience.
After gaining an affinity for the opera and learning to sing and read music, he performed his first shows from backstage. "When I first started singing, the first two shows that I did I actually stage-managed, because I really loved opera. Someone said 'Hey, you seem like a big strong guy. Would you do this?'" he laughed. "But I learned so much from that."
Through football, Miller also learned the value of hard work and making it work for him. After getting out of college and looking out at the future, he knew he had to continue pushing himself physically to stay competitive.
"Once a month in off season, I would run myself until I threw upjust 100 yard dashes with 30 second rests until I threw up-because I had to do something to push my physical limits," he says. "In many ways with opera, that's very dangerous. Sometimes I may have stretched myself a little too thin or pushed a little too hard. But at the very least I know where the line is."
For Miller, "It's better than watching an artist who tip-toes up to [the line] and never knows the extent of their potential ... That's the big thing with people is they have an apprehension about 'If I go down this path, then what?' I like to think of it as, 'What would happen if I don't?'"
After setting off down the opera road, Miller quickly became noticed, not only for his developing skill as a singer, but for his football player'S physique and strength that allowed him to act on stage, where others might just stand there and sing.
Performing a front flip was the skill that sealed the deal in one of his first major performances overseas. Combining the physical abilities of an athlete with the voice of an opera singer would cause Miller's stock to rise.
But an artist, like most things, is more than the sum of his parts and by the time Miller made his debut on stage, he had acquired a diversity hard to come by among opera's elite. He had trained his body, and then his voice. He was raised to work hard and take direction. As he came onto the opera scene, he worked backstage learning the skills that could sustain him in Crested Butte.
Although Miller came to the CBMF under the previous director, he was asked by current artistic and managing director Alexander Scheirle to work with the festival's young artists program three years ago, mentoring young opera singers.
Scheirle said by the time Miller was asked to join the young artists program, he was a rising star who had already had a successful career in football. "He told me, you follow your own career path and while you're rising to the top you know that at some point you'll start to decline and you just have to adjust your attitude toward it."
That was the attitude Scheirle was looking for in a mentor for the growing young artists program. When he first started working with the program a year before, 17 students were interviewed for 10 positions. This year more than 500 students tried out for 15 spots.
"Keith obviously worked really hard to get where he was in football-you have to work hard to get to such a high level in anything," Scheirle says. "I knew he would put the same amount of work and discipline as a singer that he had in football and it's important for the students to see that. They have somebody they look up to."
And Scheirle was happy to have someone step into the role as a mentor for the students, who had come to music as a matter of choice and passion. He says, "I didn't want to have a superstar that never had any problems or issues. I wanted to find someone who has gone through hell and developed as a singer."
Miller started working with the young artist program three years ago. The second year, one of Miller's students won two contracts with the Metropolitan Opera and this year, the program chose from 518 applicants who, Miller says, are among the finest students in the country.
"I'll say this year, for the first time, the entire group has a phenomenal attitude," Miller says.
While other festivals around the country might allow more students than are invited to Crested Butte, Scheirle and Miller agreed that the focus of the CBMF should be on quality, not quantity.
"What we've done here that is really unique is quality," Miller says. "We don't have a $20 million budget for all these sets and costumes. But what we do with the budget that we have and the quality of the actual production, the detail in the staging and the development of the characters, the study that goes into the singing of the music and uncovering of the score, is so superior to a lot of companies that have more money than us."
Scheirle compared the festival to the town that plays host to it. "I made clear it is not about quantity, just like the town is not about size. Crested Butte is not Aspen, and you don't want it to be. Just like the town, we wanted to keep the festival and the young artists program small and the experience exceptional.
"It's never going to be huge, but the quality will be stellar," he says.
And stellar is just what Miller is shooting for in this year's performance of the classic French opera Carmen. In Crested Butte, all of his skills are put on display in the storytelling and trying to make people feel something about the characters and their struggles.
For Miller, the struggles of Don Jose and the cast of Carmen are the struggles of everyone. "It's a battle with temptation and the choice that he makes, living with the consequences and the guilt he has from that and the inevitable result of his actions. With Carmen ... it's hard to explain Carmen. I guess that is what's great about it: everybody can walk away from the theater and have a different idea."
And just as Miller has grown in his short time on stage, the students have grown under his mentorship and the festival has grown around him, it is the audience that Miller credits with making one of the biggest transformations through the opera.
When he first arrived in Crested Butte, the people attending the performances were familiar and their grasp of the music and story was well intentioned, if lacking. All that has changed.
"Now with the singers that we're bringing in and the productions that we're doing and the artists that we have, I see the audience waiting to come to the theater and experience what we have for them," Miller says. "And the appreciation not only of the audience for the opera but of all of the opera singers for the community has grown so much since I've been here-it's been such a privilege to be on the sidelines and then in the game at the same time and watch this happen and now have a hand in creating it."