NEW YORK — Keith Miller was a bruising fullback out of the University of Colorado who never quite made it to the National Football League. He has, however, 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,” said Miller, 38. “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 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.”
But it was still little more than a hobby. Singing along to “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” was something he did to pass the time while the 6-foot, 265-pound Miller lifted weights, ran sprints and studied playbooks in pursuit of a pro football career.
In 2001 he saw a flier announcing an open opera audition for the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan.
On a whim, he showed up.
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 and didn’t get in. Instead, the company actually hired him for Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” broadcast live to movie theaters worldwide.